The first car I drove was a midnight blue Ford Taurus station wagon named Stewie. I liked to imagine that Stewie was the envy of all my friends, mainly because the trunk converted to two backwards-facing seats. This made it possible to entertain the cars behind us without our parents noticing. One day, when I was a sophomore in high school, a friend needed me to drive him to his house. I was old enough to drive, but too irresponsible to get my license; therefore, I needed to quickly borrow the Ford Taurus before anyone noticed the missing car.
I felt a rush of independence fly through my body. I turned on the car and tore off in reverse. I heard a loud crash and saw white debris falling on the windshield.
My friend broke the stunned silence. “Did you really just run through your own garage door?”
Embarrassed, I ignored his incredulous stare and nonchalantly continued backing down the driveway to take him home. I didn’t want him to know I had peed my pants thinking of my dad’s response to both the car theft and the broken garage door.
Coming home wasn’t pretty, but my parents were gracious. The scene was somewhat like the end of an episode of “Who’s the Boss?” complete with hugging and sappy music. In order to pay for the damage, I sold the flute I still had from my brief days as a middle school band member.
It was becoming clear that I should probably never be allowed to drive.
My friends gave me a hard time for my brainless act of not waiting till the garage door was completely up before taking off. And I honestly would have judged them if they didn’t.
This wasn’t my only mistake in high school. By and large, I made awful, stupid decisions throughout my journey to adulthood. I was often lucky enough to walk away with minimal damage to self or even to those affected by my reckless behavior.
But the path of maturity and growth often comes with ugly, embarrassing mistakes.
I’ve noticed that we don’t seem to get to learn in a vacuum.
As annoying as it is, opportunities for change usually happen in front of others.
It would be great if people never saw us trip and fall. It would be amazing if ex-boyfriends didn’t hate us and wish upon us significant post-college weight gain.
But we fail, often in broad daylight, where everyone can see.
And maturity doesn’t just happen because we fail. Consciously or not, we make a choice—a choice to either learn and be transformed, or hide and avoid future mistakes.
I learned more about sportsmanship by being kicked out of a tennis match. I learned more about responsibility when I owed the bank $500 in overdraft fees.
Mistakes, failure, deplorable decisions—these things are inevitable. The question is, are we willing to change in the face of such humiliation? Or do we become masters of cover-ups—refusing to change and hiding our mistakes?
Our natural response to embarrassment is to safeguard ourselves against the same mistake. If I hate the feeling of being left out, I’ll make sure it never happens again. I don’t want to lose, so I’ll figure out how to win.
It’s the game of control—the game where we care more about how we look than who we are. We care more about being included than becoming people who include.
But pain and broken garage doors and broken relationships are how we learn to be those loved by God, not because we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but because of grace.
Grace extends strength through failure. Grace reminds us we’re bigger than our sin. Because mistakes never have to be an end in themselves. Because sin, no matter how destructive, doesn’t have to have the last word. Because transformation is a better goal than avoiding failure.
I’m a little bit better about driving. But I’m a lot better about getting over myself. I’m a little better about not relying on others for my self-worth, but I’m a lot better about taking grace as I learn my real identity.
You may not ever run through garage doors or steal a car for no apparent reason. But you may freak out in a mom’s group or yell at your kids. You may hurt a friend or give into competition instead of love.
But will you learn grace? Will you cooperate with the deeper plan of transformation?
What matters is not how often we fail, but whether or not we are shaped by the trump card of grace.