Failure Is Painful
All the biblical examples of failure reveal the painful disappointment that follows in its path: disappointment with self, disappointment with others, and even disappointment with God. But there are three biblical failures that are especially agonizing. First, there is the stinging disappointment of Moses in not getting into the Promised Land when he hit a rock instead of following God’s instructions to talk to it (Num. 20:10–13). Imagine all the work, all the stress, all those forty years of wandering through the wilderness, all the complaints and grumblings of Israel, and then, for one loss of temper, being stopped on the border of your ultimate destination. Moses pleaded with the Lord to ease his disappointment and let him enter the land. But God refused and instead gave him the consolation of seeing it from a distance (Deut. 3:23–27). Imagine Moses’ disappointment.
The second particularly agonizing biblical failure is King David, who failed morally by committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband, Uriah (2 Sam. 11). As Psalms 32 and 51 reveal, David’s painful disappointment in himself was not only mental, spiritual, and emotional, but also physical. Even after he was forgiven, the consequences of his failures throbbed throughout the rest of his life in the disintegration of his family and the temporary loss of his throne. Such great convulsions followed his failures.
The third failure is Peter, who failed by denying Christ three times. Here was a man whom Jesus warned again and again about his overconfidence, whom Jesus warned that he would deny Him three times, and who still went on to do so. Then the rooster crowed, Christ’s eyes met with Peter’s, “and he went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:62). Imagine how much pain must have filled the next couple of days as Peter reflected on this triple failure. How many times Peter, Moses, and David must have wished that they had never failed. YouTube failures may make us laugh; the failures of biblical heroes make us cry.
Failure Should Be Shared
One of the problems with the constant success narratives that we are fed today is the message that success is for everyone and everyone will be a success. The result is that no one is prepared when success never visits and when failure knocks at their door repeatedly. Conscious of this imbalance, Johannes Haushofer of Princeton University published a résumé listing his career failures on Twitter. He did this “in an attempt to balance the record and encourage others to keep trying in the face of disappointment.” “Most of what I try fails,” he said, “but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me.”
The Bible publishes résumés of failure for just about all the characters in it. Some of them even publish their own. The psalmists, for example, not only confess their failures but sing about them—not to celebrate them, of course, but to grieve over them and to seek God’s help with them. They are brutally honest about their lives and about how so much of life just doesn’t work out well. In Psalms 73 and 78, for example, Asaph confesses how he fails while the wicked succeed, resulting in a failure in his faith. He puts it all on the table and says, in effect, “I’m not handling this well.” God then steps in to remind him of His promises and purposes, and Asaph begins to recover his spiritual poise and equilibrium. How thankful we should be for these songs of failure that we can identify with, reminding us that we are not alone, helping us to accept that the abnormal is normal, and guiding us to bring our failures before God as well as share them with others.
Job is another example of a shared failure. He was a blameless man (Job 1:1). Yet when extreme suffering came, he ended up blaming God at points. Yes, he stood firm initially (vv. 20–22), and yes, there were moments of supreme spiritual success in the face of supreme spiritual testing (19:23-–27; 23:8–10). But that’s not the whole story, and not even the majority of the story. His book also includes many instances when his response was far from perfect, as he expressed disappointment with his friends and even with God and His providence. Again, we are encouraged by the honest recording of Job’s downs as well as his ups (though preachers and writers often ignore the former).
The sharing of these men’s narratives of failure encourages us to be honest and open about our own lives. Let’s abandon the success narratives the world tells us to write and follow the biblical example of gritty authenticity by sharing with fellow believers the downs as well as the ups in our lives. How different this would be from so many Facebook profiles.