When was the last time you failed?
I don’t mean messed up – I mean failed. Genuinely failed. Perhaps even publicly failed. The reality of leadership is that not every initiative is going to work. Not every goal is going to be met. Not every effort is going to produce momentum. Leaders – real leaders – know the pain of failure.
Sometimes, that failure is something you just push passed – it’s just another goal or another conversation or another whatever. But sometimes, when you’re really invested in something or someone, and you experience failure, it clings to you. You can’t get rid of it. Even though you might not talk about what happened all the time, it’s nevertheless never far from your memory, and when you find a quiet moment, you’re brought back to that single moment when you realized you had truly, undeniably, irretrievably, failed.
That hurts. And it hurts over and over again. Failure is a heavy emotional weight, but it can also be a very good teacher. Maybe, in fact, the best teacher.
Of course, we could look at the learning we gain from failure in a pragmatic way – we can examine what we did wrong and then put corrective action in place to make sure we don’t repeat the same thing. But there is also a deeply spiritual aspect to that self-examination. When we think about our souls, our ongoing pursuit of Jesus – failure is a great teacher here, too.
Here, then, are three ways, from that spiritual standpoint, to steward your failure:
1. Be defined by Jesus
The depth of pain and disappointment we feel when we fail is directly related to how much of ourselves we have invested in the situation where we failed. When we feel our failure deeply, it’s symptomatic of the fact that we have poured ourselves deeply into that effort. That’s a good and right thing – we are freed through Jesus to give our hearts and souls to goals that bring honor to Him. And yet this pursuit can easily go bad.
The tipping point is when we begin to find our self-worth, our identity, and our ultimate joy wound up in the achievement of a particular goal. This is our natural tendency – to always find something, other than Jesus, by which to measure ourselves and our value. When we fail, then, we have the opportunity to remind ourselves through the power of the Holy Spirit that we are once and for all defined by the Son of God and His love for us. When we are stripped of all our other marks of self-worth and validation, there will still be Jesus.
Failure is an opportunity to be reminded that He is enough.
2. Grow in thanksgiving
This seems counter intuitive, doesn’t it? When we fail, the last thing we usually think about it what we have to be thankful for. But here, too, we find that failure is our tutor, because when we are deeply feeling that failure, gratitude becomes something more than a feeling. It becomes a choice.
It helps to notice that in the Bible, we are commanded not to feel thankful, but to give thanks. There are times when our feelings line up with this command, but then there are other times when gratitude becomes a discipline. We must believe passed our feelings and actively engage in this discipline. There is no better time, then, to develop this habit of gratitude than in the midst of failure.
3. Look to others
The final way I’d suggest that we can steward our failure is to use it as an opportunity to serve others. This is difficult, because (at least with me) failure almost always pushes us inside ourselves. When we do that, there is a vicious cycle that begins. It’s a cycle marked with self-hatred, self-condemnation, and self-centeredness. That’s the most ironic part of all.
When we give ourselves to those feelings, we are, in an opposite way, giving ourselves to pride, for our sole focus is on ourselves. Failure is an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to the gospel implication of refusing to think of ourselves first but instead, putting others ahead of ourselves.
You are going to fail. So will I. But thanks be to God – in our failure, we actually find opportunity to be defined by Jesus, grow in gratitude, and look to others. So, friends, as I write this I’m also writing to my own soul. The best thing might not be to move past failure too quickly, for if we do, we lose the gift that God can give us right in the middle of it.
Michael Kelley is the Director of Discipleship at Lifeway, and author of Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life