Why do I fail when I have so much good will?
This is a question that plagues every man who genuinely cares about his spiritual life. Indeed, St. Paul himself, after lamenting the war between his flesh and spirit, cries out poignantly in Romans 7, Pitiable creature that I am, who is to set me free from a nature thus doomed to death?
If we examine our hearts, we can acknowledge truthfully that we frequently desire to do the right thing. We long to control our temper. To resist the temptations of the flesh. To overcome our laziness and complacency in order to serve others. To love as Christ loved.
But if we examine our actions, we often sink to the lowest common denominator and fall into sin at the slightest provocation. Spiritually, it’s as if we take one step forward and take three or four steps back.
We screw up our courage and willpower, resolving never to fail again. And then we fall flat on our face a brief moment later. It can lead to discouragement, even despair. For men hate and fear few things so much as failure.
Why God Lets Us Fail
Why does God so frequently allow us to fail, despite our often fervent prayers for His help and grace? Why do we fall so frequently into the mire of sin when we want so desperately to be free?
The answer is simple: Humility.
There is no sin greater than pride. No sin more contrary to the self-emptying love of God. No sin more hateful to the Divine nature. Pride corrupts and ruins everything it comes in contact with. It is the first sin and the last.
And it is subtle. Insidious, even. It can so easily corrupt even our most virtuous works, corroding them from the inside out. It is the way of death.
God knows this, of course, but we often do not. We think we are advancing spiritually when really we are only contributing to our chronic addiction to self-reliance and self-sufficiency. We believe we are growing in virtue when in reality we are merely becoming satanically satisfied with our own abilities
And so, God allows us to fall. Seeing in us a growing self-confidence, he withdraws his grace and allows us to come fact to face with our own real strength. Which is of course, nothing.
This was the reality all along, but we refused to see it. We thought we were doing it on our own, when really, God was doing everything. Failure is often the only way to teach us the lesson Christ endlessly taught his disciples: Without me, you can do nothing.
The Precious Gift of Humility
God knows there is no sin more wicked than pride. But he also knows there is no virtue greater than humility. It is the root of all other virtues; the trunk of the tree of life. Christ will allow us to fall time and again—ten thousand times if necessary—to teach us this lesson. For there is nothing more to learn.
What God wants is our surrender. He wants us to come to the end of ourselves and to cry out like St. Peter in the winds and waves of the Galilean Sea, “Lord, save me!” This cry of utter desperation is the real beginning of the spiritual life. It is the beginning of true freedom.
But, oh, how hard it is for us to get to this place. If there is one shred of evidence that we can do it on our own, we will cling to it with all our might. Something deep within us resists weakness, dependence. We recoil from it. We dare not acknowledge our nothingness. It seems a fate worse than death.
And so it is. Humility is a sort of death—but one that is not an end, but a beginning. It is only when we descend into the tomb of utter defeat than we can be resurrected to a new inner life.
That leads us back to St. Paul’s question we cited at the beginning: Who is to set me free from a nature thus doomed to death? His answer is the only answer: Nothing else than the grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
When we fail and fall, we are in the painful but vivifying school of humility. For the gate of heaven is very low, and only the humble can enter it.