Dealing with failure

Richard Osman is a television presenter and producer. He helped invent and produce programmes such as “Deal or No Deal” and “8 Out Of 10 Cats”. Now he appears every weekday with Alexander Armstrong presenting Pointless on BBC1 and he has his own daily quiz show Richard Osman’s House of Games on BBC2. His first novel The Thursday Murder Club has sold more than a million copies and the sequel is selling even faster. Recently on his episode of Desert Island Discs Richard Osman said this. “Almost everything you ever do is going to fail.”
This evening we are going to think about dealing with failure. We are not talking tonight about moral failures. We’ve already discussed how we can deal with guilt. We said then that the answer to our moral failures, our sins, is God’s forgiveness which we can receive through repentance. Tonight we are looking at a different issue. We live in a world which is obsessed with success, so people face a different challenge. How do we cope with “failing to succeed”? What we can do when we have tried to do something but we have failed to achieve it. How can we cope when we have failed? And what could we say to somebody else who is struggling with failure?
We all have experiences of failure. We lose a sports match or play badly in a concert. Very few people get top marks in every exam. We fail to get the new job or the promotion we had set our heart on. We are involved in a car accident which was our fault. A relationship breaks down and we are to blame.
Often when we fail at something it won’t matter much. We will feel disappointed but we will find it easy just to move on. Sometimes the “failures” we are struggling with are not even genuine, but rather instead only perceived as failure in the eyes of other people or even in our own eyes. Sometimes we can be burdened because we are overreacting to our failure. Sometimes our response to failure can be unwarranted or exaggerated, as we saw with guilt and anxiety. If our response to a particular failure is excessive or unrealistic we need to recognise that we are over-reacting. If we are helping a friend, we need to help them to come to that realisation.
On the other hand, sometimes our failures can have far-reaching and even life-changing consequences. Experiences of failure can leave people discouraged and depressed and with low self-esteem. When they have failed at something, some people become too scared to attempt to do things in future. We will talk about these issues shortly. But we need to begin by making a few very important statements.
1 – Failure is always a part of everybody’s life
This modern materialistic world’s obsession with success has only been fuelled by the rise in social media, Facebook and blogs and Instagram and Tiktok. Far too many people have totally unrealistic expectations about what their lives will be like and how successful they are going to be. We need to start by recognising that there is a measure of truth in Richard Osman’s words. “Almost everything you ever do is going to fail.” We all need to learn how to cope with failure, because all of us are inevitably going to fail for some of the time in some of the things we attempt. Apart from anything else, nobody is brilliant at everything. Sometimes we all need to have a try at things we are not good at. Problems can often arise when people have unrealistic expectations of how successful they will be. Those pressures can come from other people. Parents can sometimes put pressures on their children, not only in terms of academic or sporting or musical achievements but also in terms of expected behaviour. Teenagers and students can put pressure on their peers. But we can also put pressure on ourselves if we demand of ourselves more than we are capable of achieving. We need to learn an honest assessment of our capabilities. We may end up “failing” because the standards set by other people or even by ourselves are unreasonably or unrealistically high. May the Lord deliver us from ever asking more of ourselves than we are capable of achieving. It is vital to be open, honest and realistic about the goals we set ourselves, or that we allow others to set for us, and which we impose on others. There is no shame in failing to reach a goal which was beyond our skill or competence in the first place, or when the effort and energy necessary for success were unreasonably high. That is not a failure. To quote from that great theologian Clint Eastwood as Harry Callahan in the film Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
From time to time, we also all need to learn, borrowing a sailing metaphor, to “cut ourselves some slack.” Sometimes we fail at something which would usually be within our capabilities because we are tired, or sick, or preoccupied, or not concentrating properly. Sometimes we fail because, in honesty, we didn’t try our best. In all those circumstances we should “cut ourselves some slack.” Everybody can have an off day. There are only a very limited number of situations in life where it is vital that people perform at the very best of their ability all of the time. Although we will always try to be conscientious, we need to accept that for most of the time “good enough is good enough”. Then there is a second vital truth to declare.
2 – Christians are not immune or exempt from failing
Only God succeeds all the time. God is the only being who never fails to accomplish what He sets out to do. Everybody fails sometimes, even Christians, however hard or however “spiritually” we may try! We need to say a few things about the greatest heresy of our generation, the false gospel of health, wealth and prosperity. Some Christians mistakenly believe that it is God’s purpose for them that they will always succeed in everything they do. You see posters and bumper stickers saying things like “Unstoppable Achiever,” “With Jesus I Will Always Win,” and “Your Success Is Determined by Your Faith,” Preachers will sell false promises, “Say it; do it; receive it; tell it.” “What I confess, I possess.” “Name it and claim it!”
The kinds of blessings the prosperity false gospel promises are NOT the kind of blessings God promises to Christian believers. Those wrong ideas often take Old Testament promises about the blessings which the nation of Israel was going to enjoy when they took possession of the promised land and applies those promises out of context to the lives of individual Christians. Worse than that, such empty promises of success encourage people to come to God for what they get from him – to seek the gifts instead of the Giver. When the blessings don’t come as the evangelist has promised, many folk then fall away from faith, or just as bad, are overwhelmed by guilt that they have “failed” to have enough faith. The false prosperity gospel is simply wrong – it is not biblical. So what does the Bible really say about success?
There are a few verses that appear to promise success to God’s people.
Proverbs 2 6 For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
7 He holds success in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose way of life is blameless, 8 for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.
These verses could be taken to imply that as long as a person is upright and living blamelessly, faithfully serving God, then they will always be successful. Some people understand our reading from Psalm 20 to promise that as long as people are putting their trust in God, they will always succeed in everything that they do.
Psalm 20 4 May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.
7 Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
8 They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm.
It is one thing to pray that God will bless our endeavours, but quite another to assume that God’s answer will always be “yes”. These verses do not give a cast-iron guarantee that Christians will never fail. Christians are not immune or exempt from failure. God does not expect us to be successful all the time.
We looked this morning at the parable of the three servants with the bags of gold, which is often known as the parable of the talents. Even this doesn’t show that God demands that we succeed all the time. The two servants who doubled their master’s money were not commended for being “successful” but for being good and faithful, reliable and trustworthy. The third who just hid his bag of gold in the ground was not condemned for failing, but for not even trying. Let me say it again – God does not expect us always to succeed! Then there is a third general principle we should always bear in mind.
3 – It is possible to make no errors and still not to succeed.
Sometimes we fail to accomplish something when it’s not our fault. To support that assertion I quote Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: the Next Generation.
“It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.”
We are not guaranteed success just because we make the right choices. And failure is not always caused by making the wrong choices. The reality is that in everybody’s lives sometimes things can and do go less than perfectly even when we do everything right. For Christians, sometimes this is because of satanic opposition. Sometimes this is because we live in a fallen world. Mostly this is because we follow the Servant King whose victory and glory came through submission and suffering and sacrifice and powerlessness. Doing the right thing does not guarantee success. Just because we have not been successful, that does not mean we have done something wrong. That would be the logical fallacy of the excluded middle.
This really matters especially for Christians and churches as we seek to serve God living by faith not by sight, for the following reason. It can appear as though the only way that we can know we have done God’s will and made the right choices in a particular situation is that the outcome is successful. We will often look for success to validate the choices we have made. As the number of choices continually increases, deciding between them becomes harder and harder. But relying on levels of success as a measure of whether we are actually doing the right thing or not is inevitably a recipe for disaster! We need better ways of discerning God’s will than just looking at the outcome. Doing the right thing is never a guarantee of success. “It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.”
4 – We should not let fear of failure stop us from trying
Failure will always be a possibility in everything we do. But in spite of that fear, we should not give up aiming for success. We should never use failure as an excuse for not trying again.
In the film Batman Begins, Alfred the faithful valet says to Bruce Wayne aka Batman, “Why do we fall down? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
After the catastrophic failures of denying Jesus three times, the apostle Peter did not give up following Jesus. God will always pick us up and enable us to try again.
People often refer to the great inventor Thomas Edison as an example for trying again. He performed 50,000 experiments before he succeeded in producing a battery. Somebody asked him if he was ever discouraged by those failures. Edison replied, “Why, I know 50,000 things that won’t work.” In 2014 his factory was damaged by a fire and Edison lost almost $1 million worth of equipment and the records of much of his work. The next morning, the 67-year-old inventor said: “There is value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Now we can start anew.” Three weeks after the fire, Edison managed to produce the first phonograph.
It was Henry Ford who said that failure was the “opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.” We must not let “fear of failure” or “fear of making mistakes” pressurise us. We need to recognise that sometimes “doing enough” is preferable to “doing our best”. “A good solution today is better than the perfect solution tomorrow.” We should resist pressures from unrealistic or unreasonable expectations which guarantee stress, failure and disappointment! In today’s world, if we have failed it can be too easy just to give up trying. Somebody called John Gardner once said, “One of the reasons why mature people stop growing and learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure.”
David Prior wrote, “(Jesus) took the risk of being open with people with the love of God: many responded favorably, many did not. If, then, we live in the love of God and listen to the Word of God, we will meet constant failure. It will be tempting, because we live in such a results-dominated society, to see failure as reprehensible and therefore to be avoided. One way to avoid failure is to call it a mistake—and then to try to eliminate any mistakes, to make sure we get things right and that we succeed. Many local churches base their activities on such priorities and virtually reject anything that is at all risky, because “we cannot afford to make mistakes.” Which leads us to one last important point to make.

5 – Our self-esteem and self-worth should not be tied up in success or failure, but rest in the God’s love for us.
There is a world of difference between saying “I have failed once, or three times, or a hundred times” and saying “I am a failure.” The greatest problem with the world’s obsession with success is that it is too easy for us to allow our successes and our failures to determine our self-esteem and our self-worth. The problem is made worse by the false gods of our age, Money, Entertainment and Celebrity, channelled through social media. Failures can lead people into discouragement and depression. This can be just as much a trap for Christians and for churches.
We are not better people when we succeed. We are not worse people when we fail. It is true that many things in life can become easier if a person is very successful at some things. The downside of that is that it is also the case that great success can increase the pressures to keep on succeeding, and sometimes make failures in that field or in unrelated areas of life appear even more damaging. But everybody needs to be helped to find their self-esteem and self-worth in something other than their successes. We need to be freed from the tyranny of needing always to be successful. Human beings find our dignity and self-worth in the fact that God has created us and God loves us so much that he gave his only Son Jesus Christ to die for our sins. Whether we succeed or whether we fail, God loves us just as much. We are still as precious in his eyes.
So what could we say to other people about dealing with failure? The truth is that failure is always a part of everybody’s life. Christians are not immune or exempt from failing and the mistaken idea that “Christians always succeed” is part of the heresy of the “health, wealth and prosperity gospel”. We should always remember and help other people to realise that it is possible to make no errors and still not to succeed. We should not let fear of failure stop us from trying. Ultimately our self-esteem and self-worth should not be tied up in our successes and failures. We can rest in the love God has for us which never lets us go. Even when we fail, Christians can always find peace and comfort in God’s never-failing love. We all need to learn that God does not expect us always to succeed. And God loves us every bit as much as much even when we fail!

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