On the last night of Jesus’ life, he tells Peter (in Matthew 26:33-34, 74-75) that Peter will betray Him before the sun rises the next morning. Peter cannot believe that he would be capable of doing such a horrible thing to his best friend, and vehemently denies that to be true. However, the sun rose, the rooster crowed, and Peter saw the facts for himself – he had, on three separate occasions, denied knowing Jesus or being one of His associates. Peter must have thought in that moment that he had failed. Certainly we glimpse the depth of his emotions, “…he…wept bitterly.”
He wept bitterly when it happened, because he knew it was the beginning to the end of his friend’s life. Yet we know something Peter did not at that point – that he was going to become a humbly powerful leader and president of the first Christian church.
President Faust succinctly says that this experience of “failure” was a necessary step in Peter becoming the leader he needed to be. “During all of my ministry, I have been fascinated by the manner in which Jesus hardened the bone and spirit of his chief Apostle, Peter. When Jesus told Peter that he had prayed that Peter’s faith would strengthen, Peter affirmed that he would go with the Savior to prison or to death. Peter was then told that the ‘cock shall not crow this day, before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.’ After the predicted three denials, the powerful, unwelcome, but steel-hardening message came: Peter heard the cock crow. And he ‘went out, and wept bitterly’ but this strengthened Peter to fulfill his calling and to die for the cause.” (James E. Faust, “Unwanted Messages,” October 1986.)
Failure Is Mandatory for Progression
Failure is an integral part of everyone’s growth and development plan. Some of today’s most “successful” people have experienced great depths of failure before they were able to rise to the positions they currently hold. Consider J.K. Rowling, the author of the wildly successful Harry Potter series. In 2008 in the Harvard University commencement ceremony speech, she reflected, “…by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
“Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” (Commencement address delivered by J.K. Rowling at Harvard University, June 2008.)
Failure Is Not Final
I believe the problem we generally have with the word “failure” is that it sounds so final. So hopeless, as though there can never be an ending other than tragedy. However, failure is the exact opposite of damnation; it is the thing that can propel us forward to greater heights than we can often imagine for ourselves.
However we define failure, though, it is never final. It is not the end.
“Our responsibility is to rise from mediocrity to competence, from failure to achievement. Our task is to become our best selves. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the joy of trying again, for no failure ever need be final.” (Thomas S. Monson, “The Will Within,” April 1987.)
No quote from a prophet or verse of scripture will ever say, “if you fail;” they are always be, “when” you fail. We must have the courage to fail. If we do not have that, we will never even have the courage to get started. We cannot be certain what the outcome will be, but we will never have an outcome at all if we don’t put one foot forward.
God Wants Us to Fail
In fact, I’m going to be so bold as to say, God wants us to fail.
If we got everything right the first time, who would we not need? The greatest paradox of the gospel plan is that we must learn to rely on the atoning power of Jesus Christ if we expect to return to our heavenly Home. In fact, an obstacle-free life is exactly what Lucifer proposed in the Grand Council. (See Moses 4:1.)
The Savior’s Plan, by an ironic contrast, demanded a life full of challenges and trials. “And we will prove them herewith…” (Abraham 3:25). The Gods’ entire plan, Their entire purpose even, is to help us obtain eternal life and immortality. (See Moses 1:39.) How can we do so if we do not know how to rely on the merits and grace of the atonement?
From Failure to Success
What if when Jesus told Peter he would deny him three times that night, it wasn’t a prophecy, but a request? Does that change your beliefs about Peter? Instead of now being looked at as a failure, that horrific reality that Peter needed to fulfill certain things so that the Great Sacrifice could be brought to pass becomes more of a joy than a disaster.
In fact, the scriptures do not leave us with the image of a broken man, hiding behind that pillar in a public courtyard, weeping bitterly for all to see and scorn. The act of having his faith and love for his Savior questioned – both the night before the crucifixion, and in the days after the resurrection (“Lovest thou me? Are you sure?”) – only served to strengthen Peter’s testimony and resolve to serve faithfully throughout the remainder of his life.
Having been through multiple tests of loyalty, and probably his own personal hell of self-doubt and grappling with faith, we read in John 21:17 his “after” story.
“And over the edge of the boat, the irrepressible Peter leaped.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The First Great Commandment,” October 2012.)
May we all be irrepressible like Peter as we leap into unknown waters into the waiting arms of our Savior, knowing that He is the one who will see us through any failure.