The Politics of Failure – Br. Mark Brown

Matthew 5:43-48

“Be perfect.”  Be perfect, he says!  But in almost the same breath he has just guaranteed our imperfection, our failure.   It’s probably the most startlingly original thing Jesus ever said, and troubling. “Love your enemies.” Love your enemies.  We can guarantee falling down repeatedly on this score. Most of us most of the time fail to sustain feelings of charity toward our enemies. And not only our true enemies, but also our familiars who can be so damned irritating!  Be perfect, he says.  But we’re bound to fail.

Could there possibly be a connection between failing and being perfect? Paradoxical as it may seem, I think so.  Failure is a way forward toward perfection.  Perfection or completion is, spiritually speaking, something out there before us we are on the way to.  We’re all only somewhere on the way. Perfection, at least in this earthly existence, is an ever-receding horizon, always out of reach.

But we are on this trajectory. To grow, to expand into the fullness of our being, to grow into our completion, our perfection, requires failure.  This is the great paradox of the spiritual life: we need a daily dose of failure.

How does this work?  If we own our imperfections, our failures, our incompleteness, we can begin to accept the imperfections, the incompleteness, the failures of others.  A daily dose of our own failure, taken with a glass of patience and understanding, can take us to that place where we can at least begin to love our enemies.

We may not be able to feel charitably toward our enemies, but we can at least begin to move in that direction.  In recognizing our own failure to love, we can begin to have compassion for others who fail to love. My failure to love my enemy can give me insight into my enemy’s failure to love me. Acknowledging my own failure, I can begin to have compassion on the failure of others. We can, in a sense, recognize something of ourselves in the “enemy”.  And if warm fuzzies are out of reach at the emotional level, we can at least determine to do no harm.

This process, this dynamic process of recognizing our common humanity, our common frailty, can lead us into a more expansive way of thinking.  A more expansive way of thinking that is not entirely self-bound, that is not entirely self-referential.  By recognizing how similar my failure to love is to my enemy’s failure to love, I begin to see that we are in the same boat, we are suffering the same malady, the same universal malady.  I may not be capable of warm fuzzies toward my enemy, but I can at least begin to respect his or her dignity as a human being. I can at least begin to see that we are probably more alike than we would want to think.

Our own failure to love, then, can be a way forward to greater compassion and greater humility.  And greater compassion and humility are the way forward to completion, fullness of life, perfection. To greater love—maybe even as far as loving the enemy.  It’s a dynamic process of growth, fluid and dynamic; and some backsliding is inevitable

But Jesus’ call to perfection and in nearly the same breath setting standards that guarantee imperfection is a keen insight.  Failure to love can, if we are so disposed, actually help us to grow in love.  Failure to love opens the door to humility. Humility opens the door to compassion.  Compassion opens the door to love. And love opens the door to that expansiveness of life that is the goal of our existence—our completion, our perfection.

Have you had your daily dose of failure?  If not, there’s still time…

On another note and in another key: what I’m saying works not only at the individual level, but at the corporate, even national level.  Our country has failed miserably these last few years. We have certainly not loved our enemies.  We’ve lost a war we began under false pretenses.  We’ve failed—not only in Iraq, but in many other places and in countless ways. The Middle East quagmire is just the worst of it.

But if we, as a nation, can own our failures and accept them in humility, it will be our salvation. We will never be able to make full restitution for the disaster we have visited on the world–that, too, will be a failure.  And a source of humility.

We desperately need the vocabulary of repentance in our national discourse. Words like failure, contrition, remorse, humility, restitution, “we were wrong”, “we’re sorry”,—this vocabulary needs to make its way into our public discourse.  And soon.  Our failures may yet be the salvation of this country.   Our failure to love our enemies may yet open the door to humility—and humility opens the door to many good things.

The world is waiting.

Support SSJE

Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.

Click here to Donate


  1. Barbara Kennard on October 18, 2021 at 08:31

    All good food for thought, though one must be careful to understand the difference between perfection in Christ and the human mistake to strive for perfectionism in our lives: in our work, in our relationships, in our leisure etc.

  2. Ruth West on October 20, 2017 at 00:34

    Brother in Christ, how very much on target is this sermon with me! I have an almost-enemy who bugs the fire out of me!! Anti-everything to my way of thinking! Socially, politically, economically, religiously, and I could go on. Why did you stick that light and mirror up to my own face?! I don’t want to see that the two of us have so many traits in common!! But, in retrospect, I think you are right. Perhaps I am just as stubborn, unwilling to change, etc. as she is!! Probably I am just as unwilling to truly love her as she is to love me. (Maybe I need a confession booth for all this!) At any rate, I am praying for forgiveness and a chance to start over.
    I think your reference to our country’s needs could not be more timely. How we need to come together! To unite in a fresh start. To actually drop our criticism of one another. To repent of our present and past sins, and lean on God for understanding and learning to love those who are unlike ourselves.
    Thank you for this sermon. We need to see and read it often.

  3. SusanMarie on October 19, 2017 at 08:17

    Along with other commenters, I feel an “OUCH” along with sincere gratitude for your beautiful message. It certainly hits home in my life. It also comes at the perfect time — which of course is God’s doing — as I have a small “reunion” of sorts with family members tomorrow. I won’t call them my enemies even though there has been much pain and betrayal over the years, but I certainly don’t have “warm fuzzies” for them. I’ve been praying all week for the strength, courage, and humility to be who I am in God during this visit and to enter the room with LOVE, not with my claws up in defense as I have done so many times before. This message — and others I’ve already read this morning from different sources — are all telling me the same thing. It is clearly God, it is clearly grace. It is all a blessing. Thank you.

  4. JoAnn Lancaster on October 19, 2017 at 06:34

    Brother Mark, Your attention to my own repeated failures is bad enough (but also encouraging and healing), but your presage of our national leadership that attacks the “other” and cannot even understand “I’m sorry, we”re sorry” must be a warning from God of the slippery slope we are on. I’m so grateful that the Brothers words are repeated.

    • Connie A Kimble on October 19, 2017 at 08:44

      I had to return to the date to see if this was written recently because these words resounded in my hurting heart.
      This is HARD work to learn to love those with whom we have no common ground. Prayer and humility. I also thank you for repeating this.

  5. Bev on August 2, 2014 at 19:28

    I thought that in the Biblical sense, “perfection” meant “maturity”.

  6. Dianne Rader on August 2, 2014 at 14:49

    This is the most uncomfortable idea I’ve ever read, but felt immediate personal empathy. Several major failures in my life which were painful mental/emotional torture brought me to my knees to learn of His infinite Grace and Mercy, and my imperfections which then became cleansed and strengthened by His Lesson. This sermon so truly reveals America’s necessary journey back to its salvation and that effort needs to be soon.

  7. Margaret Dungan on August 2, 2014 at 14:30

    I am so glad that these sermons are repeated from time to time and especially this one which should be required reading at regular intervals. it reminds us just how necessary true humility is in our daily lives.


  8. Mino Sullivan on August 2, 2014 at 12:22

    Dear Mark,
    Your words, “expansiveness of life…is the goal of our existence—our completion, our perfection” are incredibly helpful. I pray regularly to learn to live each day out of a Christ consciousness, but to be expansive, to always reach out that’s much more clear and specific. It also sounds exhausting.
    Thank you,

  9. Miguel Rodriguez on August 2, 2014 at 11:01

    Thank you, Brother for your prophetic and powerful sermón!

  10. Leigh Gilmore on March 15, 2013 at 11:00

    I very much appreciate the graceful and undeniable movement in this sermon to thread the Biblical from the personal to the national. I actually feel more connected — more equipped to reflect meaningfully — on our national failures through this anchor in the Biblical call to perfection and the road it requires. Thank you!

  11. Joe Stroud on March 26, 2012 at 08:55

    Br. Mark, THAT is going to leave a bruise!!! Have you been here in my town following me around and watching me?

    Seriously, THANK YOU for a direct hit on my ego/soul. This sermon would have been worth the read if it contained nothing but the lines: “This process, this dynamic process of recognizing our common humanity, our common frailty, can lead us into a more expansive way of thinking. A more expansive way of thinking that is not entirely self-bound, that is not entirely self-referential.” But you elaborated on the tension between the command to “Be perfect” and our inability to meet that standard in such a fundamental, troubling and comforting way. (It’s not often I would use the words “troubling” and “comforting” in the same sentence!) “A way of thinking that is not entirely self-bound, that is not entirely self-referential.” Ouch. Again, thank you.

Leave a Comment