A couple years ago, I attended an event where Congressman Mac Thornberry and Senator John McCain spoke about the US military budget. Before making wonkish remarks about spending, Thornberry offered traditional praises for his colleague: “I very much enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to work with Chairman McCain, who occupies truly a unique place in American history and political life today.”
Senator McCain interrupted him, “The loser.”
The senator chuckled as the audience laugh, knowing his legacy would be much greater than as “the loser.” It was a self-deprecating joke demonstrating meekness when he knew his greatness, obviously. But I can’t know for certain. We never chatted one-on-one about our intimate feelings. That event was the only time I was ever in the same room with him. In my mind, he was more stoic than to think of himself as a loser. Though, I’ve seen many others who would describe themselves that way or worse—often because of what they perceive to be disappointments in their careers, marriages, children, education, or elsewhere.
Earlier last week in the Senate chamber, Sen. Lindsey Graham reflected on his former colleague’s disappointments and failures and how they prepared McCain for other purposes:
He had wanted to be president. He was prepared to be president, but it was not his to have… I learned that failure and success are different sides of the same coin. John told me, “I have become better for my failures because it teaches us. And I’ve been tempted by my success, and without my failure I wouldn’t have ever been successful.” So to those who are striving as a young person, remember John McCain. He failed a lot, but he never quit. And the reason we’re talking about him today and the reason I’m crying is because he was successful, in spite of his failures.
Many others offered reflections and tributes to McCain after his death, and a juxtaposition between what I heard them say of him and what I heard him call himself lingers in my thoughts. Some noted that he was one his generation’s most influential American politicians, and he is only the thirteenth former senator to be granted the honor of lying in state in the US Capitol Rotunda. For me, the most striking tribute was a makeshift memorial for McCain in Hanoi, Vietnam. In 1967, he was participating in a bombing campaign against that city when he was shot down and captured, but now the Vietnamese honored him because he helped forge peace between the two once-warring nations. When thinking about just this specific legacy alone and the allegation that McCain should be remembered as a loser, my response is “hogwash.” If John McCain was a loser, America needs many more losers like him.
McCain’s life and Graham’s reflection reminded me of the story of Joseph in Genesis, and especially a couple sermons I heard last year from different pastors. One pastor specifically addressed his message to Christians in their 20s and 30s trying to make an impact in DC. Each year thousands of graduates come to this city with high expectations for their careers, whether on the Hill, in various agencies or think tanks, or elsewhere. Many of them quickly become disappointed with reality, impatient with their career progress, lonely without meaningful relationships, or otherwise. The message could apply to many difficulties others face, but looking at Joseph was particularly helpful with the audience because he eventually did have a powerful position in government. But the pastor never preached on the time when Joseph assumed power. Instead, he focused on when Joseph struggled through enslavement and imprisonment. The message was simple: God can use our struggles to prepare us for the good purposes he intends, which may or may not be what we originally want. When he was sold into slavery, the shepherd Joseph was not ready to be Egypt’s second in command because he was too prideful and would have trampled upon his subjects. Another pastor in another sermon last year emphasized how God had a long plan for Joseph, who could have never understood how his being in a pit would someday save his family and nation, from which the Messiah would come. Therefore, for those of us in Christ, if we trust God and his Providence—whether interpreted to mean that God directs history or that God allows only those tragedies that he can turn to good—we can trust that, even when we’re in the pit or feel like a loser, he will use our troubles for his purposes and he will satisfy our needs.
McCain’s failures prepared him for success, and Joseph’s difficult journey prepared him for government service in Egypt. Studying both of these men can offer lessons for all of us when we become disappointed with where our lives have led. Yet I disagree with Graham’s implication that failure can turn into success if we just work hard enough. According to my reading of scripture, my hard work will never be enough. The harder I try by myself, the more likely I am to fail. But God can sustain and enable his followers to fulfill his purposes, whether it is in government like Joseph or business, education, family, or wherever. It’s his work, not ours. This of course does not mean believers will not face turmoil, but it does mean God can use it to prepare us the way he prepared Joseph. Because of this, believers can trust that, even when we feel like we’re losers in the deepest pit, God is beside us and knows what he’s doing. And most importantly, at the end of the Christian’s life, if we try to call ourselves a loser, the Father will lovingly say hogwash because he will not see our failures but will see what Christ has done for us instead.
Mark Melton is the deputy editor of Providence.
Photo Credit: A Joint Service Arrival Team carry the flag-draped casket of Sen. John S. McCain III at Joint Base Andrews, MD, on Aug. 30, 2018. The former senator’s remains were en route to lie in state in the US Capitol Rotunda. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jalene.