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When Failure Is Really Victory

Identity in Christ Can Change Our Perception

In 1956, a chess match was played at the Marshall Chess Club in New York. On the white side of the board was Donald Byrne, a brilliant chess player who had won the U.S. Open Championship three years earlier. On black was thirteen-year-old prodigy Bobby Fischer, who had joined the Manhattan Chess Club only the prior year.  

Byrne started off well, to no one’s surprise, and after sixteen moves, Fischer appeared to be in a hopeless position. But then he made a move so shocking that it gave the chess match the name it’s known by today, “the Game of the Century”: he intentionally sacrificed his queen. He didn’t “trade queens,” which is an accepted chess strategy. Rather, he used his queen, his most powerful piece, as bait.  

When Byrne took that bait, Fischer responded to the opening that created by annihilating Byrne’s line, eating up a rook, both bishops, and a pawn, while Byrne’s own queen sat helplessly on the other end of the board. By move thirty-eight, the young Fischer had his opponent checkmated. 

There are many reasons why none of us could have made the move that Bobby Fischer did, but one of them is vision. For most of us (and indeed, for the rest of the room at the Marshall Chess Club), offering up your queen was an unthinkable sacrifice. But Fischer saw how this apparent failure was the means through which he would achieve one of his greatest victories.  

In chess, everything must be understood in relation to the king. Fischer lost his queen but checkmated his opponent’s king: victory. Byrne protected his queen but lost his king: defeat. 

Work as identity 

There’s a lesson for us in this, I believe. When things are going well and when they are going poorly, do we have the vision to see them in relation to the King? It’s hard to maintain that kind of vision, in life as in chess. At the Last Supper, Jesus says: 

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5),

In other words, if we remain in him (and he in us), we will be successful, and if we don’t, we fail. That’s the standard, period. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain expressed this with a line from the French novelist Léon Bloy: “There is but one sadness, and that is for us not to be saints” (The Pilgrim of the Absolute, p. xvi).  

If you lose everything and die a saint, you’re victorious. Jesus calls the saint “he who conquers” (Rev. 3:5, 12, 21). You’ve won. But conversely, as Jesus says, “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8:36). Gain the world, lose your soul, and you’ve lost. It’s simple, almost maddeningly so. But do we really believe it?  

One reason I ask is that on more than a few occasions, I’ve met men of retirement age (or beyond) who are still working, not because they need the money or are particularly greedy but because they just don’t know who they are without work. This is one of the dangers that Rob Pascale, Louis H. Primavera, and Rip Roach identify in their book The Retirement Maze 

Some retirees, especially those who use their career role as their singular identity, can have a particularly hard time after leaving the workforce. These retirees can have a sense of “rolelessness” when they retire —a lack of a meaningful way of defining themselves. Roleless retirees can feel disconnected, unproductive, anxious, or even, in severe cases, depressed” (p. 32). 

As Primavera said to AARP Magazine, “We plan around work. It is part of our identity. We go to a social gathering and people say, ‘What do you do?’ Clearly, what happens is people say, ‘What am I going to do? What am I going to be?’ The fear of loss of identity is a major fear” (aarp.org/retirement/planning-for-retirement/info-2017/retirement-fear-fd.html). 

Identity in Christ 

One of the things this shows is that questions of success and failure are intimately connected to questions of identity. After all, there a lot of things that I’m bad at: I can’t play kazoo, or surf, or speak Vietnamese, or remember all of the capitals of the states of Brazil. But I have nothing psychologically or emotionally riding on those things, and I share those “failings” with ease.  

The failings that hurt are the ones connected to who I am and who I’m meant to be, whether it’s failings as a worker, or a husband, or a father, or a disciple of Christ. It’s not just a question of aligning our priorities with Christ. It’s about our whole identities 

If we abide in Christ, and he abides in us, then we should see as successes and failures the same things that he sees as successes and failures. The rude comment we make before heading off to work might matter more than (say) closing the deal with a prospective client. 

The point here is bigger than “Don’t be greedy” or “Don’t be worldly.” I spent more than five years as a seminarian, and when I began to discern that God wasn’t calling me to ordination, that felt like failing. During that time, I was at the Catholic campus center of a public university, and I befriended some of that year’s new campus missionaries, who were experiencing something of that sense of failure, as well. For all their training, and through no apparent fault of their own, they weren’t seeing the kind of immediate spiritual fruits that they had hoped to see. In neither of our cases was it a matter of deciding between worldliness or godliness.  

Neither the missionaries nor I were out there trying to get rich or famous. We were trying to serve God but feeling stymied in it. Eventually, the missionaries did see success, but that’s almost beside the point.  

Over the course of that fall semester, they let me join their Bible study, and when I had the chance to lead, I decided that the theme of “success and failure” would be appropriate. To my surprise, I discovered that the biblical message of success is really a message of identity. That is, the entire scriptural message can be summed up in two verses from St. John: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5).  

As long as you abide in Christ, and he in you, then the victory is won, since he’s won it. 

What happens when change comes? 

I’d heard that message countless times, but it struck me differently this time: what I had done is subtly shifted my identity, without meaning to or really knowing that I’d done so. When people asked who I was, I’d answer that I was a seminarian. But that wasn’t just a nice conversational shorthand. In a real way, that’s how I had come to see myself, and so when I suddenly found that God might be taking that away, I felt some of the same loss felt by those retirees who have spent decades thinking of themselves in terms of their jobs.  

If you read books on preparing for retirement, you know the advice given to people in that spot: find something else to do to give yourself a new role and a new sense of identity. Help out in your community, take up a hobby, that sort of thing. It would be easy to do something similar vocationally: to define myself now as a husband and a father. And make no mistake: those are important parts of my identity. But at the foundation level, I came to see that the offer Jesus was making to me, and I think to all of us, is to go deeper than that, and let “disciple” or “child of God” become my constitutive identity. 

One of the ways that we can think about this is in terms of permanence. If your identity is founded on anything less than God, it’s resting on something impermanent. You can lose your job and your wealth and your reputation overnight, your kids will grow up, and one day (I hate to remind you of this) you or your spouse will probably have to bury the other.  

Jesus warns us against laying up for ourselves “treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal,” telling us to instead “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19-20). He also contrasts the two ways of responding to his teaching: 

Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it (Matt. 7:24-27).

In other words, change will come. And not just change but trouble and hardship. The winds “beat upon” the house on the rock just as much as the house on the sand. The external sufferings were the same. But one of the two, the one built on the rock of Christ, could withstand. That’s what I mean by permanence.  

The meaning of ‘victory in Christ’ 

At the end of Romans 8, St. Paul speaks to what it is to abide in the love of Christ. There are a few verses in that passage that people love to quote—and one that they love to skip. Paul begins by asking, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (8:35). And he answers:  

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:37-39). 

Beautiful words, the kind of message people want on their calendars, or even tattooed on their bodies. But between those verses there’s another one, and I think that we don’t understand the meaning of “victory in Christ” unless we grapple with it. St. Paul says, “As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered’” (v. 36). 

He’s quoting Psalm 44, in which the Korahite Psalmist bemoans the apparent injustice of Israel’s suffering, complaining that God had made them “the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those about us,” “a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples even though we have not forgotten thee, or been false to thy covenant” (Ps. 44:13-14, 17). Being punished for wrongdoing is one thing, but the Psalmist objects to the fact that they seem to be punished for doing right 

Immediately after the line that Paul quotes, the Psalmist says: “Rouse thyself! Why sleepest thou, O Lord? Awake! Do not cast us off for ever! Why dost thou hide thy face? Why dost thou forget our affliction and oppression?” (vv. 23-24). 

The cheery calendar version of Romans 8 reduces victory in Christ to the sort of fluff you’d get from a self-help book or a motivational speaker. Paul’s actual message is that we are “more than conquerors” through Christ, even if he lets us experience bitterness, hardship, failure, and injustice—and even if God seems silent amidst it all. Indeed, this victory is secure even if, despite our best efforts, and our fidelity to God, we see no spiritual fruit in our lifetimes. 

Worldly failure, spiritual triumph 

The person who perhaps best embodies this idea is Bl. Charles de Foucauld, whose canonization (at some yet unnamed dated) Pope Francis announced. His Vatican biography tells of how he went to the Sahara to live with the Tuareg people and how “he had always dreamed of sharing his vocation with others: after having written several rules for religious life, he came to the conclusion that this ‘life of Nazareth’ could be led by all.”  

But what the Vatican biography omits is that his dreams were dashed. As Msgr. Richard Antall, writing for Angelus News, puts it: 

He never got anyone to join his proposed religious community. Nor did he ever convert anyone in the village to Christianity. Although he is well known now as a writer of meditations and reflections, he never saw any of his religious writings published in his lifetime. His “project” had failed (“The holy failures of soon-to-be-saint Charles de Foucauld,” angelusnews.com).

From a worldly perspective, Charles de Foucauld lived and died a failure. He didn’t overcome obstacles to great success. That story the world can understand. No, here is a man who gave up everything to follow Christ, and what did he have to show for it? Seemingly nothing but failure.  

Yet in the providence of God, even this was a success. In 1921, another French novelist, René Bazin, wrote a book titled Charles de Foucauld, Explorateur (translated into English two years later as Charles de Foucauld, Hermit and Explorer). The book inspired a young seminarian named René Voillaume, who responded to Foucauld’s call, founding the community the Little Brothers of the Sacred Heart and then the Little Brothers of the Gospel.  

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24), Jesus says. Unless we abandon everything to him, even our own conceptions of what spiritual success and failure look like, we’ll never see the spiritual fruit that he wants to produce. 

Victory isn’t always apparent 

A line I return to often is from the book of Judith, when the wicked Holofernes placed the Jewish city of Bethulia under siege. The people wanted to surrender, even though they knew it would mean placing the holy things of God into the hands of wicked men. But the city elders stalled for time, pleading with the townspeople:  

Have courage, my brothers! Let us hold out for five more days; by that time the Lord our God will restore to us his mercy, for he will not forsake us utterly. But if these days pass by, and no help comes for us, I will do what you say (Jth. 7:30-31).

Finally, Judith rises us and rebukes both the people and the elders for trying to “bind the purposes of the Lord our God” (Jth. 8:16). That is, she saw that this five-day compromise was a sort of ultimatum to God: act on our schedule, or we’ll give up on you.  

Judith instead calls the people to radical trust in God: “For if he does not choose to help us within these five days, he has power to protect us within any time he pleases, or even to destroy us in the presence of our enemies” (v. 15). That’s what it is to trust God: not to trust that he’s going to work things out as we want them, but that even if he doesn’t, he still knows what he’s doing better than we do. 

God’s victory on the cross didn’t look like a victory. And the victories that God wants to achieve in our lives may not look or feel like victories, either. But the more we trust him despite this, the more we identify with Our Lord Jesus Christ and allow ourselves to be molded and shaped by him, the more we let him abide in us and us in him, the more we can participate in his victory. And the more that we’ll see that “there is but one sadness” in this life, “and that is for us not to be saints.” 

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