my father-in-law, Glenn Kirkland, lost his wife of forty-six
years, Grace, to Alzheimerís disease, he decided to open
himself to getting married again. While finding a suitable
spouse is no small challenge for anyone, itís a particularly
daunting one for a retired man of seventy-one.
Yet Glenn took the important step of getting socially
active again. He began attending a Bible study and joined the
large choir at Bethesda, Marylandís Fourth Presbyterian Church. And from time to time he took
initiative, asking a woman to have dinner with him.
Glennís first effort at a relationship did not get beyond
a dinner date or two. But then he met Barbara Nielson, a
psychologist who had recently joined the church and become
active in the choir. Things blossomed between them and after
several months of courtship they married. Their relationship
was a gem and brought a new lease on life to both of them in
many ways. They enjoyed a supremely happy marriage for 17
years, until Glennís death at 89 in 2008.
I believe there are a number of reasons that account for
Glenn and Barbaraís finding each other. At the top of the
list is the grace of God, working to bring them together and
to convince them of the benefit of marrying. Yet Glennís
optimism also played a vital role and put him in position to
receive this gift of God. His belief that he could find
someone to marry led him to do the very things that allowed
Godís provision. The same is true for Barbara: her optimism
and sense of adventure positioned her to meet Glenn as well.
I talk with many Christians who would dearly like to be
married, or to realize some other significant goal, yet are
convinced their prospects for success are nil. Their fear of
failure is so pervasive that it blocks them from making even
the first efforts, and so it becomes a self-fulfilling
Many of us can benefit from making a concerted effort to
tame our fear of failure. We need a clear perspective for
confronting our fears and for answering those internal
messages which keep announcing, ďThis is impossible.Ē
Such a perspective should accomplish two things for us.
First, it should give us a reasonable hope for success. Having
this hope is vital if weíre to find the incentive to begin
moving toward our goal. Second, it should give us a healthy
attitude toward failure itself. Failure is seldom the monster
it pretends to be; indeed, it has its positive side.
Appreciating this fact helps us feel more comfortable in the
face of taking risks.
A Basis for Hope
When our fears of failure are strong, we need first and
foremost to remind ourselves that our apprehensions may not
be in line with reality. The possibility is very real that
we will not fail. I personally find it helpful to reflect on
past experiences when my expectations of doom were not
fulfilled. If my predictions of failure were wrong in these
cases, they are probably wrong now.
Once we have carefully and prayerfully decided upon a
particular course of action, we should remind ourselves,
ďIím not going to expect failure here. Itís not a sure
thing that Iím going to fail. Itís very possible I will
succeed!Ē Call this positive thinking, if you will. The
point comes where itís an essential attitude for the
What Iím recommending, though, differs from popular ideas
about positive thinking in two important ways. First, Iím
not suggesting that we should blindly anticipate success even
when thereís no basis in fact for expecting it. Our
expectation should be based on a good analysis of all the
facts we have and our best understanding of what God wants us
to do. Second, Iím not recommending that we should ever
assume that success is guaranteed beyond all question. We must
always leave room for the fact that we donít know the mind
of God for our future. His timetable, as well as his
definition of success, may be different from ours.
With these cautions in mind, we still have strong reason
for hope in the major steps we take. We have a sound basis for
believing that success is a good probability. Itís right and
proper and healthy for us to be substantially optimistic. This
optimism is vital for at least three reasons:
1. Optimism gives credit to the power of God.
God is at work behind the scenes in our lives in unfathomable
ways for our good. He desires our very best. He isnít our
adversary but our friend. As a general principle he desires
our success in life, not our failure. A continuing attitude of
pessimism shows that underneath I believe that God is against
me, not for me. An optimistic spirit grants that God can work
in a multitude of ways, including many I have never fathomed,
to bring about a positive outcome.
Consider that there are only eight instances in the Gospels
where Jesus commends the faith of an individual--that is,
where he directly compliments someoneís faith. In each of
these cases, the faith which impressed Jesus had nothing to do
with doctrinal belief; it was a supremely optimistic spirit.
In six of these incidents, individuals expected Jesus to
perform a healing miracle for them or for someone else (Mk
5:24-34, Mk 10:46-52, Mk 2:1-12, Mt 15:21-28, Lk 17:11-19, Mt
8:5-13). Their expectation was not based on blind faith, for
they had all seen or heard of Jesus performing similar
miracles. Still they held to their faith in spite of many
factors which might have discouraged them.
The woman with the hemorrhage, for instance, had been told
by doctors for twelve years that she couldnít be healed;
blind Bartimaeus was told by the crowd to stop calling for
Jesus; the four men who brought their paralyzed friend to
Jesus had to lower him through a tiled roof to get through the
crowd. In each instance, individuals through their optimism
showed a respect for the power of God that was above and
beyond the ordinary. It accents the fact that we honor Christ
through an optimistic spirit.
2. Optimism shows respect for the ability of
judgment which God gives us. Scripture warns us
against trusting in our own understanding (Prov 3:5-6). Yet it
also tells us that we who have been born again have ďthe
mind of ChristĒ (1 Cor 2:16). This means that God has given
us the capacity for sensible judgment. As we take pains to
think through a choice carefully, and do so with prayer and
respect for Godís will, Christ leads us to a sound decision.
Indeed, part of having faith as a Christian is trusting
that Christ will enable me to make good decisions. When Iím
confident of having made a good decision, Iím naturally
confident that the outcome will be positive. Optimism, then,
reflects my conviction that God is guiding my decision
3. Optimism contributes to my success.
Time and again, experiments in the social sciences have shown
that the expectation of success has a significant impact upon
actual achievement. When Iím confident of reaching a goal,
Iím inspired to work harder to get to it, and Iím more
alert to opportunities that will help me move toward it. Also,
my confidence inspires others to act in ways that help me
reach my goal. Iím not suggesting that we ever should
purposely manipulate others against their will to further our
own purposes. But if Iím working toward a goal that Christ
has inspired within me, then Iíll best allow him to motivate
others to help me when my attitude is optimistic.
By the same token, when we expect failure, we easily and
subtly end up doing the very things that bring it about. The
servant who hid his talent is a classic example. He was so
afraid of a negative outcome that he did the very thing that
would bring about his downfall (Mt 25:14-30). It was the
optimistic servants who invested their talents and realized
both success and the praise of their master. We should realize
that for Christians optimism is not only okay but desirable
when taking major steps. This is part of what faith is about.
When we have taken reasonable steps to make a careful
decision, we should also take reasonable steps to keep our
heart expectant as we work toward our goal. If we need to
exercise some thought control, we should do so. We shouldnít
regard this as falsely ďpsyching ourselves upĒ but as good
stewardship of our mental process.
We should confront the fear of failure with constant
reminders that God desires our best and that we have good
reason to be hopeful of reaching our goal.
The Positive Side of Failure
Yes, we fear failure. But the bite of a fear is remarkably
lessened once weíre persuaded that even if the worst
occurred it wouldnít be so bad after all. There are actually
significant benefits that failure can bring to us.
Understanding these will not only reduce our anxiety about it
but also give us fresh heart to try again if disappointment
While we shouldnít court failure or overtly desire it,
neither should we harbor unreasonable apprehensions about it.
Itís these fears which stifle us from taking steps of faith.
We can find the courage to take these steps once we realize
that even if failure should occur, we will still benefit from
the experience and be better off than if we had simply sat
In reality, failure not only helps us grow in important
ways but contributes to our long-range experience of success,
when we know how to accept it and appropriate its benefits.
There are at least three ways in which this can happen:
1. Through failure we learn how to be
successful. The most obvious benefit of failure
is that through it our experience grows. Through a hands-on
experience we learn in a most authentic way how not to
do something. Lessons gleaned from experience generally stick
with us much better and are much more beneficial than those
merely learned academically. If we apply what weíve learned
to our future experience, our possibility of success is
Most of us, if weíll look honestly at our lives, will
admit that certain hard experiences have done much to teach us
and equip us for the quality of life we now live. Failures in
relationships have taught us how to relate to people better.
Failures in academic and work experiences have taught us how
to approach certain types of work more effectively. Failures
in parenting have taught us how to better encourage and guide
our children. Business failures have given us a wiser approach
to investments. Moral and spiritual defeat has taught us how
to draw more fully on the power of Christ. Through all of
these experiences weíve come to understand our own gifts,
strengths and weaknesses better, and that in turn has given us
a more confident grasp of Godís direction in our life.
These experiences can benefit us if we can take them
in the right spirit. Some discouragement is normal when
failure and disappointment come, and we need to allow
ourselves the freedom to grieve significant losses and
setbacks. Yet the point comes where we need to begin to take a
more positive look at our failure and see what beneficial
lessons can be gained from it. The danger is that we get
paralyzed by our failure. We assume that failure once means
failure forever. We conclude that God is against us and has
shown us our fate through this unhappy experience. We lose the
courage to try again.
At such times we must put into practice everything we know
about the creative power of God. He is telling us to learn
what we can from our failure and move on. And so often when we
do, we find that vital growth has come through the experience
that could not have come any other way. A friend of mine has
put it simply, that one of our main concerns in life should be
to learn to be a ďsuccessful failure.Ē
Again, this principle will serve us well not only in the
face of actual failure but as we anticipate the risks involved
in taking a step of faith. Even if failure comes, it may
provide a vital growth experience, which contributes toward
our future success in significant ways. The fear of failure is
reduced when we come to appreciate this important benefit.
2. Failure can carry a success of its own.
A second point to remember is that experiences that we
initially perceive to be failures sometimes in the end turn
out to be successes. We find we called the shots wrong.
Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier
writes about one of his most humiliating experiences, which
occurred when he was giving a talk at a university:
I felt right from the first word that I was not going to make contact with
my audience. I clung to my notes and laboriously recited, with
growing nervousness, what I had to say. As the audience left I
could see my friends slipping hurriedly away. . . . On the way
home in my car with my wife, I burst into tears.*
The next day a professor of philosophy phoned him and said
that the talk was indeed the worst he had ever heard. But he
added that while he had sat through numerous erudite lectures
in his lifetime that had left no impression on him, somehow he
was drawn to Tournier. A lasting friendship between the two
developed, which resulted in the professorís coming to
Christ. Tournier now looks back upon that discouraging lecture
as one of the great successes of his life.
Tournierís experience reminds us that failure can have
more than just educational value. The failure may in fact be a
success that we donít yet recognize. There are times when we
fail to live up to our own expectations but fulfill Godís
quite well. The experience we perceive to be a failure may
indeed be a success in his mind, contributing in a most
positive way to our future and to his intentions for our life.
God understands success much better than we do.
Tournierís experience also brings out how God honors our
honest efforts at success, often in ways that go considerably
beyond our initial perceptions. Itís fitting, too, to
reflect here on the experience of Jesus himself. His brief
mission to earth was judged at the end by friends and foes
alike to have failed. Today we know it was the greatest
victory of all time. It stands forth as an example of Godís
capacity to bring success out of apparent failure.
3. It sometimes takes a certain number of
failures to bring about a success. The final
benefit of failure we need to look at is more mystical and
difficult to pin down. Yet itís no less important to
understand. There seems to be a law in human life that success
comes about only through a number of earnest attempts. It
sometimes takes a number of failures to breed a success. It is
the principle of sowing seeds which is talked about so
frequently in Scripture. Some seeds take root while others do
not, for reasons we never fully understand. Yet the greater
the number sown, the greater the likelihood of a rich harvest.
Thus, Scripture declares,
As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a
motherís womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the
Maker of all things. Sow your seed in the morning, and at
evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which
will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do
equally well. (Eccles 11:5-6)
Sometimes failure does mean weíve made mistakes. As we
examine our experience we discover what we did wrong and how
to avoid these errors in the future. We learn from our failure
and grow through it. Yet in other cases weíre not able to
discern clear mistakes. Our failure seems to have come about
in spite of our doing everything right. At such times weíre
especially prone to self-disparagement, for the evidence seems
to suggest that God has cast the lots against us. We become
fatalistic and conclude that God doesnít want us to succeed
in this particular area. We lose the courage to try again.
The fact is we donít know the mind of God. Usually we
have very little basis for judging whether he is punishing us
through a failure or not. The possibility is just as real that
the failure suggests only that Godís time for success
hasnít yet come for us. By the principle of sowing seeds,
success isnít less likely now, but more so! If
weíll simply keep casting the seeds, eventually one will
take root. Itís fair to think of this, too, as a principle
of compensation. Failure with one try is compensated for by
success with another.
Genesis records a time when Isaac and his servants made
three attempts to dig for water in the valley of Gerar (Gen
26:19-22). After each of the first two, native herdsmen
quarreled with them over property rights, and Isaacís men
had to abandon the wells after all the hard work of digging
them. But the third time they were successful and there was no
resistance. Isaac named the well Rehoboth (ďa broad
placeĒ), declaring, ďNow the LORD
has given us room and we will flourish in the land.Ē Less
hardy souls would have given up after the first or second
attempt, saying ďGod doesnít intend that I succeed.Ē
The principle of sowing seeds seems to
be an aspect of Godís common grace, a means of his dealing
with all people, and one that touches humanity at all points
of pursuit. In In Search of Excellence, Thomas Peters
and Robert Waterman note that repeated effort is one of the
most common keys to success among notable businesses. The oil
companies that are most successful in discovering oil, for
instance, are not the ones with the best equipment or the most
intelligent personnel but the ones who dig the most wells!
Persistence is the factor that separates successful firms from
Yet the principle is also one that applies to the
Christianís walk of faith. Even a man as spiritually mature
as the apostle Paul at times had to make several bungled
attempts before he finally experienced a successful opening to
use his gifts for Christ (Acts 16:6-10).
Of the principles of success and failure that weíre
considering, this is perhaps the most important to keep in
mind in reference to romantic relationships. Iíve counseled
with many older singles who have gone through several
disappointments are now ready to throw in the towel. Theyíre
convinced that their chances of marrying are nonexistent and
that failures in the past must prove God hasnít cut them out
for marriage. Seldom do I believe that this conclusion is
justified. In the immensely complex world of romantic
relationships, the chemistry that doesnít work in one case
may do so wonderfully and surprisingly in another.
Godís timetable with each of us is remarkably different,
and we shouldnít assume that disappointment in the past
means weíre doomed to disappointment forever. There may be
lessons to be learned from past experience. But in many cases
the failure of romance to flourish simply means that the
compatibility factors werenít right, and nothing you could
have done would have changed that. In another relationship the
mix of factors will be different and compatibility may be much
When disappointment in romance comes we should, to be sure,
pray that God will give us a heart to accept our present
situation joyfully. But praying for acceptance of the present
isnít incompatible with praying for change in the future. If
the desire for marriage continues to be strong, you should be
honest in expressing it to God and continue to be hopeful that
the opportunity will come about.
In romance, and in other areas too, we need to be careful
not to fall into a fatalistic mentality about the future due
to past failure. Particularly when there are no clear lessons
to be learned from failure, the principle of casting seeds
suggests that we should stay hopeful. Failure in the past may
just as well indicate weíre now in line for a victory as
anything! The important thing is not to lose heart. We must
not close the door in any area of our life before God is ready
to do so.