Those who never take risks never experience the fullness of God’s power and mercy.
I returned the receiver gently to its cradle and felt the smile begin. The kind that starts way down in your heart and works its way up to your face. The deep, contented smile that comes after a nagging question has been resolved.
The call had finally come, bearing the good news that I had hoped for for weeks. I got the job.
The days ahead were electric with excitement and activity as I planned for the big move and the many goodbyes. And then it began to nag at me. That old, familiar feeling. It worried me, and finally tormented me. That deflating sense of dread. The fear of failure.
My future employers were impressed with me. I’d convinced them that I was perfect for the job. They believed in me professionally and already seemed to love me personally. And that brought joy. But the nagging inner voice was beginning to convince me, “You just have them fooled. You’re really not as great as you’ve led them to believe. Just wait till you’ve been there a few weeks; then they’ll see that you can’t really cut it, that you’re a fake.”
My fear of failure had soon sapped me of all my excitement, joy, and hope about the future. As I drove the 1,200 miles down the Pacific Coast toward my new beginning, my nagging fear stole from me the gift of happy anticipation God had wanted me to enjoy.
The fear I experienced that November is a common one. In 1978 two psychologists at Georgia State University gave it a name: the “Impostor Phenomenon.” Those who suffer from this phenomenon believe that they don’t really deserve their successes; they’re phonies who have somehow “gotten away with it.” And because they dread being exposed as fakes, they fear any potential failure that might bring an imaginary house of cards tumbling down around them.1
At the root of the fear of failure is the fear of rejection by others, and of our own weaknesses. The wise king Solomon understood the danger of this psychological trap: “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe” (Prov. 29:25). A measuring stick for success that is anything other than the unchanging approval of God—who is for us—is bound to bring us up short.
The Apostle Paul’s perspective on failure would look absurd alongside the advice on the “self-help” shelf at your local bookstore. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul actually boasts about his weaknesses. No Impostor Phenomenon for him. He had no fear of failure because he had no fear of his potential to fail. He could accept his inevitable weaknesses because he understood that God’s grace had already covered them all. In fact, Paul’s weaknesses were the very channels through which the power of Christ could be manifested in his life.
TOWARD A NEW VIEW OF GOD
Paul could live at peace with himself and resist the fear of man only because he had a clear understanding of where he stood with God. He was so sure of God’s love for him and God’s willingness to work in his life, regardless of his imperfections, that he not only was liberated from his fear of man, but he could glory in his humanity. ” . . . I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses,” he said, “so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Most of us are in desperate need of Paul’s view of himself in relationship to God. Failure brings to the surface our deepest concepts of God, and too often we perceive Him as a critical parent, a punitive master, or a high and holy dictator, far removed in the heavens. But the Bible tells us that He is “a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Neh. 9:17). In order to be liberated from our fear of failure, we need to see it from God’s perspective.
God’s VIEW OF FAILURE
He expects it. Our failures may sometimes be surprising to others, even to ourselves; but they never are to God. Psalm 103:14 says, “for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”Hebrews 4:15 tells us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way . . ..” God views us realistically. He knows what to expect.
He forgives it. God does not deal with us according to our sins or reward us according to our failures (Ps. 103:10). Isaiah 30:18 says, “Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion . . ..” God follows His own rule to forgive “seventy times seven” (Mt. 18:22). In the same way that Christ forgave the Apostle Peter’s repeated failures, He will forgive ours.
He uses it. God’s grace not only covers our failures, it transforms them into distinctive points of power and ministry.2 The lessons we learn through failure have value to others as well as to ourselves.
The story of Jonah is a classic example of how God deals with our failures. When Jonah failed to obey God’s call on his life he found himself vomited on the beach after three miserable days and nights in the belly of a fish. Talk about feeling like a failure! Though God had spared his life, Jonah probably doubted he could ever be used by God again.
But “then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you'” (Jon. 3:1–2). In spite of his dismal failure the first time around, God still wanted to use Jonah. When he obeyed the second time, 120,000 lost people turned to the Lord. God not only used Jonah in spite of his failure, He used his failure to proclaim to future generations His great mercy in response to sin.
He sees past it. God is simply not disillusioned by our failures. He saw Jonah as a useful servant even after he’d rebelled. He honored Samson’s final prayer for strength in spite of the man’s utter disregard for God’s claim upon his life.
The great “faith hall of fame” in Hebrews 11 lists along with Samson some more of the most unlikely heroes of the faith. Moses failed before he even started his appointed ministry by killing a man and trying to cover it up. Noah abused alcohol in a most pitiful way. Rahab was a harlot. David was a murderer, an adulterer, and a schemer; yet God chose to bring His own Son through the lineage of Bathsheba and her son Solomon. Our failures have consequences, but our God is an expert at creating purpose out of chaos, beauty out of ashes.
He sees its value. God knows that apart from failure we would have little need for His forgiveness, His communion, or His help. He doesn’t like failure, but He knows it is the greatest teacher. He even allows Himself to look like a failure in order to teach us lessons that can be learned in no other way.
God allowed Himself to appear like a failure to me once. I had followed His clear leading into a job that seemed to promise deep purpose, great joy, and extensive ministry. Within a matter of weeks all I could see was destruction, deceit, and despair. I felt devastated and horribly disappointed with God. I had obeyed Him, sacrificed for Him, believed Him—and He had let me down.
For weeks I mourned my fate and hurled accusations at God. I waited impatiently for Him to “make good” on His part of the bargain. It wasn’t until the fight had gone out of me months later that I was quiet enough to hear Him ask, “Why do you love Me? For what I do or don’t do, or for who I am?” And finally, looking out at the calm blue sea, the inner storm ceased. God had brought me full circle in my commitment to Him—from a head knowledge of His character to a heart knowledge of His Person. And I was able to respond, as Oswald Chambers did, “My goal is God Himself, not joy, nor peace, nor even blessing, but Himself, my God.”
God wants to test our commitment and teach us how to depend on Him—even at the risk of looking like a failure. He did it on the shore of the Red Sea, leaving His people trapped between a hostile army and deep water until Moses’ faith in Him alone parted the wet barrier to freedom. He did it on Good Friday, the greatest “failure” of all, in order to make us dependent on His sacrifice alone for the propitiation of our sins. Then He gave us Easter.
Failure is a great teacher. God uses it as a divine instrument to refine us and revive our relationship with Himself.
Assuming we want to glean from our failures—to “fail forward”—where do we begin? How can we press on, live courageously, and win the prize God promises?
By being realistic and responsible. Many of us get caught in the trap of expecting even more of ourselves than God does. Because God sees us as we really are—beings with the potential to fail—we need not expect perfection from ourselves. The more realistic we are about the inevitability of our failures, the more responsible we will be about them when they occur. Failure in itself is not a villain. It becomes one only when we choose to ignore it or refuse to learn from it.
By faith. Faith is not a demonstration of fearlessness but of obedience. It is not a struggle to believe but an act of obedience to God’s proven love.
Numbers 13 and 14 tells of two men who knew how to live by such faith. Joshua and Caleb were two of the twelve men Moses sent to spy out the land of Canaan. When the spies returned from the mission, ten of them brought a bad report about a choice piece of property, Hebron: “‘The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size'” (Num. 13:32).
The ten spies’ fears were natural; the descendants of Anak were formidable opponents. But Joshua and Caleb had a “different spirit” (Num. 14:24), a spirit of faith in a God who had proven Himself time and again during the Israelites’ journey from Egypt. They challenged the people’s fear and believed in the Lord: “‘If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up . . .'” (Num. 14:8–9).
Joshua and Caleb had the faith to see the giant sons of Anak as prey while the rest of the people saw themselves as “grasshoppers” and the giants as overwhelming adversaries. God gave His faithless people over to their own fears and allowed only His servants Joshua and Caleb to enter the promised land.
Any time we encounter a “Hebron” in our own lives, there will be giants there. Yet we need not calculate their strength because God is with us. Too many of us would rather kick around in the wilderness than take on the giants in order to possess the land. God puts us outside the fortresses of Hebron to test our faith in Him who is able to make us giant-eaters.
By giving up the false security in failure. Pressing on in the face of potential failure takes guts. It’s often much easier to live with the only true failure—never trying—because staying where we are is familiar and non-threatening. But the hitch in that kind of logic is that stagnant living gives us only asense of security. In his research on the “survivor personality,” Al Siebert points out an interesting paradox: People who stretch themselves and risk failure in order to reach their potential survive better than people whose main concern is safety and security. Those whose fear of risk and loss prevents them from taking new actions are easily threatened. They fear loss and founder when dealing with the unknown.3
Risking potential failure can be scary. But living in the failure of fear is tragic.
By spiritual warfare. A friend of mine once said to a group of women, “If Satan can make you feel inadequate in any area, he has kept you from being productive, and certainly he has kept you from enjoying yourself and liking life and experiencing victory.” Satan is our accuser, and his favorite hiding place is on the battleground of our souls, where we choose between fearful and courageous living.
Ephesians 6 tells us that the only way to stand firm against the schemes of the Devil is to put on the full armor of God. Our greatest weapon against him is God’s Word, the “sword of the Spirit.”
When I meet the one who taunts me with the threat, “You’re bound to fail,” I try to remember the Word God has given me to battle him: “Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God” (2 Cor. 3:4–5).
When my Adversary does succeed in knocking me down I try to remember the battle isn’t over:
But as for me, I watch for the LORD,
I wait in hope for God my Savior;
my God will hear me.
Do not gloat over me, my enemy!
Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
the LORD will be my light.
By keeping the ultimate goal in mint and refusing false yardsticks of success. Romans 8:29 tells us the purpose, prize, and goal of our lives: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son . . ..” The “good” in verse 28 that all things work together for is the Christlikeness that comes from God’s transforming power in our lives. Our “success” as children of God is measured by how much we yield to His work in us throughout our days on earth.
God does not judge us according to the superficial standards of the world. He doesn’t really care how talented or admired we are, or how much we have in our bank accounts. He has set before us the ultimate prize of Christlikeness, and anything that moves us closer to that prize—including the lessons we learn through failure—brings Him pleasure and glory.
By living in today. Christlikeness is obviously not something to be attained overnight—or even fully in a lifetime. Hannah Whitall Smith points out: that failure need not discourage us because God calls us not to a state but to a walk. “Sanctification,” she writes, “is not a thing to be picked up at a certain stage of our experience, and forever possessed, but it is a life to be lived day by day, and hour by hour.”4
The Apostle Paul had this long-range perspective, and it helped him to milk each day, each experience, of all it could teach him about becoming like Christ. “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14). Hope in the future, Christ’s blood in the past, obedient life in the present. Paul knew the secret of courageous living.
THE BLESSING OF FAILURE
Have you ever thought of what life would be like without failure? What you would be like if you had never failed?
Failure refines and teaches us in ways that success cannot. It brings us to God for forgiveness, mercy, and new power to re-enter the battlefield. It sensitizes us to others and humbles us for the real call of God on our lives: servanthood. And it causes us to put all our confidence in Christ, the One who began the ultimate success in us and will perfect it until He comes again.
1. Joan C. Harvey with Cynthia Katz, If I’m So Successful, Why do I Feel Like a Fake? (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1985), pp. 4, 15.
2. Ted Roberts, Falling Forward (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1984), p. 36.
3. Al Siebert, “The Surviving Personality,” Northwest Magazine, January 27, 1980.
4. Hannah Whitall Smith, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (Waco, TX: Word, 1985), p. 82.