I failed as a collegiate athlete. For some years now, I’ve looked back with regret on wasted potential and childhood dreams that were so close to coming true but never did. Why didn’t I work harder? What if I had known what I do today? Why didn’t God allow me to utilize the gifts he gave me? It still bothers me from time to time.
Even if you’ve never spent time on a football field, you may relate. Your passions outpaced your progress; your gifting never realized its full potential. But as you grimace considering the success that never came, has it ever crossed your mind to actually thank God for your failure?
Thank God for Failure?
It hadn’t crossed my mind until recently. Lost in a daydream of what could have been, words from Spurgeon sent arrows deep into my fantasy:
There are very few men who can bear success — none can do so unless great grace is given to them! And if, after a little success, you begin to say, “There now, I am somebody. Did I not do that well? These poor old fogies do not know how to do it — I will teach them” — you will have to go into the back rank, brother, you are not yet able to endure success! It is clear that you cannot stand praise.
Without a moment’s hesitation, that success I pined after so long had soured in my mouth. Like Dr. Frankenstein, who obsessed for months over his creation only to shrink in horror the moment the monster animated, I saw my idol with sobriety. The “success” I longed to embrace — for me — was as much the celebrity I longed to embrace. I had a healthy love for the sport, but I had an unhealthy love for my own name, which meant that my budding faith in Christ may not have survived weeds of worldly acclaim without consequence. I’m doubtful that I could have endured the mere seeds of the second temptation Jesus overcame in the wilderness:
The devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory. . . . If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” (Luke 4:5–7)
I thanked God for sparing me from my dreams of greatness. In my mediocrity, he protected me. In allowing me to fail, he fathered me. In keeping me from success, he kept me for himself.
Children of Babel
Now, some mature souls indeed can bear what Calvin called “the fiery trial of popularity.” And while some can endure it without injury, it seems true enough that there are very few men who can bear success. The fulfillment of our earthly dreams, the praise we still secretly hope for, the recognition we’ve come to trust might make us into somebody, could, if we actually received it, arouse a nightmare. Success hides its price, and some of us live chasing the flame.
Many since Babel have been trying to “make a name for [themselves]” (Genesis 11:4). They harbor selfish ambition and live for what Paul termed “empty glory” (Philippians 2:3, my translation). This is dangerous because Jesus himself asked, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
Man cannot serve two glories. Some, John tells us, even believed in Jesus’s miracles but did not confess him, because “they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:42–43). They chose to sit comfortably in the synagogue rather than walk with God incarnate. To the hypocrites who advertised their fasting with disfigured faces, sounded trumpets when they gave, and prayed long prayers on street corners in order to be seen by others, Jesus said, “I do not receive glory from men” (John 5:41 NASB).
Now, this is not to confuse carnal success with spiritual fruitfulness. We pray to influence souls, fight sin, proclaim Christ, and live for God’s glory in our families, callings, and careers. He has promised those things. Rather, we renounce the visibility of success — the longing to not only achieve great things by God’s strength, but to ensure that everyone else knows we’ve achieved great things. The obsession to have our faults forgotten and our triumphs published. The temptation to pray blasphemously in our hearts, “I wish them all to be where I am to see my glory.”
You Cannot Bear Success Alone
God must fortify us against the sharp edges of success.
Paul teaches that he needed to be strengthened by Christ to endure the bad and the good. We need God to walk us through the valleys and guide us safely on the mountaintops. “I know how to be brought low,” he said, “and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13).
All things includes the good. The apostle needed Christ to stay content in Christ when life went horribly wrong, and when it went surprisingly well. Verse 13, as the Christian athlete’s favorite verse, speaks not as much to Christ strengthening him to hoist the trophy up in victory, but more to Christ strengthening him not to bring that trophy and applause down into his heart and make them his christ. We need divine strength to trudge through the wilderness, and also to eat our fill in Jerusalem. If we have not learned this, then our abounding — and the praise that comes with it — becomes unsafe.
Fed to Worms
Consider the contrast between Peter, Paul, and Barnabas — men who learned this secret — and Herod, who did not.
When Cornelius bent low to worship a mere human, Peter grabbed him, lifted him up immediately, and said, “Stand up; I too am a man” (Acts 10:24–26). When Paul and Barnabas healed a paralytic man in Lystra in Acts 14, the people proclaimed, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11). Once Paul and Barnabas heard this and discovered that they planned to offer sacrifices to them, the two men
tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” (Acts 14:14–15)
These esteemed men of God shunned Satan’s original temptation: to be like God — if only in the eyes of men.
Herod did otherwise.
On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. (Acts 12:21–23)
Three could bear to be used of God and not seek to rob him of glory. The other died of worms.
Not to Us
In college, I had not yet learned how to abound. The success I longed for endangered my soul.
I was not like William Wilberforce, who, upon the passing of his bill to abolish the British slave trade — which he spent his life on — marked the momentous victory by meditating on a single verse.
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! (Psalm 115:1)
He was branded with this verse. God seared it onto his labor and calling. And in time, he knew how to abound. This verse is the banner over the man or woman who has learned Paul’s secret: “Not to me, O God, not to me, but to your name give glory!” And should we fail to get noticed while living for God’s glory, we count it joy that God sees us and spares us from the dangers of praise.
Lord, Spare Me Infectious Success
Consider afresh what we have in Christ. We are sons and daughters of God. What else do we need? Let that free you. Christ is yours. Heaven is yours. Eternal glory will soon be yours.
Rejoice not that you have done great things, and do not lose sleep that no trophies collect dust on your banister. Rather, rejoice that your name is written in heaven. Let us be content decreasing in this world that he might increase, content ourselves walking the path of the nameless donkey that carried the Son into Jerusalem. We are freed to be no-ones on earth because we are known in heaven.
May God make us bold enough to pray,
Lord, spare me from the success that would threaten to undo me. Not all victories are good victories; not all triumphs will lead me home. Keep me from those achievements that would puff me up, those accomplishments that would tempt me to forget you.
You’ve taught me to pray, “Lead me not into temptation” — how slow I’ve been to realize the wisdom in all that might mean. But now, seeing my goals and hopes in proper scope, I ask you to do what is best, even if that means the death of my dreams. Not to me, O God, not to me, but to your name give glory, that your steadfast love and faithfulness might be put on display.