If there isn’t some sort of ball involved, I don’t really see the point of running. Where are you running to? Where’s the basket? Where’s the endzone? Nevertheless, we signed our boys up for a local running series that included a weekly race every Sunday. Our 3 year-old is much more interested in grinning than running, but given the fact that he’s about as fast as growing grass, it’s probably a good thing. Our 9 year-old, however, treats every competitive event as its own war of survival. Watching him compete is a bit like watching the Hunger Games.
At the last running event of the season, the director asked if any parents wanted to participate in a ½ mile race while the final results were being tabulated. It was a chilly evening, and I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Clearly, running a ½ mile was even less of an option than usual, and usually it’s no option at all. But, I have children, and my children seem to think that I am perpetually one step away from the pros in every major sport. My children were begging me to run, and I want to keep them in their irrational naivety about my athletic abilities for as long as possible. So, I told them I’d do it.
Here’s the thing: I legitimately thought that I would have absolutely no problem running a ½ mile. After all, not a day goes by that I don’t see a random Facebook friend who just ran 13 miles, and I was an average high school “athlete” just 15 short years ago. It’s only a ½ mile! I could probably sprint a ½ mile! In my mind, I finally had the opportunity to showcase my athletic prowess to my children as they watched me destroy these other middle-aged men! Heck, maybe I’ll even run the last 100 yards backward just to add a little showmanship.
Well, I soon realized that I share my children’s irrational naivety about my athletic abilities. About ¾ into the race, my shins and chest were burning, and the doubts were creeping into my head. The finish line appeared to be in another town, and my lungs were malfunctioning. The ol’ cowboy boots suddenly felt like they each weighed 50 pounds. So, I did what I consistently tell my boys never to do: I quit what I started.
I committed to racing, I started the race, and I quit.
As I walked over to my boys, one of them said to me with a sweet little grin but a hint of disappointment in his voice, “You tell us never to quit, Dad.” I rationalized my failure by giving them a couple pansy excuses, but inside me those words hit me like a ton of bricks. They didn’t care that my legs hurt, that I was tired, or that I was out of shape. They saw their dad quit, and no amount of cowardly excuses can justify quitting.
There is something powerfully humbling about honestly coming to terms with reality—the realization that no matter how strong, athletic, smart, or perfect your children think you are, you can never fully be that person. I desperately want to be everything my boys think I am, but what I do is often in direct conflict with who I want to be. (Romans 17:15-20)
When faced with potential opportunities for failure, I’m what psychiatrists would call a “flyer.” I’m actually not sure that a real psychiatrist has ever called someone a “flyer,” but the general concept is that I have a strong tendency to flee from from my shortcomings, inadequacies, and failures. Whether it’s disappointing my wife (believe it or not, I’ve done that a few times), or conversing with a super intelligent co-worker, or potentially losing a race against other middle-aged wannabees, I have a consistent bent toward withdrawal.
After all, I can’t disappoint my wife if we’re not in the same room, right? I won’t sound unintelligent if I just avoid the conversation, right? I can’t technically lose the race if I don’t finish the race, right? Unfortunately, reality has taught me that running from my failures never fixes them. My wife’s disappointment is not going to disappear simply because I move to a different room, and I don’t magically trick by boys into thinking that I’m Captain America by quitting the race.
The reason why we run from our failures is because failure has such a powerful ability to define who we are. We connect our identity (i.e. who you truly are at your core) to the things that we do (school, work, parenting, family, friendships, etc., etc.) in such a way that when we fail at those things, we think we actually are the failure. If your identity is attached to your career, then any demotion, negative words from a boss, or watching a colleague climb the “success” ladder will be crushing to your identity. If your identity is as a parent, then every bad choice your child makes and every milestone your child fails to meet is devastating to your identity.
As insignificant as it may seem, when I failed to finish the race, it didn’t feel like a simple blip on the failure radar. In my mind, I was the failure. I was a failure as a dad. I was a failure because I wasn’t in good shape. I was a failure at following through on promises.
My failures have compelled me to grasp that my identity must find its root in something other than my own effort, successes, and inadequacies. The beauty of Christianity is the truth that our deepest identity is not in our failures or even in our accomplishments. Our identity is firmly established by who God says we are: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)
We are God’s children. That’s your identity; that’s my identity. And that identity stands firm on your best days and on your worst. You are his child during your ultimate “successes” and during your worst failures.
As outrageous as it might sound, that assurance gives us the freedom to fail. I’m not talking about enjoying failure or reveling in it; I’m talking about the freedom of knowing that you can get up time and time again knowing “there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) It’s the freedom of knowing that you don’t have sulk in your shortcomings, because those failures, those bad decisions, and those inadequacies do not define you.
When I came home from work on the day after “Daddy’s Physical Fitness Failure of 2017,” I told my 2 oldest boys to put on their jackets. We drove back to the park where just the day before I quit the race, and we ran that ½ mile. Not a triathlon, not a marathon, just .5 miles. I didn’t do it to prove that I could do it, and I didn’t do it to make myself feel better about myself. I did it because I wanted to show my boys that dad fails; but because of Jesus, dad’s not a failure. “Get up, try again; your failures do not define you.”
I want to be everything I can be to my boys; but more importantly, they need to know that I cannot be their ultimate hope. The hope for my boys (and for all of us) is the hope of a God who will never fail us and the assurance of a perfect Father who calls us His children even when we fail. I’ll run to that.