When I was a sophomore in high school I took biology from Mr. Hennis. He was a good teacher—kind of cool, mostly goofy. I remember him making the class interesting and fun. That is until you turned in a homework assignment a day late. That was when things were neither interesting nor fun. They were downright harsh.
I turned in a homework assignment, one day late. My experience doing so in other classes and with other teachers was that I would be docked a point our two for the lateness—not a big deal, and understandable. But for Mr. Hennis, late homework was a different story. I can still remember him coming to my desk, holding out the paper, and with a genuinely distressed look on his face, looking me squarely in the eye and saying, “Sorry Jon.” Even though the assignment was completed, and the answers were mostly correct, I got a big fat zero.
No one likes getting zeros. Which is why in some school districts across the country, these kinds of grades are now a thing of the past. No more ZEROS—a movement designed to keep students from feeling the pain of a zero. For instance, in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools students can earn a score no lower than 50. Across the Potomac River in Maryland, Prince George County limits failing grades to a minimum score of 50 percent. It gives new meaning to the phrase, “Failure is not an option.”
So what is this pain-free scoring all about? Some educators believe these new grading systems are more conducive to learning. Getting a score of 50 percent instead of zero can encourage students to catch up when they fall behind instead of completely giving up. A score of zero can drag a student down, putting them in a position in which climbing back to a passing grade can seem impossible. No one wants failures to put students on a path to dropping out.
But others argue that teachers need to be able to give a zero or an F because they are important tools for teaching diligence, and they prepare students for college and the working world. Furthermore, if 50 percent is a minimum score, then grades can mask real failures in the classroom and possibly lead to advancing students who haven’t mastered the material they need to know to be successful at the next level, let alone at life.
In school and in the work world, failure needs to be an option. Otherwise, we fail to see the truth, and we fail to learn how to not fail. Failure helps us to wake up and learn. Failure motivates us to be better, to work harder. Failure reveals to us just what it is we need—be it help, encouragement, guidance, or maybe a new career.
The story of Adam and Eve is a story of failure, and it can teach us these lessons. But it’s also a story that reveals a path through failure to wholeness.
God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and then gave them a quick tour. Great place. Exotic foliage. Beautiful flowers and shrubs. Fruitful trees, including an impressively fruitful tree in the middle of the garden. It was here God said, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden—except for one! Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” In other words, eat the forbidden fruit, and you get a big, fat zero!
Then, a little later, the crafty serpent said to them, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Eve answered, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” The serpent established a “no-zero” policy for Adam and Eve, saying: “You are not going to get a ZERO if you eat that fruit. You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Now God said the penalty for eating the forbidden fruit was going to be death. Failure was certainly an option for Adam and Eve. But once the serpent instituted a “no-zero” policy, the fruit of that tree became very attractive—good for food, a delight to the eyes, and the key to an easier way—which is always a catalyst for failure.
Studies have shown that people become more careful when they sense greater risk, and less careful when they feel more protected. This behavior is called our “risk compensation quotient.”
For example, motorists drive more aggressively when wearing seatbelts. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m not going to tell you to drive without your seatbelt, but my guess is if you did, you would drive differently. In the sport of skydiving, equipment has become steadily more reliable but the fatality rate has remained constant, because skydivers are now engaging in riskier jumps. If you don’t know how to swim, you stay out of the water. When we think we are good and safe, our “risk compensation quotient” goes down. When people know failure is an option, our “risk compensation quotient” goes up. Adam and Eve thought the risk of failure was not just low, but that it was gone! And this happened when they stopped listening to God.
Adam and Eve failed, and typically we see their failure as the reason why we are in the messy world we are in today. But what we fail to realize is that their failure is our failure. That is the true message of their story. We, like Adam and Eve, fail when we fail to heed God’s word and instruction.
God said to avoid the forbidden fruit, but they ate anyway. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” The eyes of both Adam and Even were opened— not only to their nakedness, but to the importance of listening to God.
Additionally, we, like Adam and Eve, fail when we think ourselves to be like God. The serpent told Eve, and Adam who was with her, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” and this increased their desire to eat the forbidden fruit. We can hardly blame them for having this desire, since wouldn’t life be easier with God-like knowledge and God-like power? When we are experiencing weakness, illness, failure and frustration, it’s hard to resist the temptation to “be like God.” But only God is God, and we’re put on earth to live as God’s children—which means listening to, and heeding God’s word.
But there is something else Adam and Eve, and every child of God who has heard this story, has learned… even though they sinned, they did not die. Yes, they were sent out. Yes, they were subjected to hard work and labor pains. Yes, they were separated from God—all because of their sin. But they did not die. And that is what this story is about. Not that God punishes because of sin, but rather because of sin we separate ourselves fromm God—which is not what God wanted for anyone—thus God’s warning “Do not do this, lest you and me will be separated.” The failure of sin separates us from God. But God is always ready to help us find a way through our failure, through our sin, and back to God.
“Then the eyes of both were opened,” says Genesis, “and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”
Adam and Eve fell from obedience to disobedience. From innocence to shame. Suddenly, Adam and Eve’s report card is not looking so good. They had failed—and in their failure they had no idea what to do, except panic and hide—which is precisely when God showed up.
And just like when their eyes were opened when they ate the fruit, their eyes were again opened. They were opened to the result of sin—separation from God. But their eyes were opened also to the grace of God—they did not die. They were separated from God, yes, but they did not die. And from that point on, through the Law, the Prophets, and through Jesus God worked to lead us through our sin, disobedience, and shame, so we could get back to God. And God did that, and does that, through mercy, grace, compassion, and love.
When Mr. Hennis returned my homework with a big fat zero I knew what was expected of me. But I also knew what kind of teacher he would be when he handed me my homework with that big fat zero and said, “Sorry Jon.” Tough but fair. Demanding but compassionate. I learned to get my homework done on time. I learned how to memorize all the “Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species” of plants, insects and animals—a skill and method I used even in seminary when trying to learn Hebrew, Greek, and biblical maps.
Mr. Hennis gave me a zero once, but he never had to again.
We need to look at our failing marks, but not be ashamed of them— rather, instead, learn from them. These marks may be ugly, but they can help us understand our limits and gain valuable knowledge about ourselves.
Additionally, we need to know failure is an option because failure as an option keeps us alert and careful—it lowers our risk compensation quotient—and keep us grounded in God’s word. After all, we would never grow in faith and understanding if we lived in a “no-zero” world. Sometimes, the way through our brokenness means getting a big fat zero.
As finite human beings, we can put our faith in a powerful and loving God, trusting God to forgive us and renew us. We can choose to avoid evil and do good. We can turn to other people for help and support, instead of feeling as though we have to solve all of our problems by ourselves.
So may we seek to face and work through our failure and sin, knowing that our grace filled God, and our unconditionally loving Savior, is going to be there to show us the way through it all to the wholeness that comes when we move through our failure and return to God. Amen.