Have you ever really failed at something? Like really failed. Took a chance, tried something new, fell completely on your face? The small private things we fail at—maybe several of those every week, things like sticking to a diet or giving up almost immediately on something new we said we’d do—those are hard enough. But when we really fail big, we typically do it in public, or at least other people know about this goal we didn’t reach and it stings all the more because we wish they didn’t.
I had a big awful public failure when I was in my 30s. I’ve mentioned before that I was quite shy for the first few of decades of my life. In school I tended to sit toward the back of the room and pray the teacher didn’t call on me. In fifth grade, my teacher—Mrs. Cuttichia, I remember—called my mother to school to discuss the problem of my quietness in class. She told my mom she didn’t see me talking at all during the day (of course I did talk to my friends but she apparently didn’t see that). She thought they should have me evaluated in case I was on one kind of spectrum or another. I remember my mom asking me in the car on the way home if I thought there was a problem and I said I didn’t think there was. And that was the end of that.
But that seemed to have planted in my mind an idea that I should talk more and that my quietness was somehow unnatural, something I should one day overcome. And perhaps there was some of God stirring things around in there too because if I were still constrained by shyness I wouldn’t be able to be up here with you today. Many years later, after I’d been working on my own as a writer and editor for a while, a women’s organization invited me to come speak to their local chapter about starting a business as a self-employed person. The idea of speaking in public still terrified me, but I thought perhaps it was time to face that fear. I prayed for help and did what occurred to me to do in preparation, and I courageously went in on the appointed afternoon and proceeded to absolutely, painfully, embarrassingly fail. Big time. Standing up in front of that group of 40 women, I suddenly forgot what I wanted to say, the blood pounded in my ears, nothing sounded right in my mind, I broke out in a sweat, and my notes no longer made any sense. After a few minutes of sheer torture, I realized there was no coming back from this. I apologized, excused myself, and hurried out of the building, sure I would never return.
Researchers say—and we know this personally if we’ve ever felt it—that failure can bring, and very quickly too, intense feelings of embarrassment, sadness, anxiety, and shame. And then layer on top of that all the internal self-flogging we do as we berate ourselves for the whole business—which of course just pours salt in our wounds. Our self-esteem can suffer; we can question our worth. We compare ourselves to everyone else around us—and we of course fall far short. For a time, we may feel raw and irritable and just want to stay inside with the shades drawn. It’s no wonder people will do almost anything they can to avoid failing at something—including not even trying. It’s too big a chance to take. Why risk failure when things are safe and small and controllable just the way they are?
But as we talked about last week, God is the God of new things, always leading, guiding, inspiring us to take new steps in love, polishing up our unused talents, urging us to leave behind the troubles that once held us back. God has a plan to lift us up and free us from all the unnecessary things that bind us to fear or worry or any belief in a power other than Him. So change—and risk—and, yes, even failure—is going to be part of our growing and learning. It comes with the territory, if we hope to live more like Christ, expressing God’s love and healing in the world.
The psalmist knew this well. In our Old Testament scripture today, Psalm 121, we hear where he goes for his source of strength and help and peace. He lifts his eyes to the hills, looking toward God. The Lord is the one who sees everything from a higher vantage point, who cares for each of us with a constantly abiding love. “He will not let your foot flip,” the psalmist writes, “he who watches over you will not slumber.” The picture is of a God so tenderly attuned to the needs of His children that he cares about the tiniest details of our days. He cares whether we have enough shade, whether we’re protected from the elements, that we have the assistance we need and the wisdom and guidance to feel safe and at peace. The psalmist says that no matter what comes, as we try, and fail, and try again, God is watching over our lives, keeping us safe in our comings and goings—yesterday, today, and every day in the future.
We all need that kind of security, the feeling that no matter what is going on in the world—or in our families or in our minds—God is always caring for us perfectly. There is no exception to that and no force that can make it otherwise. We don’t have to do everything right ourselves—it’s not what we do but whose we are that makes the difference to God. And when we fail and try and fail again, and everything hurts, God’s unfailing, all-encompassing love helps us recognize what life is trying to teach us. We remember how to get quiet. We open our minds and hearts to Spirit’s leading. This isn’t easy to do, when we’re already smarting from a bad experience. We’re not sure what we’ll hear—maybe it’s our fault we failed. We’d rather not see that. But by letting ourselves be taught, opening our hearts to Spirit’s correction, we find something very important: the humility to begin again with God. And it will get better from there.
Margaret Fell described in pretty blunt terms this aspect of the Spirit’s work in us. She said,
“Now, Friends, deal plainly with yourselves, and let the eternal Light search you, and try you, for the good of your souls. For this will deal plainly with you. It will rip you up, and lay you open, and make all manifest which lodges in you; the secret subtlety of the enemy of your souls, this eternal searcher and trier will make manifest. Therefore all to this come, and by this be searched, and judged, and led and guided. For to this you must stand or fall.”
When we’ve experienced a failure or we’re kicking ourselves for a bad decision we wish we hadn’t made, it might be tough to be honest about it—with ourselves, with others, and with God. We just want all the upsetting feelings to go away and would rather pretend it never happened. But the problem with that approach, as understandable as it may be, is that it doesn’t “look to the hills where our help comes from.” Which means we don’t turn to God for wisdom, for help in understanding, for growth in grace. And if we don’t learn from our failure, we have a good chance of repeating it in the future.
In fact that was the big takeaway from research done by the University of Chicago in 2019. They first discovered that people who eventually succeeded at their goal and people who ultimately failed at their goal both tried the same numbers of times to accomplish it. So that means persistence isn’t the key to succeeding. But they also discovered what was: Wisdom. If participants learned from their failures and incorporated what they learned the next time they tried, they were much more likely to succeed eventually. No learning, no wisdom–no success. It was just that simple. The study also showed that people who tried again more quickly the next time, and the next, and the next (the saying, “Get right back up on that horse” applies here) also dramatically increased their chances of succeeding—and perhaps sooner, rather than later.
So Wisdom is a vital player in the gifts our failures can offer us. Here are a few other ideas along those lines:
- Perhaps the biggest and most immediate blessing I experienced when I failed so badly in my presentation was that the absolute worst thing I could imagine—the very thing I was so afraid of—had actually happened! And the earth hadn’t swallowed me up. I didn’t die. It was painful, yes, but I survived it. Having gone through the worst thing gave me a sense of relief and new courage. Maybe—someday—I would try again.
- Another huge gift is that often in hindsight—maybe as we look back on the experience years later—we can see the ways in which God was with us right there in that failure. We now see why it had to work that way, or what it taught us, or how that awful time led to a better one. That insight helps us stop blaming ourselves for what needed to be. One of the writers I like from the 1920s says she learned to bless every failure a success in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because she knew one day, inevitably, it would come to good. Because that’s who God is.
- Sometimes our failures show us we are free to choose other things. Maybe the circumstance we were trying so hard to effect can be done another way, maybe even better. A failure can help us release responsibility for things that aren’t ours to do or stop trying so hard to force a narrow answer when God may have a much wider one.
- Failure can teach us to be more aware of the bigger picture unfolding in a situation, to pay attention to how others are helping and what they can contribute, and to look toward God for inspiration and an understanding of the divine idea that might be unfolding.
- Failure can also boost our faith as we learn how tenderly and faithfully God helps us deal with the heartache and move forward with more insight and understanding.
- And lastly, surprisingly, failure can create in us a hopeful heart, a steadfast vision that knows that God is always bringing good into our lives, even when it looks like something dramatically different. When we’ve let ourselves fail a few times, we’ve tested this, and we know it to be true.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is just an example of that type of gift. We can hear that things haven’t been going well for Paul. In fact he’s in prison, in chains, after being mistreated by the civil authorities. Still he writes this encouraging and hopeful letter, full of trust in God and words of encouragement for the people of Philippi. He is quite familiar with “looking to the hills whence cometh” his help. And he wants to remind his readers to stay strong in their faith in God, to not rely too heavily on present appearances, and trust the promise of God’s love and presence. It’s there; it’s working; it’s sure.
In the opening to the passage we heard today, Paul writes a beautiful sentence that is a great encouragement when we are suffering with embarrassment and the self-criticism of defeat. He’s confident, he says, “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” What an encouraging idea from Paul. When we’ve tried and failed, when we’ve hoped and been disappointed, when we risked doing something new and watched it fall apart, we can remember that God isn’t finished with us yet. Our failure is all a part of the process. It’s a lifelong work of grace unfolding for each one of us. We are being led and molded, pruned and polished our whole lives long.
Paul also insists that God is bringing about something good, even in his time of imprisonment and trial. Paul is certain, like the 1920s writer I mentioned, that his time of difficulty can be baptized a success in God’s name. The good will unfold; not because of anything Paul’s done, but because of who God is.
In this remarkable passage, Paul points out that he knows some people are proclaiming the Gospel with corrupt intent, but no matter, Paul still rejoices because Christ’s message is being shared:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.
Seen through the lens of our small, human perspective, failures of all sizes can feel flattening, embarrassing, devastating. We can hold them against ourselves for decades. But when we open our minds and hearts so Spirit can help us look at our setbacks and challenges through the eyes of eternity, we get a different picture. One that shows grace unfolding. God gives us the wisdom and understanding to see Him at work in those lingering hurts. With God’s help, our judgment against ourselves dissolves, and peace comes, and healing will happen. Not because of us or anything we do, but because of who God is and the way God tenderly cares for us with an everlasting, unfailing Love.
In closing I share these wise words from the Ohio Yearly Meeting Book of Discipline:
Follow steadfastly after all that is pure and lovely and of good report. Be prayerful. Be watchful. Be humble. Let no failure discourage you. When temptation comes, make it an opportunity to gain new strength by standing fast, that you may enter into that life of gladness and victory to which all are called.
- OT Psalm 121
- NT Philippians 1: 3-19
- Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/failure-found-to-be-an-essential-prerequisite-for-success/