A God’s Eye View of Failure

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, mainly because I’ve experienced a lot of it this year. So many of my plans haven’t worked out, despite what (I thought) were adequate, sensible, and well thought out plans.

You see, in my work at Amazon we had plans to launch several products by early 2020. But in late 2019, prior to the holidays, I started receiving word that our supply lines in China were being disrupted by some new, highly contagious disease spreading through the factories.

This was totally outside of our control. There were no other factories we could easily fall back to in the timelines we had (and even if there were, the virus would have hit those factories too).

Our budgets were toast. Our timelines completely blown up. In short, we failed. In these circumstances the leadership wants answers: what did we learn here? What could we have done differently? How could we have prevented this? What are the repercussions?

Luckily for me, in terms of the repercussions, Amazon can always delay the launch so long as it’s not too bad. (Which we did, and at least one of the products have since been announced, if not launched). But what if this had been a small business or a startup, with less margin for error? What if we were forced to lay off people due to this?

One learning that I can glean from my faith is that God uses our failures to His glory. In fact, some of our failures have more to do with His plan than they do with our obedience, or lack thereof.

I am thinking here of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, and Elizabeth. All of them had a good, Godly desire for children. Yet they were infertile for long periods of time, trying time and time again to accomplish the goal that they rightly believed God wanted them to achieve.

And yet for long periods of time they “failed”. It’s easy to see it that way, at least. But did they really fail? In a way, yes. They didn’t achieve what they were trying to. But in another way, no. They obeyed God even in the midst of a series of failures, and in that way, that means they didn’t fail at all.

God uses our weaknesses to show His strength. I suspect many in our community have had their businesses “fail” this year, for reasons not entirely their own. I suspect many in our community have “failed” at their job for reasons they weren’t entirely in control of, and may even have been laid off. I suspect many in our community have had family and friends fail, or experience failure, in this same way.

I’d like us to turn our faces upward, to see beyond the immediate failure, the way that the women I mentioned previously did. They didn’t fail. They were faithful. And God showed His strength through their obedience in the face of worldly failure.

In that way, they succeeded, and God was faithful to them as He promised. They used their failure, their weakness, to show God’s strength. And great things were accomplished through doing so.

Be bold. Be confident of victory. Just be cognizant of whose victory you’re seeking, whether in business or anything else. God will show His strength, and we can all be witnesses to it through our work.

The Power in our Professions

One of the things that has always struck me is that, whatever our profession, we have so much power to make the world a little bit better. We do this by acting out our calling as God’s representatives on Earth, assigned to carry out His will in our own little spheres of influence. 

And how do we do this? We do this by treating people (all people: employers, employees, peers, merchants, providers, customers, etc) as image bearers of the living God. Not simply as means to attain a paycheck or a good or service (not that those are bad things, in themselves). As Paul writes to us in Ephesians 4, we are to be “Be kind and tenderhearted to one another”, and this should be central to all areas of our life, including our work. 

We often forget just how powerful that calling is, and how much of a difference it can make in people’s lives. How much difference, really, do my actions make outside the strict job description that I am performing? Does anyone really notice?

I believe they do, though we often do not get the feedback which would tell us so. That means that it’s important for us to be vocal about when someone else has made a difference for us. We are also called to encourage each other, and letting people in to how they make our lives better, no matter how big or small, is one of the ways we can make this world a little more heavenly. 

I recently saw a letter circulating on twitter from a grateful customer for a haircut that his wife received around Christmas last year. It was an encouragement to me, and I hope it will be to you as well, to be more like both the hairdresser and the grateful husband when we engage in our business. The letter I read is below.

June 27, 2020

Dear Sara, 

This is a little bit awkward. But I’ve waited a really long time to pass this on to you.

My wife and I came in for haircuts shortly before Christmas of last year.

My wife was suffering from dementia, and you treated her as if you’d been working with dementia patients all your life. You let us sit next to each other, and when it came time for her cut you turned her chair towards me so I could watch her expression as you cut her hair. 

It turned out even better than I thought it would.

Sadly, she died in March. And that haircut was one of the last, best moments of her life. She felt so pretty. She visited the mirror in her bathroom several times during the day and would come out beaming. 

To see her so happy was priceless. 

Looking back, it was likely one of dozens of haircuts you gave that day. But one which revitalized a woman’s sense of self and her singular beauty. I hope you always realize the power of your profession. 

It’s so easy to take things like that for granted.

Sincerely, 

A grateful customer

Vocation In A Pandemic

Note: I am a board member in an organization named KIROS, a Christians in Business group in Seattle aimed at connecting, encouraging, and equipping Christians to integrate their faith with their business and career. This is a letter I sent to the community regarding my thoughts on the crisis.

One of the things I appreciate most about KIROS is the diversity of vocation present in the community. We are often siloed in our vocations while we’re at our places of business. Engineers work with engineers. Accountants work with accountants. In our churches we have a diversity of vocation, but a singular focus when we worship together. KIROS gives me a way to think of what it means to be a Christian at work alongside people of different vocations.

But recently, it seems to me, we have a different kind of diversity in our community: many of us have had our vocations radically changed, and in short order. Some of us are not able to work like we used to. Some of us were accountants, but are now homeschool teachers. Some of us still work in the same vocation, but what our work entails looks entirely different. Instead of trying to expand our businesses, some of us may be looking to keep it afloat. We are all having to make hard decisions about our career, our business, our customers, our employees, and how we help our community.

This reminds me of a sermon by CS Lewis in Weight of Glory named “Learning in Wartime”. The sermon was given to students at Oxford in the thick of World War II, attempting to answer some of the basic questions we often have when trying to persevere through a crisis: Do I continue on as if this isn’t a big deal? How do I keep focused on what is in front of me? I wish this had never happened, why am I going through this? What about all of my plans, when can I get back to them?

These are very real concerns, and Lewis doesn’t dismiss them. He writes that

A more Christian attitude… is that of leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord”. It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.

That is, he suggests that the Christian walk is about doing our vocation, whatever that may be, dutifully in the present. That is in fact exactly our duty in all circumstances, crisis or not. As to the questions “Why me? Why us? Why now?”, Lewis has an encouraging word:

The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord”. This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation.

Our backgrounds, our talent, and our circumstances were ordained by God for all moments, certainly, but also this one. The decisions we make regarding our families, work, and community were given to us by God, and we should be encouraged that this was done with a purpose. We should remind ourselves that even though we, like those terrified students at Oxford in 1939, may wish this wasn’t our burden it was nonetheless given to us for a reason. God prepared us for our part to play in it.

Whatever your vocation looks like now, I think we should heed Lewis’ advice and remember that all of our work becomes “spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord”. This is true even, and maybe especially, if it wasn’t the work that we planned to be doing.