Confession Reboot

Why Sharing Our Failure with Others Still Matters

“I failed,” Jon Snow said to Ser Davos in a recent “Game of Thrones” episode. And Jon had. In fact, because of his leadership decisions, Jon was murdered by his friends. But Melisandre, a priestess of the Lord of Light, brought Jon back from the dead. Why? No one knows. Melisandre only has guesses. Ser Davos isn’t sure. Jon feels unworthy. After all, Jon reasons, “I failed.” Without missing a beat, Ser Davos looks Jon in the eye and replies, “Good. Now go fail again.”

An admission of failure is met with, “Good. Now go fail again”? How are we to make sense of that in a world shaped by both the competing claims of misguided Christian perfectionism and the no-less-errant mediatized braggadocio that seems to characterize the current political climate? We seem to remember, that is, that Jesus told the woman accused of adultery to “go your way and sin no more,” but we forget that this mild admonishment was grounded in the idea that no one is without sin. (Well, almost no one, if you ask Donald Trump.)

Presidential politics notwithstanding, it turns out that confession is big these days. Recently, Johannes Haushofer, an assistant professor at Princeton University, posted a “C.V. of Failures” for the world to see. And we have. The document went viral.

Haushofer’s post took up the invitation of fellow scientist Melanie Stefan, who explains that by describing only her successes, her traditional C.V. misleads the reader. It “does not reflect the bulk of my academic efforts,” she writes. “It does not mention the exams I failed, my unsuccessful PhD or fellowship applications, or the papers never accepted for publication.”

Academics, like many people, tend to hide failures, but Haushofer has charted another course. Thank goodness he seems to have a sense of humor. The final heading on his C.V. of Failures is “Meta-Failures.” Here, Haushofer admits, “This darn C.V. of Failures has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work.”

We live in an era in which candor about one’s struggles actually makes one stand out.

20160518_krebs_failLast Christmas, D.L. Mayfield’s “The Brutally Honest Christmas Card” struck a similar confessional chord, and it also went viral. Rather than extolling the brightest spots of family and faith, Mayfield opened the letter by confessing, “This was our hardest year ever, and we still haven’t recovered!” She went on to admit all the troubles in her family’s life: difficult moves, hospitalization, car trouble, job loss, anxiety, and depression. Her story is tough to take in, but it’s also powerful to read. Apparently, we live in an era in which candor about one’s struggles actually makes one stand out. In our Pinterest-perfect world, we long for more Pinterest Fails—less-than-successful Pinterest posts that attest to the mess of everyday lives filled with failures small and large.

Some cultural moments are more difficult than others for church leaders to enter. Let’s be honest: planking is hard to pull off on Sunday morning. (At least for most of us … ) Even the best organists struggle to pluck out Purple Rain. And red baseball hats purporting to make things great do not go well with liturgical garments, even at Pentecost (trust me).

But this confessional moment that encourages us to this admit who we are—failed, struggling, broken, and yes, to use the churchy word “sinful,” people? It should be the church’s bread and butter.

Call me a worship nerd, but I feel cheated if I get through worship on a Sunday without a time of confession of sin. These days, plenty of services replace the confession with a song or time of silent meditation. But that just doesn’t cut it for me. I need the honesty. I yearn for the release. Confessing who I am, and hearing that in Jesus Christ I am forgiven, renews me and gives me courage for the week ahead.

One of my biggest pet peeves is “Prayers of Confession” that are written with the best of intentions, but that, nonetheless, dance around the point. I really don’t want an actual moment of expressing personal guilt taken away from me. Sure, I’m all for noting structural challenges, but I’m stuck in them. I screw up. Me … I fail. Let me confess it. And let me do that with all my fellow failures right there alongside me.

This confessional moment that encourages us to this admit who we are—failed, struggling, broken, and yes, to use the churchy word “sinful,” people … should be the church’s bread and butter.

This would probably be an opportune time for me to pen my own public confession, but I admit as a church leader myself, it’s a struggle. My workplace disincentivizes such speech. My C.V. is as rosy as can be. So, I’m probably going to screw this up, too, but here goes anyway:

I regularly snooze my alarm far too long. Then, I intend to read my morning devotional email, but most days I opt to delete, not devote.

My mind is too often on to-do lists, and I am too seldom aware of the people these lists affect.

I do not know my neighbors. I mean, literally, some of the people who live on my street, as well as those further-flung “neighbors” who are also meant to be subjects of my compassion.

I insulate myself from those who live in poverty, face violence, and whom my government fails to serve. My activism on their behalf is too often reduced to simple social media sharing.

I confess that my privilege blinds me to injustice all around me, and that I too seldom combat the system that supports it.

I admit I often conflate success with salary and jump to judgement before understanding.

With troubling repetition, I fail to listen carefully, to love without comprise, and to honor God in all I say or do.

I resolve, therefore, to mend my foolish ways, trusting in God—the one who first said, “Good. Now go fail again.”

Adam Copeland

Adam J. Copeland teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota where he is director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders. An ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), he is editor of Kissing in the Chapel, Praying in the Frat House: Wrestling with Faith and College (2014) and author of several book chapters on ministry and culture. Follow him at @ajc123 and visit his blog

Image Credits:

Cover – Dagny Mol, “Confess,” September 26, 2010. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.

Inside – Kevin Krebs, “Fail,” April 29, 2013. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Cropped.