Mistakes, popular wisdom tells us, are not a bad thing at all. We should actually relish them, we are told, because from them we can learn and grow. They are “stepping stones to success,” according to probably more than one anonymous philosopher.
Popular wisdom offers nothing new here. Cicero, a Roman philosopher and orator who lived before the time of Jesus, said, “Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.”1 The Irish writer James Joyce (1882-1941) said, “A man's errors are his portals of discovery.”2
Richard Bach, the American author of the popular little 1970 book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, went so far as to say, “There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they're necessary to reach the places we've chosen to go.”2
While as God’s people we may develop and express these ideas differently, Bach’s conclusion holds a nugget of truth. We do choose the steps we take and the places we want to go. We do bring a lot upon ourselves. Certainly, the choices of other people and the circumstances of life can throw us off course. We make mistakes, some out of ignorance and others quite knowingly. We sin. But rather than the mistakes that are actually sin being necessary legs of the journey to where we want to go, they instead take us where we least want to live: apart from God. And that is where we stay until we repent.
Like the so-called popular “wisdom” about mistakes, this too is nothing new. God’s people have always struggled with disobedience and have consequently spent a lot of time wandering, headed not where God wanted to take them but held where God could correct them, teach them, lead them to repent, and forgive them. Restored to faithful living, they could once again move in the right direction, guided and sustained by God.
As God’s people, we do not travel alone. Our lives are wound around the lives of others who seek to follow God. Most importantly, we have the presence of God to teach and guide us and the grace and forgiveness of God to restore us. For us, it’s not a matter of where we want to go but of where God wants to lead us and who God wants us to become. While we certainly can learn from our mistakes and even our sins, these are not God’s preferred method for teaching us. With the Psalmist we pray, “Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path” (Psalm 27:11).