The Failure Test

For the past several weeks, we’ve been looking at some of the ways that God tests our faith.  Because James told us to “count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2-3)

            We saw that one of the tests that God gives us is the wilderness test, where we find ourselves struggling in difficult situations, and God wants to see how we respond to that.  Are we going to worry, or are we going to trust God to take care of us?

            And then, in the second lesson, we looked at the patience test, times when God makes us wait, and our test is to see whether we are able to wait patiently or not.

            And then, last week, we looked at a third test that God gives us — the motive test.  Because God isn’t just interested in what we do.  He wants to know why we do what we do.

            This morning, we want to look at a fourth test that God gives us, what I’ve called the failure test.  Because all of us are going to fail at some point in our lives and the test is this, what are we going to do after we fail?

            I’m sure that all of you are familiar with Charlie Brown in the Peanuts comic strip.   Charlie Brown is the ultimate failure.  He’s a failure when it comes to baseball.  He’s a failure when it comes to flying a kite.  And he’s especially a failure when it comes to kicking a football.

            But there’s somebody else who may be even more famous because his failure.  You might need to be a littler bit older to remember this, but there was a TV show that was on ABC for 37 years called “Wide World of Sports”.  And, every Saturday afternoon, we watched this clip at the beginning of every show:

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            That skier’s name is Vinko Bogataj, from Slovenia.  And every time I watch that clip, I can’t help but wonder, “What would it like if someone took the greatest failure in my life, and put it on TV for millions of people to watch week after week after week?

            Failure is one of our biggest fears.  If you’re like me, you have a lot of anxiety dreams, where there is an event where failure is possible — a job interview you’re going to face, a speech you have to give, a test you have to take.  And because you’re facing this situation, there is anxiety that comes with it because you’re afraid that you might fail.

            But failure is a part of everyone’s life.  In fact, failure has been a part of our lives ever since we’ve been on this earth.  Think about it — the first time you tried to walk, you fell down.  You almost drowned the first time you tried to swim.  Did you hit the ball the first time you swung the bat?  No! 

            And while many of us may have trouble identifying with people who are extremely successful in life, all of us can identify with people who fail.  Which is one of the reasons why I’m so very thankful that the Bible is full of stories about people who failed.

            I think of Moses who killed a man and fled to the wilderness for 40 years.  I think of John Mark, who gave up and went home during Paul’s first missionary journey, a failure so huge that Paul later said, “I refuse to take Mark with me on my next journey.”  I think of Peter — who denied knowing Jesus three times.  Talk about an epic failure.  There was Abraham who lied regarding his wife.  And David who committed adultery and murder.

            And so, we can all relate to them.  Because as Paul said in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  James tells us in James 3:2that “We all stumble in many ways.”  That’s so true.  We’ve all messed up, we’ve all failed in one way or another.

            Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.”

            One of my pet peeves is to hear people say, “You can do anything you set your mind to.”  We live in a world where everybody wants to tell us that “If you chase your dreams, you will achieve them.”  I thought this was something recent, but after doing a little research, it turns out that Benjamin Franklin was the first one who said, “You can do anything you set your mind to.”  But no, you can’t.  There is no guarantee that you will be successful at whatever you try to do in life.  Many of us are going to fail.  But our culture doesn’t like to talk about failure. 

            We talk about how many home runs Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds have hit.  We don’t talk about the fact that they all struck out more than 1300 times each.  We consider Pele to be one of the greatest soccer players of all time, but he failed to score on 97% of the shots he took.  We consider Abraham Lincoln to be one of our greatest presidents, but we don’t talk much about the fact that he lost seven elections and failed in business twice.

            But, while we may not think much about the failures of others, we have no trouble at all thinking about our own failures.  If I were to ask you this morning to think of a time in your life when you failed miserably, some of you would have something come to mind immediately because it’s something that haunts you.

            Maybe your failure is that you let someone down — a spouse, a boss, a teammate.  And because of that failure, you feel rotten, you feel broken inside.  When we have failed, especially when we have failed those we love the most, we feel all sorts of emotions – embarrassment . . .  fear . . .  shame .  We feel unworthy because we acted so foolishly. 

            When we’ve hurt someone deeply, we wonder if they still love us or have we blown it?  Will they ever forgive me?  Can I ever forgive myself?  When we fail, we start to live in a cloud of guilt and shame.  Our failure starts to be what defines us, and it can even affect the way we serve Christ.

            The apostle Paul expressed the frustration that we all feel when he said in Romans 7, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing!” (Romans 7:18-19)

            How many times could you just kick yourself for failing? 

  • You try to be patient with your kids or your spouse, but in the heat of the moment, you lash out and the words you say have done their damage before you even knew it.
  • You thought you had broken the grip of that nasty habit, but there was that one weak moment, and you listened to the whisper that told you “it will be okay just this once,” and now you feel like a failure because you’re caught up in that addiction again.
  • You knew you should have steered clear of that situation, but you thought you could handle it.  Before you knew it, you found out the hard way that you were weaker than you thought.  You failed.

            A thousand times, in a thousand different ways, you have tried to live by the standards that you know are right.  Even though you knew better, you did something really stupid.  And now you feel guilty, because you know how God feels about sin. 

            But let me tell you something that I think we all need to hear — God is not surprised by our failure. He sort of expects it.  Now I’m not saying that he approves of it, but he knows that it’s going to happen.  God Almighty knows who we are.  And when we fail, God doesn’t sit up in heaven and say, “Oh, my goodness, look what happened.  I did not expect that.”  He knows who we are.  He doesn’t condone our failures, but he understands our failures.

            God knew that Adam and Eve were going to fail before he placed them in the Garden of Eden.  Jesus knew that Peter was going to deny him before it ever happened.  In fact, he even told Peter that he was going to fail.

            And I believe that when Peter failed to stand up for Christ, God was, first of all, not surprised and secondly, not angry.  Because God knows us.  He knows our desire to please him and to serve him, but he also knows our weaknesses and our fears.

            I think about Jesus when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and he asked his disciples to pray with him. And he went away to pray, then he came back and they were sleeping.  That happened three times!  And then Jesus said, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)

            How many of you can say, “Amen” to that?  What I want to do, I often don’t do.  My spirit is willing, but my flesh, my body, is weak. And we’re reminded in the book of Hebrews that when we have problems, the one to whom we go understands our weaknesses. We don’t have a high priest who cannot comprehend our weaknesses. He knows who we are. So, it’s important to understand when we talk about failure that God understands our failure.  He doesn’t condone it, he doesn’t approve of it, but he understands it.  

            So, we’ve established the fact that we all fail.  Which means that this is a test that God gives to every single one of us.  And how we respond to our failure will determine whether we pass this test or not.   So, how should we deal with failure?  Let me mention four things.

1.         Acknowledge Your Failure

            The first thing we need to do is to just admit that we messed up.  In I John 1, the apostle John said, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  (I John 1:8-9).  

            Have you ever been around someone who messed up, but won’t admit it?  They won’t own up to they did, and you have to listen to all their excuses.

            We all know folks who constantly blame their failures on everything but themselves. They were fired because their boss was jealous of them. They got dumped because their girlfriend is nuts. They failed an exam because the questions the professor asked were unfair. The dog hasn’t just eaten their homework – it’s responsible for everything they failed to do.

            I think about King Saul when God told him to go fight the Amalekites and destroy them all, killing all the people and animals.  But King Saul brought back the king of Amalek and all the best of the animals.  When Samuel confronted him and asked him why he disobeyed God, Saul said, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” (I Samuel 15:13).  “I haven’t done anything wrong.”  To which Samuel said, “Why, then, do I hear cattle mooing and sheep bleating?” (I Samuel 15:14, GN).

            Then Saul said, “Well, it’s not my fault.”  “The people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.” (I Samuel 15:21). 

            This one event shows the big difference between King Saul and King David.  When Saul was confronted with his failure, he denied it and made excuses.  When David was confronted with his failure, he said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13). 

            Why do we sometimes find it so difficult to admit that we’ve messed up?  Everybody else knows that you failed, why don’t you just accept it and deal with it?  Just acknowledge it.  Turning around the impact of failure in your life begins with you.  Your first reaction may be to protest your innocence, but don’t do it.  When you know that you’ve genuinely failed, face up to it, acknowledge it, and move forward.  Because, if you don’t do that, you will spend the rest of your life trying to cover things up in denial.  Be honest about the mistakes you’ve made.

2.         Accept God’s Forgiveness

            After we acknowledge our failure and we turn to God in repentance, the next thing we need to do is accept God’s forgiveness.  Again, John said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  (I John 1:8).  

            If we are in Christ, we don’t need to wonder if God is angry with us because of our failure.  We know that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 8:1).  If you’re a child of God who is striving to please God, you don’t need to fear God’s wrath.  And it’s not because we’re perfect, it’s not because we haven’t messed up.  It’s because when God looks at you, he doesn’t see a failure, he sees a son or a daughter. 

            Let me tell you why it’s so very important that you understand that.  Because the truth is, there is sometimes condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  But it doesn’t come from God.  It comes from Satan.  The word “Satan” in Hebrew means “accuser”.  And Satan loves to accuse us.

            In Revelation 12:10, “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ.  For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.”

            He’s talking here about Satan.  Satan is the accuser.  He loves to accuse us and he does it constantly, day and night.  “Real Christians don’t do what you just did!  You’re hopeless!  You might as well admit your hypocrisy.  Just quit trying to be holy.”   Satan wants to fool us into believing that we are condemned.  He wants to trap us into believing that we have failed so badly that God doesn’t want anything to do with us. 

            And the truth is, we’ve all been there. We have failed and, as a result, we kicked ourselves, and we felt condemned.  And we turned away from God, not because we don’t love God, but because we’re ashamed.  We felt like a failure, and we listened to Satan tell us that God condemns us because of our failure. 

            But if we are in Christ, God says, “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:12).  And, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)

            We may say, “I feel like such a failure.”  But God says, “I forgive you.”  And I promise you on the authority of the Word of God that there is not anything you have done that God cannot forgive if you will come to him with repentance. When you fail, come to God and acknowledge your failure. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  (I John 1:8).   Accept God’s forgiveness.

3.         Learn From Your Failure

            This is such an important step.  Take the lesson you learned from your failure, and now use that lesson to do better the next time.  What a tragedy it is when we fail, but we don’t learn anything.  Because if we don’t learn anything from our failure, then we’re going to make the same mistake over and over and over again.  We have to learn to use our failure as a resource, as an opportunity and our failure can often be the door to great success.

            There’s a story that’s told about Tom Watson, the founder of IBM.  As the tradition goes, there was a very large government bid, close to a million dollars, that was on the table. Unfortunately, the salesman who was in charge of making that sale failed to secure the bid.  It cost the company a million dollars.

            The sales rep went to Mr. Watson’s office. He sat down and took an envelope out of his pocket that had his resignation in it and placed it on the desk.  Mr. Watson knew what it was.  He was expecting it.

            He asked the salesman, “What happened?”  The sales rep explained every step of the deal.  He talked about the mistakes that he made and what he could have done differently.  Finally, he said, “Thank you, Mr. Watson, for giving me a chance to explain. I know we needed this deal. I know what it meant to us.”

            Tom Watson looked him in the eye and handed the envelope back to him and said, “Why would I accept this when I have just invested one million dollars in your education?”

            That story may or may not be true, but the point of the story is true – The failure you experience and the mistakes you make are opportunities for you to grow.

            There’s a quote that says, “Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.”  God often allows our failures to become the catalyst for a more successful ministry in our lives. And here’s an important thought that I hope you won’t forget — learn to accept failure as a fact of life, not as a way of life.

            We all fail, but that doesn’t make us failures.  Moses failed, but he wasn’t a failure.  He took what he learned and did greater things for God.  David failed, but he wasn’t a failure.  He took what he learned and did greater things for God.  The apostle Peter failed, but he wasn’t a failure.  He took what he learned and did greater things for God. 

            Don’t ever forget that failure is an event, not a person. Failure is something you do, not something you become. It’s such a shame that, in our world, when somebody fails in some way, we say, “Well, he’s just a failure,” or we say he’s a loser, that’s our favorite term. But when we fail, that doesn’t make us a failure unless we refuse to learn from our mistakes.  If we do, we will allow that failure to continue and to make the same mistake over and over.  But it doesn’t need to be that way.

            We accept failure as a fact of life, but not as a way of life.  And the way to do that is to learn from our mistakes.

4.         Never Give Up

            When we fail, we have two choices.  The temptation is to wallow in self-pity, to feel sorry for yourself.  Your business fails, a relationship fails, you just feel sorry for yourself and you’ve not willing to take a chance again, because you’re afraid you might fail again.  Why take the risk?  Just give up.

            But the other option is to make sure that things are right with God, learn from the mistakes that you made, and then get up on your feet and start moving forward again.   Failure is not failure if you can learn from it.  Failure is only failure if you quit without learning anything from the experience.  The wise man Solomon said, A righteous person may fall seven times, but he gets up again.” (Proverbs 24:16

            I like the way a Scottish preacher by the name of Alexander White put it when he described spiritual growth like this.  He said, “Spiritual growth are the saints falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up, falling down and getting up all the way to heaven”.

            Failure doesn’t mean you have blown everything.  It means there are some lessons you need to learn.  It doesn’t mean you’re a loser.  It just means you’re not as smart as you thought you were.  It doesn’t mean you should give up.  It just means you need to turn to the Lord to help show you the next step.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that God has abandoned you. It just means that God a better plan.

            There are so many times in scriptures where God has to encourage people to not give up.  For example, he told king Asa, “But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.” (2 Chronicles 15:7, NIV)

            Paul wrote in Galatians 6, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

            I think of Moses who fled to the desert because he failed but God came to him and said, “There’s something else I need for you to do.”  I think of Elijah who ran into the wilderness and just wanted to die, but God came to him and said, “There’s something else I need for you to do.”  I think of Peter who failed Jesus miserably and was ready to go back to being a fisherman when Jesus came to him and said, “There’s something else I need for you to do.”

            We all fail.  We all fail God.  But failure is an event, not a destiny.  It’s not our initial failure that ruins us.  It’s what happens next that matters.

            Admit your failure.  Be honest about how you’ve messed up.  Seek forgiveness from God.  Learn from your mistakes.  And then get back on your feet and keep going.  Never, ever give up.  When we fail, we need to ask God to help us to learn from that failure so that we can become the kind of person  he wants us to be.


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