Most of us have been taught that failure is the worst of all outcomes. Whether explicitly or subliminally, the message is delivered that we must do everything in our power to ensure we never fail. In school, no one is rewarded for a failing grade. On athletic fields medals aren’t handed out to the player who misses the final shot. Success is not measured by how many failed relationships we’ve been party to or how many times our business has gone under. Indeed, to so many, failure is a sign of ineptitude, incompetence, and weakness.
This perspective concerning failure is truly unfortunate because failure is a natural, important, and often unavoidable part of life. Failure helps us to grow. It teaches us what to do and what not to do. Failure, when understood correctly, can serve as a building block for future success. Best-selling author J.K. Rowling said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.” Failure is one of life’s greatest teachers. It’s how a child learns to walk; she falls down over and over, until finally taking her first step Failure is how birds learn to fly and how musicians learn to play. Failure can produce a billion-dollar idea. How many of our greatest innovations were the result of trial and error?
As believers, it is impossible to live effectively for Christ and be paralyzed by the fear of failure. If we are not careful, however, the prospect of failing can stop us from taking reasonable risks and embracing the clear call of God. At its worst, the specter of failure can prevent us from being a people “who walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Scripture shows us that God had to bolster even His greatest leaders against the fear of failure, including Moses (Ex. 3:7-11), Joshua (Josh. 1:1-9), and Timothy, who was reminded that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7).
Should we seek out failure? No, but we also should not run from the prospect of it. The possibility of failing should not prevent us from diving into deep waters of faith even though we cannot see the bottom. Failure can even be a tool God uses in several positive ways in our lives:
God can use failure to teach us lessons we need for future success
One reason failure is so difficult for us is because of how it makes us feel in the moment: regretful, remorseful, embarrassed, and disappointed. Our feelings around failure can cause us to lose sight of the lessons we learn through failure. Be clear, God speaks in our failures. And when we experience failure in our life, it is important that we don’t just pick up and move on too quickly without thinking about what lessons the Lord is teaching us through this failure. Why didn’t the relationship work? Why didn’t I pass the test? Why does the same destructive behavior repeatedly emerge in my life? Why didn’t the ministry opportunity take off? Failure is only truly failure if we do not learn from it. And learning from it is the point. In a similar way, James said, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials [tests], knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (Jas. 1:2).
God can use the prospect of failure to test the limits of our faith.
The prospect of failure has a funny way of revealing the quality and character of our faith. It’s easy to walk in faith when success is assured. But what does faith look like when the outcome is uncertain? Jesus challenged Peter after his well-known failure to walk on water by asking, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). The word “doubt” Jesus used has the meaning of “trying to go in two different directions at the same time.” In other words, Jesus says, “Peter, when you stepped out onto the water, you were trying to demonstrate the faith required to walk toward me while having the security of remaining back in the boat.” Like Peter, we cannot walk in faith without embracing the risks associated with faith. We must either walk on water or stay in the boat, but we cannot do both.
God can use even our greatest failures to bring Him glory.
David (2 Sam. 11:2-3; 12:9), Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-4), Paul (Acts 7:54-8:1), Peter (Mark 14:66-72), and a host of others in Scripture failed in sometimes tragic and very unfortunate ways. None of us want to follow these examples. At the same time, we must recognize that the missteps of those towering figures of Scripture reveal the power of God’s grace to transform our failures into profound testimonies of forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation, and salvation. If God could use their failure to highlight His awesome nature and character, He can certainly use ours.
God can use our failures—the big and little ones—to make us better for Him. Failure is never fatal unless we allow it to turn us away from God. Let’s, instead, embrace the loving nature of God and allow our failures to draw us closer to Him.