Life After Failure

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

– basketball great Michael Jordan [listen here]

Michael didn’t create failure. The first person we meet in the Bible, Adam, totally blows his opportunity to reflect God’s glory. Virtually every story in the Sacred Book is about human failure. If you want to read about superheroes, you’ll have to go to Marvel Comics.

Both the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul, two giants in the early church, failed dramatically. Of course, they ultimately became such great figures that it may be hard for us to identify with them. There’s a less noteworthy figure in the New Testament whose life journey gives me comfort. His name is John Mark.

John Mark was a young man in one of the first families to become part of the church, within a short time of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. During a time of persecution, Peter was thrown into prison, and when he was miraculously released, he went where he knew the believers would gravitate:

He went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying (Acts 12:12).

The young man’s cousin Barnabas was also part of the group, and when he joined Paul on his first missionary journey, he took John Mark along as an assistant (Acts 12:25, 13:1-5). He seemed to be promising and enthusiastic about helping to spread the gospel.

But something went wrong. Whether the rigors of the journey were too hard or there was some conflict between the people involved, John Mark left them and went back home:

Then Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13).

Paul considered Timothy a failure, and he made this clear to Barnabas when they were about to begin their second missionary journey:

Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. But Paul chose Silas and set out … through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (Acts 15:37-41).

John Mark probably thought of himself as a failure as well, but the fact that Barnabas still believed in him was probably the beginning of his life after failure.

We’re not given the details, but over the next few years, John Mark was able to win back Paul’s confidence. In a letter written from prison, Paul mentions John Mark as one of the few people who visited him regularly and “comforted” him (Colossians 4:10-11). In two other letters he wrote from prison, Paul refers to John Mark as “useful in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11) and “my fellow worker” (Philemon 1:24). The problematic young man whose failure to rise to the missionary challenge caused a division between Paul and Barnabas had grown to be a strong support to Paul during a very hard time.

But this was not the height of John Mark’s success. He was to blossom in a new and unexpected way. According to strong church tradition, John Mark became the author of the second gospel in our New Testament, what we call “The Gospel According to Mark. It seems that in the two years after his time spent with Paul during his imprisonment, John Mark became very close to the Apostle Peter, serving as his secretary and scribe. In his First Epistle, Peter refers to him as “my son Mark” (1 Peter 5:13). This close contact allowed him to pick Peter’s brain, to hear first-hand about the ministry and teaching of Jesus, to sense the excitement Peter felt as he shared his memories of his close encounters with the Son of God. Out of Mark’s notes, he shaped the first written account of the Christ Event that we are aware of. Those who have carefully studied the wording of the different gospels believe that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s earlier gospel as a resource when they were writing their own accounts.

So, we should probably be glad that John Mark failed at his first attempt at spreading the Christian message; he probably wasn’t cut out for preaching and teaching, as Paul, Barnabas and Peter were. If he hadn’t failed at that, he may have never discovered his real gift – writing vividly and accurately the earliest account of the greatest event in human history.

Life after failure. Maybe we should see our failures as opportunities for the emergence of our true calling.

— Pastor George Van Alstine