‘Failure is not an option’ is the slogan posted on the wall at my local fitness centre.
But in the pursuit of fitness, as in life, failure is very much an option. We may fail in different areas of life, at school, at work or in our business. Or we may fail in our marriage, in bringing up our children or in our friendships.
We may fail to achieve what we want to achieve. We won’t always come out on top, get the job we wanted or achieve our business or personal goals. Or we may ‘fail’ to become the people we want to be. We like to portray an image of a strong, respected, faithful, loving person, but the reality somehow falls far short.
More importantly, we all fail to be the people God wants us to be. ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.23). It’s a universal experience.
Gateway into knowledge
Failure can be very humbling and painful, but it can be a great teacher if we are willing to learn, and it can be the gateway into a deeper knowledge of God and of ourselves as we recover from failure
The Bible is full of human failure. Adam and Eve failed to obey the simplest instruction. Psalm 78 looks back over the history of God’s people and sees a recurring pattern of failure to keep God’s covenant and even failure to remember God at all. Certainly, any failures in our lives are not going to take God by surprise.
Thankfully, the Bible is also full of the grace of God in forgiving, renewing and restoring people who have failed. Let’s learn from three very different experiences.
He failed to be the person he wanted to be. Peter badly wanted to be the leader. He saw himself as a cut above the others in terms of loyalty and commitment to Jesus. But he had too high an opinion of himself. When the crunch came, he let Jesus down completely, at the time of Jesus’s greatest need.
Peter learned a lot from his failure. He learned about his own weakness. He wasn’t as good as he thought. But how did he recover?
Peter must have felt that Jesus could not use him again, that he could no longer be trusted. Yet, when Peter met with Jesus after his death and resurrection (John 21.15-19), three times Jesus reassured him that he still loved him and three times he reassured him that he was to take on a new role, a shepherd leader of the early church.
If you feel you have failed, then maybe God has a new direction for you to take, a new role, a new job in a new location; or maybe God wants you to stay right where you are, learn from that failure, and press on.
David’s failure was different. In his adultery with Bathsheba and the subsequent plot to get rid of her husband Uriah, he broke two of the ten commandments and badly abused the power God had entrusted to him.
Like Peter, David was shattered when he realised the enormity of what he had done, and he learned a lot about himself and his innate sinfulness.
How did David recover? He turned to God in deep repentance: ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned’ (Psalm 51). This was much more than sorrow, regret or remorse. He was broken. In repentance God exposes us for who we really are, sinful people, capable of anything except for the restraining grace of God.
David … again!
Thirdly, while some of our failures are due to our own foolishness (like Peter) or our own moral weakness (like David), some experiences of ‘failure’ are due to circumstances entirely beyond our control; a flood or fire, an accident, a serious illness or stock market crash may destroy all we have worked for and leave us feeling a failure and asking why?
Earlier in his life David knew that experience, when a marauding band attacked and destroyed his camp (1 Samuel 29-30). As David’s men turned to blame him for the loss of their wives, children and goods it seemed that everything had gone wrong for him. He was an anointed king not able to rule. He was a leader who had lost the support of his men and a man who had failed to protect his family and lost all his possessions.
Had he failed? It’s hard to say that David had done much wrong… events just seemed to have turned against him. But he must have felt that he had failed to achieve what he wanted to achieve. Sometimes that is what failure looks like for us.
How did David recover? ‘David strengthened himself in the Lord his God’ (1 Samuel 30.6). Notice there was no friend like Jonathan to stand alongside him. He was alone and yet he found strength in the Lord to face the situation. The story goes on to tell how he rallied his men and how they recovered their families and possessions.
Both David and Peter failed, learned from their experience and then recovered. It’s much easier to talk about failures after you have recovered from them. What if you are actually going through an experience of failure right now?
If you feel you have failed to achieve what you want to achieve or failed to become what you wanted to be, or if you carrying a load of guilt because you have failed God, then go back to basics. Here are seven steps forward in recovering from failure.
1. Rediscover your value in the sight of God. According to the Bible, the value of our life is not measured by what we have achieved, by the wealth we have accumulated (our net assets), or by our status in society. No, it is the value God has put on our life in giving his Son for us… we have been redeemed with the precious blood of Christ. That is how much you are worth to God, whatever you achieve or fail to achieve. That is the value that lasts.
2. Secondly, focus on Jesus Christ, on his great love for you and his grace, rather than focusing only on yourself and your failures … the Bible calls us to consider him, to learn from him, to be rooted and grounded in him, to abide in him, to please him. We can’t please everybody, so we are to make it our aim to please Christ. That simplifies life a lot.
3. Do one thing well, some act of service, so as to take a step forward, rather than dwell on your failure. Who knows what small thing or what single act may be much more important in the sight of God than our most treasured achievements?
4. Resist the temptation to succumb to envy, jealousy and bitterness, but rather be thankful. Remember that thankfulness is a very attractive quality… envy and jealousy are not.
5. Invest time in relationships, rather than in possessions and struggling for money and power… learn to value people above things and even above achievements.
6. Hold on and don’t give up trusting that God has a great plan for you… sometimes a seeming failure may provide another opportunity for us to learn to trust.
7. Press on and take whatever opportunities that are open to you. The apostle Paul spent long years chained in a prison cell when he really wanted to be out travelling as an evangelist and building up churches, but he certainly didn’t wallow in self-pity. In a letter from prison to the church at Philippi he made this magnificent statement: ‘I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation’ (Philippians 4.12).
He didn’t learn that in a book, but through hard experience of personal setbacks and opposition. Sir Winston Churchill once said: ‘Success is not final. Failure is not final. It is the courage to continue that counts’.