Pullquote: I am a failure. I will always be a failure.
Converting Failure to True Success
At the end of six years of pastoring a small church, I cried to my wife, “I have failed!”
We entered Emmanuel, our first church after Seminary, with all the dreams of youth. We intended to be there for the rest of our lives. It would be one glorious stream of loving people, reaching the lost, and faithfully proclaiming God’s Word.
But over the six years, leadership struggles mushroomed. Strong leaders sparred over values and methods. Some sought to control all of the decisions. The tide of criticism of my ministry grew. Finally, two out of three of the board members felt I should resign. A vote of confidence revealed that one third of the congregation did not support my ministry as their pastor.
My statement to Beverly meant “I have failed myself, my family, my church, and my God!” And my conclusion verged on the more dangerous “I am a failure. I will always be a failure.”
I was well aware that I had made mistakes. In my first leadership position I showed immaturity. Pride drove me to base decisions on the imperative of building my own kingdom. The tremendous price of pastoral ministry drained me, and the lack of encouragement broadsided me.
Proof of Failure?
I arrayed the proofs in my own mind, and the evidence was stronger than just church conflict. I felt my gifts did not measure up to other prominent pastors I knew. I had a smaller church, far from the great programs or impressive numbers of which others could boast. When pastors met at fellowships or conferences and compared their successes, my work seemed to come out on the short end.
The choice of some to leave the little fellowship, and those who disagreed with the content or style of my messages, crushed me. Some left because we did not have a bigger youth program. Others criticized my ministry because it did not mirror the ministry of a prominent pastor in Southern California. I felt demeaned by their comparison.
But the bigger fault was mine. I was measuring myself and my ministry by the wrong yardstick. I had fallen prey to the idolatry of success. Consider a couple of pieces of evidence of the mindset of our day.
The Idolatry of Success
Andrew Carnegie in The Road to Business Success said:
I would not give a fig for the young man who does not already see himself the partner or the head of an important firm . . . Say to yourself ‘My place is at the top.’ Be king in your dreams.
Vince Lombardi, former coach of the Green Bay Packers said:
Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.
The sports world idolizes success and vilifies failure. Golfer John Daly, described as “big talking, big hitting” once missed two putts at the WGC American Express Championship. The purse was worth millions, significantly more than second place. His first miss sent the tournament into sudden death. The second putt, a seeming routine one of 20 inches, handed the victory to Tiger Woods.
But lest you think Tiger invulnerable to failure, on November 27, 2005 he missed one putt for nearly a million dollars, giving the win to another player.
But surely believers are immune from this humbling experience! In a reality check, Howard Hendricks has said to believers:
Failure is one of the uglies of life. We deny it, run away from it, or, upon being overtaken, fall into permanent paralyzing fear. Probably because of our reluctance to face it, not much is written about the anatomy of failure. As Christians we wave our visionary banners proclaiming, “Victory in Christ,” refusing often to admit that the path to ultimate victory may include intermediate bloody noses (Failure the Back Door to Success, Lutzer).
Two Types of Failure
Let me differentiate spiritual failure from falling short in the endeavors of life. By the first I mean sin or rebellion against God. I dealt with our struggle with sin in chapters nine and ten, and great personal weakness in chapter eight. We have all sinned. The solution for sin is to turn to Christ, the Savior, in faith, believing on Him. When believers in Christ sin, they are exhorted to repent–to turn around, confess disobedience, and again order their personal lives in faith and obedience, following the commands God has given in His word.
Though we may hesitate to admit it, everyday failure is a constant reality for all of us. We fail to achieve our own standards, we fall short of the goals others expect of us, and we don’t measure up to God’s call. But how do you explain failure in the lives of believers, and beyond that, for those who passionately love and serve God?
The Greatest Failure?
The greatest failure of all time was the collapse of Christ’s earthly mission. Before you reject my thought, consider the immensity of the task Christ attempted, and Who He was, God incarnate. At his appearance, and that of his forerunner, John the Baptist, the cities emptied as people clamored to hear Him. He was the greatest public phenomenon of his time. But despite the huge crowds, He was rejected as Lord and Messiah by the nation and its leaders:
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1:11 NIV).
After three years of public ministry, he was spurned by His nation, who cried “Crucify him!” He was rejected by the religious leaders who put Him to death by pressuring the Roman procurator, Pilate. Saddest of all, not even His own disciples stuck with Him:
Then all the disciples deserted him and fled (Matthew 26:55-56 NIV).
What must have been his feelings at this point? They are reflected in Isaiah:
But I said ‘I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing’ (Isaiah 49:4a NIV)
Even though the Savior knew He had fulfilled the Father’s will, do not miss the crushing human feelings of failure. From the external appearance of His mission, the wheels fell off.
A Fellow Failure?
In part, because of devastating collapse of His earthly mission, and sorrows of His earthly life, He can sympathize with your feelings of failure.
17Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:17-18 NASB).
He knows the frustration of laboring in vain, of being rejected by the very ones He sought to save. He saw the collapse of an immense endeavor. He was rejected more brutally than anything you have ever experienced. But of course this is only half the story. The last half of Isaiah 49:4 records where He turned in His seeming failure:
Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God (Isaiah 49:4b NIV).
At the end of what He could do, He offered His earthly work to His Father as an offering. He entrusted the outcome of His labor to the court of heaven.
A failure? The cross is God’s greatest success story. The Savior did not stop His work at seeming failure and rejection, but pressed through in obedience to purchase salvation and forgiveness for all by His death as a sacrifice for us.
Using the model of the Savior, and wisdom from the Scriptures, let me offer some insights concerning the human experience of failure.
Insights and Next Steps
*Confess failure that was disobedience to God. The healthiest course is complete openness to the measure of God’s Word, the bible, and sensitivity to His Holy Spirit Who searches within us. Failure can be a part of God’s reproof, seeking to restore his beloved child. We need to respond in confession and repentance.
Failure that is not sin needs to be approached very differently:
*Beware the flawed yardsticks of success. When you consider yourself a failure, against what are you measuring? Dr. Vernon Grounds has said that there is success that is true failure, and failure that is true success. Reject human comparison that measures by a flawed, shifting standard.
*Don’t trust your feelings of failure or success. Emotions, though a part of our God-given nature, cannot be our sole guide. Feelings are like a roller coaster – up one minute, down the next. We need the rock-solid stability of God’s voice and wisdom.
*Avoid blaming yourself. It will only complicate using the experience as a foundation for God’s next step in your life and ministry. Take inventory as a servant under God’s high call, and in your loss live out His character to others.
*Accept failure as a part of the human experience. We are all failures at something, and that can remind us to center our life in God, and His glory. Accept that you are weak and vulnerable in some areas. In your humanity, cast yourself again on God and His plan.
*Develop a healthy sense of humor about your failures and frailties rather than becoming defensive. This does not excuse lower standards, but accepts that God created us with limitations. The ability to laugh at yourself is healthy.
*Get up and move on. Learn from failure. In chapter one we viewed Elijah’s feelings of failure. At Mt. Sinai God re-commissioned him to continue his ministry. Instead of seeing him as disqualified, God saw him as better equipped than ever.
*Recognize that sometimes failure is part of God’s plan. God called Isaiah and Jeremiah to tasks at which they would fail from a human perspective (Isaiah 6:8-12; Jeremiah 1:17-19) – proclaiming truth to a rebellious people. But they succeeded greatly in their primary task, declaring God’s message.
Pullquote: True success is knowing God and pleasing Him.
What is True Success?
What is the nature of genuine success?
*True success is knowing God and pleasing Him. Grow in your knowledge of Him, and you will grow in your knowledge of His purpose. Paul shares his goal with us: So we make it our goal to please him . . . (2 Corinthians 5:9a NIV). This is what we have been created for. This is the greatest romance – growing deeper in love with our God, cultivating our relationship with Him.
*True success is Christlike love for others. Christ stated it as a command:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35 NIV).
Holding others in high esteem, showing genuine concern, and taking actions to benefit them are all elements of a deeper love for others.
*True success is selfless service of others. This is the outward working of love. The Son of God set himself as the first servant and our model for service: For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve . . .(Mark 10:45 NIV). When the disciples vied for prominence Christ said Whoever wants to be first must be your slave (Matthew 20:27 NIV).
*True success is fulfilling God’s call, completing the work God gives you to do. Here we will find our highest sense of fulfillment and joy, and the greatest sense of the Savior’s Well done! Our highest goal is to please and glorify Him. But work seen as complete in God’s sight may look like a failure or incomplete in man’s sight. An example is Christ’s declaration It is finished in John 19:30, where at the cross He completed the greatest work done among men.
*True success is sharing Christ’s victory on the cross, we share his victory as we believe on Him and identify with Him.
The Savior’s Commendation
As I shared with Beverly my feelings that I had failed, she wisely and strongly answered “You have not failed. You have laid down your life. God will use your investment for His glory.”
Years have proven the wisdom of her words. Twenty-two years after we left, we returned to help dedicate a new facility at the church where I had cried out to God about my failure. By God’s grace He blessed what we had invested, and the congregation has grown to four or five times the size it was. The warm hugs, tears, and sincere expressions of thanks seemed to express the voice of God: “You did not fail. Every seed you invested for My glory, I have used as I pleased. Yes, you made mistakes, and you were learning, but I used you to do something great. Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Think It Through Questions:
- When have you most significantly experienced feelings of failure?
- What evidence caused you to conclude you had failed? Was the evidence valid?
- How do you see success idolized in our culture? What kinds of success are most celebrated?
- Though we may fail in some earthly tasks, how can we begin to experience the greatest realm of success in God?
- Why would the author suggest that Christ’s earthly mission failed?
- Though Christ was God in flesh, and knew everything, why was He devastated by the human failure in His earthly task?
- Why should we not trust feelings of failure?
- What may be some of God’s purposes in allowing failure in our lives?
- What is true success? Evaluate elements of the author’s definition. How would your own definition differ?
- What sort of success will win the Savior's Well Done!?