SOURCE: Discipleship Journal/Stephen W. Sorenson
Four steps to help you move forward after you fail
I clearly remember the joy I felt as a gangly 11-year-old when the school coach put me in my first basketball game. It was the moment I’d hoped for—the opportunity to show what I could do. I received a pass, dribbled toward the opponent’s basket, and prepared to shoot. Suddenly, my knee knocked the ball out of bounds. People groaned. The coach pulled me out of the game. My hopes dashed like shards of glass. I’m a failure, I thought, eyes brimming with tears. I let my team down. I’ll never be good at basketball, so why try? Why be laughed at?
I wish I could say that I became a better basketball player after I finished growing several inches a year and my six-foot-four-inch frame gained coordination. But after that incident, my passion for basketball waned. I was unwilling to risk failing again.
Dictionaries reveal that failure is “falling short of success of achievement in something expected, attempted, desired, or approved.” So chances are you’ve also experienced failure (or at least feelings of failure).
Maybe you failed at teaching Sunday school or running a business.
Maybe you failed by breaking a commitment to God or by not sharing Jesus with someone when God gave you the ideal opportunity.
Maybe you yelled at your children, lingered over lustful thoughts, or gossiped even after you were convicted to stop.
Or maybe your failure was caused by other people or by circumstances beyond your control: The invention of the desktop computer sent countless typewriter and typesetting businesses down the tubes, through no fault of their own. Whatever your “brand” of failure, you are not alone.
The moment we are born, we are guaranteed to fail. The Bible says that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro. 3:23). We are born sinful into a sinful world.
Failure is common to all humankind.
Because we can’t insulate ourselves from failure, what matters most is not how we fail but how werespond to failure. Some of us, when we fail, become angry at God. Others blame coworkers, parents, the neighbor, or the pastor. We may give up, like I did with basketball. We may give in to self-pity.
Or we may learn from our failures. My own encounters with failure have taught me four keys to recovering from failure and moving forward. Let’s look at the importance of each.
When we’ve failed—especially when we’ve failed because of our foolishness or rebellion—the last thing we may want to do is turn to God. Yet He loves each of us deeply with a love that is not dependent on our success. He invites us to cast all our anxiety—including the anxiety of failure—on Him because He cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). He can handle our failures. He is our rock, our fortress, and our deliverer (Ps. 18:2).
Our failures do not take God by surprise. He knows us through and through. He has made provision for us when we fail. Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again so that we—people who fail—can have a personal, intimate, eternal relationship with God and receive complete forgiveness for our sins. Rather than wallowing in the fact that we fail, we can receive the grace God provided through the cross, confess our sins to Him (1 Jn. 1:9), and be renewed. He delights in strengthening us when we admit our weaknesses, request His help, and give Him the glory He deserves.
Besides loving us in spite of our failures—and making full provision for our renewal and restoration—God also promises us the gift of wisdom (Jas. 1:5–8), if we ask in faith, so we can gain His perspective when we fail. Because He is in sovereign control of all things, including our failure, He may even use it to work out His divine plans. Rahab, the prostitute who helped the Hebrew spies in Jericho, turned from her moral failure to the Living God and ended up in the lineage of Jesus.
At a time when I felt like a complete failure, I resisted seeking God. I was angry at Him. But eventually I felt compelled to verbalize that anger in prayer. Why, I raged, did You create me like this, with gifts I don’t seem able to use? God responded by leading me to Ro. 9:20–21:
But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
I knew that God was speaking to me at that moment, and I repented of my anger toward Him. I began praying honestly about how I felt. Over time, I watched Him guide me to new opportunities to use my gifts. He has faithfully provided for me and my family, taught me more about His character, and turned my failure into a valuable learning experience. He has also enabled me to share my failures more easily with other people, which has led to deeper friendships. There’s no need to run from God when you’ve failed. Seek Him—and watch Him respond with love, renewal, and the gift of His wisdom.
Pursuing Right Relationships
Failure rarely occurs in a vacuum. Often our failure adversely affects other people.
When David arranged for Bathsheba’s husband to be killed, for example, other godly Israelite soldiers were also killed (2 Sam. 11:16–21). After Aaron agreed to make the golden calf, God sent a plague that killed many people (Ex. 32:35). On a more daily, intimate level, my failure to buy construction materials may mean that my wife, Amanda, can’t complete the wiring of our house. My failure to go on a promised outing with my 13-year-old daughter, Caitlin, may cause her to feel that my work is more important to me than she is. When we fail and other people feel the impact, we may need to take specific steps to heal those relationships.
Seek forgiveness when appropriate. The Bible clearly admonishes us to seek forgiveness. Jesus said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23–24). Even a simple, trivial misunderstanding that could be easily swept aside needs to be resolved right away.
Last week my daughter, joy dancing in her eyes, asked me if I could locate a tent because she wanted to camp on our land with a girlfriend. Pressured by an onslaught of tasks and just plain tired, I responded with irritation. I made Caitlin feel guilty for bothering me. Even though I did get the tent for her, I destroyed much of her joy, erected a barrier between us, and ended up feeling even worse. Later, I asked for her forgiveness—an act that drew us close again.
Make restitution when appropriate. In some instances, more is required than asking forgiveness and repenting. “If a man grazes his livestock in a field or vineyard and lets them stray and they graze in another man’s field,” we read in Ex. 22:5, “he must make restitution from the best of his own field or vineyard.” It wasn’t enough just to say, “Sorry.”
Remember Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who had made a fortune, some of it unscrupulously? Convicted of his sin in the presence of Jesus’ holiness, Zacchaeus stood up and declared, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Lk. 19:8). Clearly he recognized the importance of making restitution.
Most of us probably learn our first lessons about restitution, as I did, when we are children. I shot out a neighbor’s window with a slingshot—and soon learned it was up to me to replace that window!
A godly friend of mine learned about restitution in a different way. He received an unannounced visit from a son he did not know he had. Before becoming a Christian, my friend had led a wild life. A girlfriend had become pregnant but never told him. To his credit—and certainly that of his wife—he and his wife received the surprise son into their home, influenced him for Christ, paid for schooling, and sent us a birth announcement—more than 20 years after the fact.
Larry (name changed) had to learn about restitution through no fault of his own. Based on a business agreement, he developed a new product and used the services of various suppliers. But before the product was introduced, the organization broke its agreement with him, which left him owing several hundred thousand dollars to suppliers. Could he have declared bankruptcy? Yes. Instead, he and his wife are sacrificially repaying all the borrowed money.
If your failure has impacted other people, prayerfully ask God what you should do to make things right. Discover what the Bible says about your situation—and the attitude you should have toward people you have wronged. Ask a godly friend for advice. Then, in God’s strength and wisdom, pursue that direction.
Seeking Wise Counsel
Whether you have failed in a public way or in your thought life, in a way that has led to great consequences or had virtually no consequences, you can benefit from the wisdom of godly people as you process and recover from your failure.
Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, underscored repeatedly the importance of seeking wise counsel. “The way of a fool seems right to him,” he taught, “but a wise man listens to advice” (Prov. 12:15). “Wisdom is found in those who take advice. . . . The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, turning a man from the snares of death. . . . He who walks with the wise grows wise” (Prov. 13:10, 14,20). Solomon also understood the healing value of wise words: “The tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18).
We rob ourselves of healing and wisdom when we fail to seek counsel from godly men and women.
When career setbacks left me feeling like a failure, I learned the value of seeking counsel. My first reaction to failure was to blame others. Then I became irritable with my wife and daughter. Soon I found it harder and harder to get motivated to try new business approaches.
I became trapped in a negative, depressive spiral in which additional failure was virtually guaranteed.
In the midst of my mental fog, I called a friend for help. During a three-hour walk, he listened to me, challenged me, and encouraged me. He helped me face my anger and acknowledge my need for God. He gave me simple steps to take to break out of my failure mentality—and held me accountable for taking them. His help was pivotal in getting me jump-started again.
Who can you turn to for perspective and encouragement after a failure?
The Pause That Reflects
The fourth key to moving on after failure is taking the time to pause and reflect. Having sought God, restored injured relationships, and received wise counsel, we now need to process what we’ve learned. We need to assess ourselves and perhaps make personal changes.
A few years ago, my wife, Amanda, pointed out a longstanding root of anger that was damaging our relationship. Me? I thought, brushing her comments aside. Gradually, however, I began to recognize that I was falling short of being the husband God had called me to be.
When I realized my failure, did I immediately confess it and repent? No. I became angry because I couldn’t seem to deal constructively with my anger! I put up more emotional walls and became even more critical of Amanda. It seemed easier to shore up sinful, habitual patterns than to try to change them.
Finally, forced to admit to myself that I couldn’t get a handle on my anger, I began talking about my struggle with a wise friend. Over time, he has helped me discern the underlying reasons for my anger. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to face deep hurts and forgive more than I’d have ever imagined. But my friend still gives me the wonderful freedom to process my angry reactions through him and to gently grow even closer to God. My marriage is stronger now, I’ve learned much more about God’s character, and I’m finding it easier to sincerely say, “I’m sorry.”
Have you ever painted over a spot that was greasy or still had loose paint on it? The new paint doesn’t stick well. Likewise, simply glossing over failure makes us miss the lessons it can teach and virtually ensures that the failure will be repeated. My parents posted this saying when I was growing up: “Don’t make the same mistake twice; make a new one.” Another adage is also true: If we don’t pay attention to our history, we will be doomed to repeat it.
You may find, as I have, that the best way to process failure is with another person. Perhaps your style is to use books or teaching tapes to guide your reflection. In whatever way works best for you, take the time to pause and reflect. Ask yourself questions like these:
• Why, according to people who know me well, did this failure occur?
• What did I do in the past that may have led to this failure?
• Is sin creating negative consequences in my life? If so, what are they? Am I willing to confess my sins to God and turn away from them?
• Am I spending time with the wrong types of people?
• Am I loving other people well?
• If I failed because of the actions of another person, how will I respond to that person?
• Am I making wise decisions?
• Am I overlooking key details and in need of wise counsel?
• Am I using my God-given gifts and abilities well?
• Is my career making the most of my strengths, or does it tax me heavily in my areas of weakness?
• Am I regularly reading the Bible and praying—seeking to draw closer to God and receive His forgiveness, wisdom, love, and instruction?
• Do I really believe that God is who He says He is and that I can rely on Him to help me?
• Am I depending too much on other people and not enough on God?
• What can I learn from this failure that will help me in the future?
• What two things have I learned through this experience that I could use to help someone else in the future?
I still fail, of course, but I’ve come a long way in choosing more effectively how to respond to failure. I’m more willing to risk trying new things. I’m asking more questions after I fail and wrestling with issues that need to be resolved. I am discovering more about myself, others, and God. And I’m constantly reminded that it’s what I do after I fail that really matters.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll put up a basketball hoop this weekend.