On Failing

One of the books I read this summer was called Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure by J.R Briggs. I still need to write my review of how much I enjoyed this book but failure, success and the fears and trappings connected and everything in between is always on my mind – and likely on yours too. It’s safe to make the assumption that everyone has felt the fear of failure at some point. For many of us, it’s a relevant, in and out thing. Maybe right now you are doing exactly what you want to be doing, maybe you’re doing the opposite, whatever and wherever, the fear of failure always lurks.

On good days, we know we will experience failure and success and we’ll live and learn. On the not so great days, we over-fixate, we grieve the loss of something prized, we let it consume and we let it spill-over in other aspects of our lives.

I’m sure you have read countless quotes on failure and have read numerous insights about overcoming it.

“Everything you want is on the other side of failure.” – Jack Canfield

“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” – C.S. Lewis

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.” – Robert Kennedy

and of course, an obligatory Winston Churchill quote:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it’s the courage to continue that counts.”

Sometimes the words make you want to fail so you can experience the joy of triumphing over the failure. But if I’m being honest, if I have to fail, I only want to fail at the things that are inconsequential or reserved in front of an audience of those who will support/forgive/encourage me the fastest. Yes, “safe failure.” But there is no such thing and it feels needed to consider what is so awful about failure.

There’s the public nature of failing. Everyone will see it and this will confirm their deep-seated suspicion of you. They always knew you were unqualified, unintelligent, and were over-rated in whatever was considered a potential strength. Ever have the thought “I’m horrible at the only thing I thought I was good at?” The only thing worse than this is being considered mediocre. At least when someone says you’re horrible, there’s the very likely possibility that they are over-stating your incapability. We might even reason they are simply angry with us. But being accused of mediocrity feels like a more objective statement, it comes across as less personal, more dismissive, I tell you it feels like bitter failure.

Failure also brings the private confirmations that you have always harbored in fear. Related to the above, there’s this very intimate, personal nature of failing. It’s the stuff you’re not good at it, that’s why you keep covering it up, and when it all breaks loose, you utter the words to yourself, “I knew I shouldn’t have ________.” Sometimes no one knows about it but you and we let ourselves be tortured by it. It’s demonic in that sense.

Like others, I fear that I will fail in countless ways. I fear that I will fail at the responsibilities I am charged with. I fear that I will fail at my strengths. I also have a deep fear that I will fail people relationally.
“He’s just like all the others.”; “He doesn’t really care about me.”; “I wish I hadn’t met him.”; and “I knew I couldn’t really do this.” It can be even more over-whelming when considering my role as a husband, father, and a son/brother and close friend. Failing in our relationships is a deep fear and it feels warranted.

Living with the fear of potential failure and the pain of past failure can crush our ambition and our daily pursuit of peace and fulfillment. It can also limit our relationships and again push us to isolate ourselves. It’s not a stretch to believe that many of us walk in and out of this funk all the time. So what do we do?

This is where I find Christian identity helpful. No doubt about it, the people who love us the most and the least have truthful sentiments about us. But their vantage point is always incomplete and so is our own perspective. If you’ve ever been guilty of under-estimating yourself, then we know our view of self is also incomplete. Therefore finding our identity in who God created us to be is a helpful starting point. We are not going to create our own persona nor be held prisoner in thought of others. Instead, we will seek who were were created to be.

From here, everyone from friend to critic is a potential ally. Their opinion is informing and helpful but not defining. In an emotionally healthy moment, this keeps in check the potential sting of public failure. It’s also a strong response to our self-doubt monologue. While failure will be inevitable, in this healthier mindset, it has the potential to strengthen us instead of beat us down.

It’s in prayer and community that we can find both anchoring and guidance in our identity and mission. It’s in the seeking-giving of forgiveness that we find release. We also have to forgive ourselves when we fail. It’s natural to want to avoid the possibility again, to resolve to never take a risk again and to let it eat away at you. Forgiving ourselves helps us to avoid these reactions.

We might start off again limping a bit, and soon we find our stride as we seek wisdom, feedback, accountability and encouragement. In this way failure actually can be a teacher, a motivator, serve as a turning point toward redemption.

Unrealistic? Maybe but would it help you to know that this is part of my response to myself (and maybe to others) as I recover and move on from a very regretful moment of failure. These words are not merely therapeutic, I find them to be life-giving, I find God’s goodness in them. In failing, I’m finding a bit more redemption. 

“No human ever became interesting by not failing. The more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Ever meet someone who’s always had everything work out for them with zero struggle? They usually have the depth of a puddle. Or they don’t exist.” Chris Hardback

“Though those pursing God’s goodness fall seven times, they get back up …” (a paraphrase of Prov. 24:16)

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