When to give up

Sometimes it’s right to persevere – and sometimes it’s better to stop doing what you’re doing. But how do you know which is right?

I’m trying not to take it personally that colleagues invited me to write an article about giving up; as it happens, I’m very happy to! We all live with experiences of failure, personal and corporate, and it takes discernment, honesty and courage to let go, bring something to a good end or accept defeat. I also know the double pain of failing to fail well. Sometimes the hardest things to let go of aren’t obvious abject failures, but endeavours that consume all the oxygen, that just survive, that we’ve given much to, that we’re emotionally attached to. We fear the shame of letting go, but we know that there will be no space for new life if we hold on.

Forgive my audacity to suggest it, but I wish there had been a fourth servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30). Before getting to the fearful talent-burier, this fourth servant gives it a go, tries to invest their talents well, but still loses everything. Consistent with Jesus’ post-resurrection healing conversation with Peter by the lakeside, the master would have listened well, tended to their woundedness, and commissioned them to go and try again… maybe fried some fish too.

Why aren’t Christians better at letting go or accepting failure? We should be!

We know about dark valleys before anointing and banquets, we know about denying ourselves and taking up our cross, we know that Jesus moved on to another town when it wasn’t working out as he wanted, we know his teaching about the seed needing to die before new life springs up. There’s a catalogue of shipwrecks, literal and metaphorical, for the early Christians, and at the heart of our faith, it’s God that is denied, tormented, tortured, abandoned and dies. We’d love to live in Easter Day permanently, but first and always at the same time, we are a Good Friday people.

Before ordination, I worked for nearly a decade in an alcohol and drug rehabilitation unit for homeless men. We used the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Twelve Steps as a framework for therapy. The Twelve Steps are directly inspired by the teaching of Jesus. The starting point with Step One is a fulsome admittance of failure and turning to God. One of AA’s great paradoxical catchphrases is, “We surrender to win”. 

Although we should be good at letting go and/or accepting failure, I suspect that we Christians struggle because, consciously or unconsciously, we wrongly attribute failure to our poor faith or God’s lack of blessing.

All that said, sometimes there are things to fight for and sustain despite all setbacks, and here we need good discernment. In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer adopted by AA, 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference. 

Amen to that! 

Words: The Revd Paul Cowan, Chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford

If you would appreciate another’s guidance about where to focus your attention, talk to someone in your church or a spiritual director.

Page last updated: Monday 27th November 2023 10:35 AM
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