November 1, 2010
 Learning to Fail

The Long-Term
Results of Setbacks
Sometimes Surprise Us
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Christian psychiatrist Paul Tournier writes about one of his most humiliating experiences, which occurred when he spoke at a university assembly. “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 Tournier’s talk was indeed the worst he had ever heard. But he added that he had sat through countless erudite lectures in his lifetime that had left no impression on him, yet somehow he was drawn to Tournier. A lasting friendship between the two developed, which resulted in the professor’s becoming a Christian. Tournier came to look back upon the disastrous lecture as one of the great successes of his life.

His experience reminds us that God so often sees success and failure in different terms than we do. One of the most unfortunate effects of failure is the pessimistic outlook it brings on. We start imagining all sorts of dreadful consequences resulting from our bungled effort. Ironically, our failure may be a success in God’s mind, contributing in a most positive way to our future and to his intentions for our life.

I think of several disappointments in dating that I had when I was single, where relationships didn’t develop as I wished. In each case my sense of failure was so overwhelming that I saw my future cast in concrete as a miserable, lonely person. Today I look on those experiences quite differently. Not only did I learn volumes, but the no’s--so painful to hear at the time--eventually cleared the way for a yes from one who was much better suited to be my life mate.

Losing the Battle

There are, to be sure, times when failure is more than just a perceived experience. There are times when we have clearly fallen short not only of our own standards but of God’s. Here it becomes especially difficult to feel positive about failure.

A military defeat of the Israelites in Joshua 7 is instructive. The Jews have experienced many successes in battle under Joshua and have become headstrong. Now they decide to take on Ai with only a few thousand soldiers, greatly underestimating their opponent’s strength. In addition, they don’t know that one of their number, Achan, has taken some “devoted” items from a previous battle--items which God commanded destroyed--thus arousing his wrath against Israel.

Ai chases back Israel’s army and kills thirty-six men--a relatively minor defeat--but “the hearts of the [Israelites] melted and became like water” (v. 5). Joshua, devastated, wallows on the ground and prays, “Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? . . . The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and will surround us and wipe our name from the earth” (vv. 6-9).

God doesn’t debate Joshua’s predictions of doom, but gives him practical instruction: he is to rid Israel of the one who has taken the devoted things. Joshua obeys. Then God tells him to take all the fighting men and attack Ai again. This time Israel has a resounding victory.

The Israelites gained two immeasurable benefits from their defeat with Ai: a deeper awareness of where they were vulnerable to sinning against God, and a sharper understanding of the logistics necessary to rout a formidable foe. When they repented, and put their new insights into action, they became remarkably successful at a point of previous failure.

Winning the War

When we know we have displeased God, we’re often tempted to remain at the wallowing stage. Like Joshua, we cannot see past our failure, and all our thoughts are colored by it. “God intends to keep punishing me, and the whole future is on a roll against me,” we suppose. At such times we must put into practice everything we know about repentance and about the grace and forgiveness of Christ.

But we must also take into account everything we know about the creative power of God. He is speaking to us as he did to Joshua, telling us to learn what we can from our failure and move on. Through failure we can gain vital insights into ourselves--our strengths and limitations--that may not come any other way.

And, as Tournier’s experience reminds us, failure may have more than just educational value. The failure may in fact be a success that we don’t yet recognize. There are times when we don’t live up to our own expectations but fulfill God’s quite well.

All of this is not to suggest that we should ever court failure. As Christians we’re called to excellence and diligence in what we do. But too often the fear of failure keeps us from taking the risks necessary to build relationships and develop our potential for Christ.

In their classic In Search of Excellence, Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman note that the most productive American corporations encourage their employees to be comfortable with failing. A certain number of failures are necessary to produce an effective product or to enjoy a breakthrough in research. Without the freedom to fail, creativity is stifled. So, in the workplace, and in our daily lives, failing can be a good thing--a necessary means toward our growth and eventual success.

How much more this is true with our service for Christ! There are few principles of the Christian life more important to learn. We must not fail at this point.

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This article is adapted from chapter 16 of Blaine's
The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds (InterVarsity Press, 1994).

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