In my early twenties, I became obsessed with sign language. I didn’t know anyone Deaf, I just loved the waltz of my fingers and hands. I had been studying sign less than a year when my pastor told me we would have a Deaf visitor and asked if I’d interpret. Thinking it would be a wrong to decline a ministry opportunity, I agreed.
That Sunday I was a knot of nerves. I knew I was barely skilled enough to hold a conversation with a Deaf person, much less interpret a sermon. Another potential problem was that I was studying Signing Exact English (SEE), not American Sign Language (ASL). While SEE mimics the facets of the English language down to articles, prefixes, and suffixes, ASL has nothing to do with English; it is a language of its own. I didn’t know which our visitor used.
Sunday night came, and the Deaf guest arrived.
Disaster trailed behind her.
I was so unconfident about my skills, I couldn’t look her in the eye, which, along with being rude, is poor signing technique. My translation was spotty at best, and -— oh yes -— she used ASL, not SEE.
Less than ten minutes into the sermon (after telling me thanks and that I was doing a great job–ha!) the young lady and her Hearing friend left.
I melted into my pew, wishing I could melt into oblivion. Mortified as I was, I was also secretly relieved that their departure had put us all out of our misery. After that experience, I continued to practice sign for a while, but I never again tried interpreting.
Almost a decade later, I have a lot on my plate, and none of it includes sign language. Sometimes though, I think of what a shame it is that I invested so much time learning something I don’t use. I allowed one mistake -— agreeing to do something I was not ready for -— to bring my signing ambitions to a halt. While I considered my brief stint as an interpreter a failure, the true failure was that I refused to shake off the humiliation and forge through to success afterward.
Until recently, this incident was banished to the basement of my mind with a collection of other embarrassing memories. I thought of it recently while reading John Maxwell’s book Failing Forward. He points out that people think of failure as a single event—but it’s not:
Growing up, I thought that failure came in a moment. The best example I can think of is taking a test. If you got an F, it meant you failed. But I’ve come to realize that failure is a process. If you flunk a test, it doesn’t mean you failed a one-time event. The F shows that you neglected the process leading up to the test.”
Just as success is a journey rather than a destination, so is failure. We fail when we see our mistakes as the end rather than as a step necessary to achievement. We fail when we give up. People who succeed don’t see setbacks as failures; they recognize that three steps forward and two steps back is still one step forward.
She who has never made a mistake likely hasn’t led a very remarkable life. Handled correctly, mistakes propel us toward growth, becoming in turn blessings in disguise. Some of the most notable men in the Bible (Abraham, Moses, Peter, and Paul, to name a few) made colossal mistakes. Imagine how different our world would be if any of them had used their blunders as an excuse to crawl under a rock and disappear.
I write this for someone who feels like a failure — someone who is thinking of giving up on what you know in your heart God has called you to do.
Galatians 6:9 reminds us to keep doing good, for we will reap the harvest of our efforts if we do not give up. Those who overcome great adversity become the most successful people.
Be intentional about perseverance!
One mistake . . . two mistakes . . . ten mistakes do not make you a failure. Failure happens only when you give up.
Image via Dollar Photo Club