Sometimes in life, we fail. Sometimes we even fail miserably. But, I am convinced that for every single failure we experience – there is an increased opportunity for success. True failure only occurs if we miss the opportunity to make it a success. Heavenly Father sent us all down here to earth to be tested, and part of that test is experiencing a life completely full of failures (our own and others), which are really opportunities for improvement which cannot be learned or discovered any other way.
When Satan tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he no doubt thought that by getting them to partake of the forbidden fruit he would enjoy a success and that they would suffer a failure. Yet in reality, this was Adam and Eve’s greatest success – realizing that ‘man could be’1 in no other way. I imagine that in that moment (or even the first few days and weeks), to Adam and Eve this great success might have felt a whole lot like a failure because they were driven out of the garden, the earth was cursed, and they were intimately introduced to bitterness, pain, sorrow, vice, and sickness. In addition, they had their sorrows ‘greatly multiplied’. 2 On the surface that doesn’t sound like success, yet we all know that we must experience these things in order to know (and choose) the sweet. Thus, we can understand that the event labeled as ‘the fall’ might be one of the greatest successes this world has ever known. It brought about physical life (as we know it) and activated agency and accountability.
Opposite Adam and Eve in the garden was Satan, who at first thought his subtlety -which resulted in their eating of the fruit – was a success (on his part), realized shortly thereafter that his perceived success resulted in God calmly informing him that the seed of the woman (made possible only by his enticing and their subsequent eating of the fruit) would have power to ‘crush his head’. 3 Thus Satan achieved what he thought was a great success, only to understand later that it was in reality, a most glorious failure, one in which he helped facilitate his own demise. All of this came about because he (Satan) ‘knew not the mind of God’. 4 The mind of God is ever working towards improving His Children, and there can be no doubt that He has prepared a successful outcome for each and every one of our failures.
The fall, as described above (even when viewed as a glowing success – which it is), did bring to pass negative things (physical and spiritual death). It brought about a separation from God, and in the world of eternal life – separation from God along with physical disease and death can be viewed as failures. Yet these conditions were necessary in order to require redemption. This cannot be overstated. The results of this perceived failure (along with many of our perceived failures) are the actual catalysts or pre-requisites for future success. You can’t fix it if it’s not broken, and in this sense a fixed person (redeemed or improved person) is much more than a non-broken (innocent or non-improved) person ever could be. The result of the fall created the requirement for a Savior. The requirement for a Savior resulted in the most amazing event in all of creation, where God’s own son, even Jesus Christ suffered the full weight of the world5 in order to redeem us all, which in turn, allows us to draw upon that power and become much better. This is the most monumental success the world will ever know, and it was all required because of a planned failure.
Shortly following the events in Gethsemane in which the Savior performed the miracle of all miracles, His mortal life came to an end. Jesus Christ was in no way taken, but offered Himself up willingly as the Lamb of God once His great work was completed. However, in the minds of many (especially at the time of Christ), they considered His capture and death to be a failure (something less than complete), at least in the sense that His ministry did not result in the immediate and successful convincing of the governmental leaders, and general population to the gospel. This perception could have been based in the fact that Christ had escaped their snares many times before – and been able to continue His ministry – but now it seemed as if all of the opposition to Jesus had finally overtaken Him. This perceived failure was in large part due to the lack of fully comprehending the magnitude and necessity of the events, the important role of Jesus Christ, and the promises that He had made.6 Similar to the atonement however, the perceived failure (which resulted in his crucifixion and death) was an absolute requirement for His next great success – the resurrection. In order for Christ to be resurrected, He had to die.
By defining ‘failure’ in our actions or events as ‘less than perfect’ or ‘there is some (or much) room for improvement’ we can better understand the process of learning from our mistakes, as well as the idea that our mistakes are a critical part of our success – if we learn from them. God has laid out this plan for us on earth, and he knew very well that every single one of us would be ‘less than perfect’ or that we would act in a way that ‘could be much improved’. Yet because of this knowledge, He has also prepared a way that because of our mistakes, we can have success. There is no way that we can become who we are meant to become without ‘growing up unto the Lord’. 7 This includes making many mistakes, but it also includes the requirement to learn from those mistakes. It requires our constant and continuous use and application of the atonement. If we truly understand that the Lord can and will use us as tools to ‘do His work’ not despite our mistakes necessarily, but in large part because of our mistakes, since they are the very tools necessary to create true humility, reliance upon the Lord, and therefore true strength and power within each of us.8 If we can understand that process, then we can start to see our failures and our mistakes and what they are meant to be – lessons. Lessons planned out from ‘before the foundation of the world’ that have been tailored to us individually and collectively. The decision then becomes ours; whether or not we ‘will hear and know’. 9
Our lives are literally filled with opportunities to learn and during the times when it seems we are failing the most, it is likely the time when we can learn the most – if we are willing to be taught.
‘The Holy Ghost works in perfect unity with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, fulfilling several roles to help us live righteously’10 Some if not all of those roles are directly related to the process of teaching.11 This role is often played ‘independent of any kind of formal teaching or learning setting’. 12 Thus, it is our own responsibility to be aware of learning opportunities, because the Holy Ghost never stops teaching. Being aware of these opportunities (in good times and bad) is a key element, because ‘one of the greatest acts of agency is the willingness to open our hearts to the promptings of the spirit… God allows us to be the guardians, or the gatekeepers, of our own hearts. We must, of our own free will, open our hearts to the Spirit, for even though He has a primary role to teach, He will not force Himself upon us. 12 We should all be open to expanding our understanding of what we ourselves consider to be ‘formal teaching or learning settings’ so that we do not restrict ourselves from learning some of the most important lessons in life. We must not, and cannot ‘try to limit the functions of the Holy Ghost – not what He does, not where He does it, not when He does it, and not how He does it.14
I think when we truly understand this concept we can take a giant step forward by understanding that God is not necessarily frustrated with our failures, since He sees the end from the beginning and recognizes the process of learning as it being played out in our lives. He has created such a great plan, that it accounted for all of our failures, and uses them for our (and others’) successes. This is an amazing concept, one that I (sadly) did not recognize until recently. It doesn’t mean that the disappointments or discouragement with my own failures have evaporated, because they haven’t, but it does help me to understand that I should not dwell on them longer than is helpful, because God doesn’t. I should only use them to be humble, learn from them, and try and discover how I can turn the failure into a success, and then help other people to learn from my mistakes.15
An example of this concept is found in maybe the most well known and oft-quoted scripture in the LDS community, 1 Nephi 3:7 which reads ‘And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.’ I imagine the Lord thinking at the time – Nephi, I know that you and your brothers are going to go back to Jerusalem to get these plates, and you are going to fail…. twice.16 But, if you pay attention to what I say to you through the Spirit (during and after these failures), you will learn things that will help you not only now (being successful in getting the brass plates from Laban), but you will also learn some valuable lessons that will help you later because after you complete this long and hard journey, I am going to ask you and your brothers to go back to Jerusalem again.17 I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Nephi’s 2nd trip (going to get the family of Ishmael) – seemed to go a lot smoother than the 1st trip – at least until they were headed back to the wilderness when it was time for some more lessons. 18 This episode (the 2nd trip) is also an illustration of the previous concept that the Holy Ghost will only teach us what we are willing to learn. It also is a repeat of the same process just explained in obtaining the brass plates, because during this 2nd trip (on the way back from Jerusalem), Nephi was tied up and bound and suffered much at the hands of his brothers (failure), which happened to be a success because he learned how to rely on the Lord, and act for the next time(s) that they attempted to take his life, or bind him in their anger. This could also be a pattern for us, that any failures that we don’t learn from may be repeated until we learn the appropriate lesson and understand the reason for the failure.
So, next time we fail, or next time we are less than perfect, which for me will be about 1 second from now – let us remember that failure is an important part of success if we can keep our hearts open to the spirit and learn from the master teacher. This process of repeated failure also helps each of us with opportunities to practice forgiveness, love, and serving others, which are essential parts of our learning the art of becoming like Jesus Christ – which is the ultimate goal for all of us.
1 2 Ne. 2:25
2 Gen. 3:16. This scripture refers specifically to Eve, but I’ve left it in the plural connotation (they) intentionally because when a woman/wife experiences sorrow greatly multiplied, it also affects the husband. I am not claiming (in any way) that a husband shares in, or somehow helps shoulder the great physical pain (especially during the child bearing process), but I for one, am very much influenced by my wife’s moods and feelings (including pain).
3 Gen 3:15 (see footnote c)
4 Moses 4:6. This idea can be applied to the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, as well as any of the other prophets or disciples of Jesus Christ who have sealed their testimonies with their own lives. Perhaps that is the reason that the footnote d in this verse refers to John 16:1-3 which clearly explains that they (their moment of perceived success) who ‘killeth [them] will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto [them], because they have not known the Father, nor me [Christ].’
5 See D&C 19:16-19
6 See the Topical Guide and Bible Dictionary under the topic ‘Jesus Christ, Resurrection’ for a complete listing of all scriptures in which The Lord himself (and many others) prophesied of his resurrection.
7 Hel. 3:21
8 See 2 Ne. 33:11, Ether 12:23-28; 37, D&C 50:16, and D&C 62:1. There is also the fact that we cannot do his work until we willingly choose to do his work, which is the starting point for all change.
9 See Alma 10:4-6
10 LDS.org topic ‘Holy Ghost’
11 Though this refers to ‘some’ of the roles related to teaching, all of the roles of the Holy Ghost are in one sense or another ‘teaching’. These include testifying, comforting, witnessing, enlightening, sanctifying, etc.
12 See “In Tune” by Gerald N. Lund pg. 36
13 Ibid. pg. 42-43. Read the whole book, it is fantastic. This concept is also explained very well by Elder David A. Bednar in his 3-book series ‘Increase in Learning, Act in Doctrine, and The Power to Become’ and in his talk ‘Seek Learning by Faith’ which was given to CES educators on Feb. 3, 2006.
14 Ibid. pg. 78 emphasis in original.
15 In reference to mistakes of a moral nature, if no other success is readily visible from the recognition of these mistakes other than the true Godly sorrow which leads to the cleansing and redemptive power of the atonement through the repentance process – that is a very real success.
16 The first failure is portrayed in 1 Ne. 3:11-14. The second failure is portrayed in 1 Ne. 3:22-27. The third attempt (success) is portrayed in 1 Ne. 4.
17 1 Ne. 7:2
18 1 Ne. 7:6-21.