Emmanuel, a listener in London writes in: “Hello Pastor John. How should Christians handle failure? For example, failure at school or at work (not sinful failures, per se). So how does the Bible address this issue, or does it?”
It does. And it does in at least a couple of ways — I am sure more, but two that I thought of. And I am thinking of positive, hopeful ways that it addresses Emmanuel’s issue.
The first thing the Bible wants to say is that all of us have failed. None is without failure. If you think you haven’t failed, two things are true of you. One is that you are blind to your failures and the other is that you probably haven’t taken enough risks to try enough hard things so that you would be aware of your failures.
So this is the first thing the Bible says about that — about those failures — is that there isn’t any sinless failure. I know Emmanuel asked, What about failures that don’t involve sin? I am going to go there. I know what he is talking about. But the first thing I want to say is that there aren’t any.
Good News for Failures
Now that is devastating news and wonderful news, because the gospel exists for all failures. This is freeing because we don’t have to figure out whether we have sinned or not in a failure. We can just assume we did. I mean, isn’t it wonderful that David prayed in Psalm 19:12, Father, “declare me innocent from hidden faults.” In other words, David knew that he could confess his sins all day long and at the end of the day there would be some he didn’t know about.
“The gospel exists for all failures.”
And I want to say that the Bible calls us to love God with all our heart and none of us has ever done that perfectly. And therefore, every failure we have ever had of the simplest and most innocent kind has sin mixed in with it. The good news of the Bible is that is not destructive to us. We have the gospel. We have the forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus. That is the first thing.
The second thing is that, yes, there is a kind of innocent failure, things that are owing to our natural incapacities and opposition from outside. And the Bible has wonderful news about this, or I find great encouragement in this.
The way the Bible addresses this — at least the way that I have chosen to address it — is from 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 where Paul talks about his weaknesses. And I think we can all agree that if you fail at something, it is either owing to your own weakness— and I am not thinking about sin here now — it is either owing to your own weakness or to other people’s opposition. And both of those are addressed here. So here is what he says:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:7–9)
This thorn incapacitated him in some way to frustrate him. He wanted to do things, he couldn’t do them, and he was made weak. Look at 2 Corinthians 12:10: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses.” And then he adds: “Insults, hardships.” And he knows there are certain things that he has failed at or cannot do, not just because he has got an internal foreign weakness, but there are external hardships and insults and persecutions and calamities. And then he says — summing it all up with the word weak — “when I am weak, then I am strong.”
God’s Goals, Christ’s Care
So here are a few things to notice. Even though Satan may be involved, he is not in control here. This thorn is to keep Paul from being conceited. That is not Satan’s goal. That is God’s goal. We know God is in control here, using this thorn.
And the second thing to notice is that Christ cares. What he cares about in life is not mainly our achievements for Christ, but our dependence on Christ: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Christ’s aim here is not that we overcome all our weaknesses and never fail. His aim is that we trust him for his grace in our weaknesses which implies, in our inability to do what we would love to do. We might wish we could make an A or we might wish we could earn more money or we might wish we could run faster or that we were prettier or taller or something, but he wants us to not be devastated by our weaknesses, but rather display the peace-giving sufficiency of Christ.
Content in Weakness
And then notice he wants us to be content with our limitations. For the sake of Christ, then, Paul says, I am content with weaknesses.
And I would like to go further and say that we can pray — and I have done this, and I think I might have said this on a previous podcast, but it is worth saying again — we can pray that our failures not only leave us content in Christ, but that Christ uses them to wonderfully advance his cause and produce successes that we couldn’t have had if we had been more successful by overcoming our weaknesses.
Here is the example I used. I read slowly and my memory is not that great, so I left academia. I quit teaching college in part because I knew I could never be a great scholar. I read too slowly. I remember too little. And I often was sad about that and self-pitying about that, which was sin. And I should have listened to this text more quickly. Now what I realize is, Okay, I fail at reading fast. I fail at remembering a lot. So what should I do? I should ask God: “Maximize who I am in this weakness for your glory.”
And I discovered that I could take a small part of the Bible and I could analyze it enough so that I could dig riches out of it that I could then proclaim. And people have gotten help from my limited ability, because I have made myself look at small chunks of literature instead of big chunks of literature like whole books that I haven’t had time to read.
So my point is, when it comes to failure, the Bible has two words. Number one, the gospel covers the sins mixed in with all our failures. And number two, if we trust him, his sovereign grace will be sufficient and he will even turn the failures into gospel successes.