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If we organized a conference on “Failure and Disappointment,” do you think anyone would come? If you wrote a book on that subject, do you think anyone would buy it? Failure and disappointment are not popular topics. They don’t sell tickets or books. They don’t generate clicks, as Internet marketers assure us. We don’t want to think about our own failures and disappointments, never mind hear about those of others. We live in a “success culture” that idolizes victory and fulfillment. But it’s all so unreal.
When we turn to the Bible, we’re given a deep dose of reality. Failure and disappointment are on just about every page. Whether we like it or not, that’s much truer to life than the success narratives that we aspire to and are trying to write for ourselves. By all means, aim high, but recognize that no one escapes failure and disappointment. So, we might as well plan on it and prepare for it with a view to profiting from it.
“Profiting from failure and disappointment? Are you serious?” Yes, like many of God’s people, I’ve found seasons of failure and disappointment to be some of the most spiritually productive times of my life.
Before we turn to the Bible to help us plan on, prepare for, and profit from failure and disappointment, we first need some definitions. Failure is a lack of success in doing something. It’s coming short of a performance standard that we have set for ourselves or that others have set for us. It may be something that we are accountable for and blamed for (e.g., we fail an exam because we did not study enough), or someone else may be to blame (e.g., our marriage may fail because our wife or husband committed adultery). And sometimes we can have a sense of failure when we have not actually failed (e.g., we lose our job because of a merger or reorganization). Disappointment is the sense of sadness and frustration that results from failure, either from our own failure, the failure of others, or both. So, with these definitions in hand, what does the Bible teach us about failure and disappointment?
Failure Is Inevitable
If our schools really wanted to prepare our children for life, they would offer classes in failure and disappointment. Our kids may never need to know algebra or chemistry in their adult lives, but they will definitely need to know how to handle failure and disappointment. No matter where we open our Bibles, we find failure and disappointment: Adam and Eve (Gen. 3), Cain and Abel (Gen. 4), Noah and his sons (Gen. 9), Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 16), Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19), Jacob and Esau (Gen. 27), Joseph and his brothers (Gen. 37), Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10), Aaron and Miriam (Num. 12), Israel and Canaan (Num. 14), Moses and the rock (Num. 20), Samson and Delilah (Judg. 16), Samuel and his sons (1 Sam. 8), David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11), Solomon and his harem (1 Kings 11). And on and on it goes, right into the New Testament, where we find disciple after disciple and church after church marked by failure and disappointment. The Bible’s uniform message is that failure and disappointment are an inevitable part of the human experience. Imagine a graduation or commencement address that reflected this biblical emphasis. How much better it would prepare our children for life, especially in the area of managing their expectations.
Failure Is Varied
As we survey the biblical record, we are struck by the variety and diversity of failure. If it doesn’t get us one way, it will get us another. Spiritual and moral failures are the most common, with multiple examples of failure to obey God’s ten straightforward commands. For example, Israel failed to worship God alone (Isa. 2:8); Aaron failed by making a carved image to worship (Ex. 32:4); Uzzah failed to reverence God (2 Sam. 6:7); Israel failed to keep the Sabbath holy (Ex. 16:27–30); Eli failed to discipline his sons and his sons failed to honor their father (1 Sam. 2:22–25); David failed to respect the sanctity of life and of marriage (2 Sam. 11:1–21); Achan failed by stealing gold (Josh. 7:1); Ananias and Sapphira failed by lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3); and Demas failed by coveting this world’s riches (2 Tim. 4:10). Ten Commandments, ten failures.
Family failures are demonstrated in Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Hagar (Gen. 16; 21) and in Jacob and Esau’s jealous rivalry (Gen. 25:29–34). Friendship failures are seen in the deceitful greeting and kiss of Jesus’ betrayer (Matt. 26:49) and in the fallout between the Apostle Paul and Barnabas over Mark’s usefulness (Acts 15:36–41). Leadership failures are evident in every king of Israel and Judah (e.g., 2 Chron. 12:14; 22:9–10). Ecclesiastical failures are found in almost every New Testament church, as evidenced in the disappointed tone found in many of Paul’s letters to them (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:11–13; Gal. 1:6) and in five of Christ’s letters to the seven churches (Rev. 2–3). Financial failures play out in the lives of Gehazi (2 Kings 5:22–27), the one-talent man (Matt. 25:24–30), and the ambitious barn-builder (Luke 12:16–21). National and political failures are especially vivid in Israel’s history of repeated rebellion against God. The Bible even supplies us with a social failure in the underdressed wedding guest (Matt. 22:11–13). Failure wears so many different outfits.
Failure Can Follow Great Success
One of the lessons these varied experiences of failure and disappointment teach us is that we are most vulnerable when we are most successful. Success breeds confidence, which often mutates into overconfidence, which usually presages disaster (Prov. 16:18). See Samson, David, and Solomon for painful proofs of this in the Old Testament. The New Testament highlights Peter as an example of this (Matt. 26:33–35, 69–75). He was in Jesus’ inner circle, he was speaking great things about God, he was being greatly used by the Lord, and he was hyper-confident in his ability to be strong in the face of testing. But he failed three times, twice denying that he knew Christ before a teenage female servant and once before strangers. The Bible’s narrative about the danger of hubris has proven true throughout history, and even up to the present day, as powerful and successful men are being brought down daily by the weak and helpless victims they previously oppressed and exploited.
Failure Can Be Repeated
There are many trite and facile sayings about failure, including “Failure is the best teacher” and “Learn to fail forward.” Thankfully, as we’ll see later, many people do learn from their failures and many individuals do make forward progress after failing. But it’s not inevitable. As the Bible warns us, failure can be repeated. For example, Abraham failed to trust God to look after Sarah when he went down to Egypt. He ended up telling lies about his relationship with her to a heathen king who eventually found out and rebuked him for it (Gen. 12:10–20). But it didn’t stop him from doing almost exactly the same thing again (Gen. 20). You’d have thought that Jacob would have learned a painful lesson about favoritism when he looked back on his own family’s bitter experience. And yet, he did the same thing by showing excessive favor to his son Joseph (37:3–4). Even the disciples of Jesus, though they had the benefit of His constant and caring rebukes, repeatedly failed to grasp who Christ was and what He came to do (Matt. 16:21–23; Luke 18:34; 24:25–27). Sometimes failure can be doubled by going from one extreme to another as the Corinthian church did. First they failed to discipline an unrepentant brother (1 Cor. 5), and then they failed to welcome him back upon his repentance (2 Cor. 2:5–11). Failure is not a perfect teacher, partly because we are not perfect students.
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.
Failure Prevents Worse Failure
One thing I’ve noticed in my own life as I look back is that my failures have prevented worse failures, not only by teaching me through them, but also by teaching others. We see that also in the Bible. If the New Testament churches had not failed so badly in so many areas, we wouldn’t have letters to them in our Bibles that we can learn from and take steps to avoid or redress similar failures. How many churches have been prevented from falling into charismatic chaos by the letters to the failing Corinthians? How many churches have been kept from compromising on the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the letter to the failing Galatians? How many churches have been rescued from end-time mania by Paul’s letters to the failing Thessalonians? How many churches have returned to their first love through Christ’s letter in Revelation to the failing Ephesians? How many Christians have been kept from overconfidence by the failures of Peter?
We can look around us today and hear the sirens blaring from the wreckage of churches and pastors who failed to stand fast for doctrinal and moral purity. We don’t even need to look beyond our own lives for warning beacons. My health failed several years ago as a result of overwork and stress. I ended up in the hospital twice with life-threatening illnesses. However, looking back, I can see that God may have used my health failures to prevent a possible spiritual failure. In that sense, failure can be a precious gift. God works even our failures together for our good (Rom. 8:28).
Failure Can Be Forgiven
In many ways, the question is not when, where, and how we will fail. The biggest question is what we will do with our failures. As we’ve seen, many failures are not just lessons to be learned but sins to be confessed. We must not only bring them before our minds and be educated by them; we must bring them before God to be forgiven for them. That’s difficult, but also delivering. Confession frees us from guilt and shame and assures us of pardon and acceptance (Prov. 28:13). Instead of denying, minimizing, covering, or avoiding our failures, we bring them to the light of day and the light of God, and we honestly talk about them before Him with admission of any culpability and with prayer for His mercy. No matter how badly, how frequently, or how foolishly we’ve failed, if we confess our failures before God, we will find mercy (1 John 1:9). You can bring Him failures from every area of your life and He will make you white as snow. If I may suggest a change to a much-loved Christmas carol, the gospel song is “O Come, All Ye Failures.”
Not only that, but Christ also gives us His perfection. That’s right; He doesn’t just take away our negatives and leave us in a neutral position. He gives us His righteousness and leaves us in a positive position (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ’s perfection is credited to us and regarded as ours (Rom. 3:21–26). No matter what has happened in our past or what will happen in our future, when God looks at us as Judge, He sees not failure but success, not imperfection but perfection, not unrighteousness but righteousness, not reason for condemnation but reason for celebration (8:1). By faith in Christ, our failures are exchanged for His achievements.
Failure Does Not Define Us
The result of this is not that we never fail again. No, the result is that failure no longer defines us. Our God and Savior does not define His people by their failures but by their faith. Look at all the failures of the Old Testament saints, and yet look at how God defines them in Hebrews 11. It’s not the hall of failures but the hall of faith. He doesn’t recall their stumbles but celebrates their successes through their faith in Christ alone. Failure is still part of our identity, but it’s no longer the major part. It’s still part of our lives but it’s not definitive, it’s not the last word, and it’s certainly not the first word. Failure is not what God sees first when He looks at His people, and it shouldn’t be what we see first when we look at ourselves or other Christians either. We are righteous in Christ. That’s our primary identity. That’s what God sees first, and that’s what we should see first, too.
Failure Brings Heaven Closer
No matter how much we confess our failures, are forgiven for our failures, and exchange our failures for Christ’s righteousness, as long as we are in this world we are going to fail. Again and again and again. This keeps us humble, keeps us dependent, and keeps us looking to Christ. But, above all, it keeps us looking toward heaven, the place where failures will never be known again. Will we remember our failures there? Yes, but not with any pain, only as covered by Christ’s pardon, and only to turn up the volume of our praise:
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (Rev. 1:5–6)
We will also see our failures from a whole new perspective, not just our moral and spiritual failures but also our relational and vocational disappointments. We will see God’s wise providence in allowing that relationship breakup, that interview disaster, that lost job, that failed exam. When God reframes our failures by putting the golden frame of His wise sovereignty all around them, they are transformed from ugly abstract randomness to beautifully crafted designs.
Will we experience any failures there? No, never. We will not fail, and neither will anyone else. The tears of disappointment will be part of the deluge wiped out of our eyes (Rev. 21:4). Heaven will be one great and long success story: moral success, spiritual success, intellectual success, physical success, relational success, vocational success, ecclesiastical success.
So, yes, our present failures should drive us to Christ, but they should also make us long for heaven, to hasten the day when the pain of failure and the torture of disappointment will be gone forever.