Summary: We turn our successes into failures because we see only the negatives, and we need approval. But in the Incarnation God accepts our incompleteness and offers us His unconditional love.

All of us want success. All of us need success. If you don’t care about doing something well, you are in sad shape. You are in trouble if you don’t want to succeed at something.

And yet the problem is that we are our own worst enemies. We defeat ourselves time and time again. We take whatever successes we have, and we dash them to the ground and leave them in the dust. At the end of the day we feel like failures rather than the successes God created us to be. Even the folks who act like they are successful, who brag about their successes – deep down many of them are just putting on a front to hide the real truth, that they feel like failures.

We defeat ourselves by taking the things we achieve and turning them into losses. We hurt ourselves by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And, more than that, we let others defeat us because we permit our neediness to steer us to the wrong people. We go to the court of public opinion to get satisfaction, but we listen to the negative reports only. We choose to fail. We set ourselves up for failure.

We need to learn from what God did when He sent the child Jesus to be born among us. In Jesus, born in Bethlehem, God affirmed us; in Jesus we can become what God wants us to become, what we want to become.


When I was seventeen, I had been studying the piano for several years, and my teacher thought I was ready for a competition. Now you need to know that a piano competition is not merely a glorified recital, where they applaud you just for showing up and stumbling through your little musical number. A piano competition is an awesome, intimidating thing, where you play before a panel of judges looking at you over their spectacles, with what you are sure is a horrified look, and you can see their pens poised to scribble their caustic comments about your fumbling musicianship. It was that to which my piano teacher wanted to send me. And so she did, having informed me that in order to participate I would have to learn a thing called Concertstueck, composed by one Carl Maria von Weber. Are you impressed?!

I worked on von Weber’s Concertstueck. I worked on it day after day, for weeks and weeks. It was a fiendishly difficult piece. It had huge rolling arpeggios; it included vast sweeping chords. But somehow I stretched my fingers and got the piece in my brain. I was ready for competition day.

But not quite. Not quite because there were some issues I had not reckoned with. First, I had practiced only on our little rickety upright at home; I had never sat down to a concert grand piano before. I never dreamed that would matter. And second, I made the mistake of sharing what I was going to do with some friends, among them a young lady in whom I was interested. I never dreamed that this young lady would answer my interest by showing up to hear me on competition day. I didn’t have a clue what was about to happen to me.

When the day came, I sat and listened to three or four other young pianists bang and clatter their way through von Weber. What a lot of noise they made! What an uproar! What a show, bobbing and weaving on the piano bench, throwing their hands high in the air at the end of each phrase! Not for me, I thought. I don’t emote. I don’t go wild. I’ll knock out this piece. I was ready.

My turn came. I adjusted the bench. I stretched my arms. I nodded to my accompanist, and I hit the keys. Plunk! I hit the keys again. Thud! That huge concert grand piano had the stiffest action I had ever encountered, and I could not play. I did not have the strength to play a piano like that! I didn’t know that pianos resist you and feel like you are lifting the Titanic. My performance was a woeful, wallowing, weighty waffle through von Weber. The piece was barely recognizable. I left the platform mortified, a total failure.

But it got worse. As I fled the hall, trying to keep my eyes forward so that I would not have to see the triumphant smirks of all the other competitors, out from behind a pillar she stepped. She whom I had wanted to impress, she who had come all this way just to support me. The last person in the world I wanted to see at this moment. And she said, so sweetly, “I think you did great just to show up.” Trying to be kind, I guess, like what you say to a two year old who scribbles a picture and wants to hang it on the refrigerator – oh, how nice, but what is it? Essentially she said to me, “Oh how nice, but what was that you played? Certainly not von Weber’s Concertstueck?” I died a hundred deaths. Wouldn’t you? Don’t you? Don’t we?

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