The transformative power of failure

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So many people fear failure that there is an actual word describing it… atychiphobia. Perhaps failure would not be so fearful a prospect if we realised its inherent redemptive power.

I have long believed that failure is a great teacher and that we cannot really claim to have learned something completely until we have failed at mastering it at least once. Failure has the power to change us for the better and to redeem us from unproductive ways of life. Yet, the other day I listened to a Pastor declaring that the ‘word’ God had given to him to live by and to teach was; ‘There shall be 100% success, zero failure, for everyone who comes to him in faith believing’. Hmmmm.

Consider some of the qualities we can gain when we fail; qualities like humility, perseverance, and patience. You must have heard that old line “God, please give me patience, and give it to me now!”, but how do we learn to be patient without repeatedly failing to be patient?

Perseverance too is a quality acquired only through repeated failures. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, was fired from two jobs for being ‘non-productive’. Years later, someone asked him how he felt about failing 1,000 times before he succeeded in producing a working light bulb. He answered, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps”. Of course, he did fail over and over again, but he understood that these failures were necessary steps to achieving his goal.

Elon Musk, the South African born wonder-child of the 21st century is a modern example of failure-wrought perseverance. He created a company, which he named SpaceX, to build rockets, but the first three failed at launch. Later, he developed the electrical Tesler car but it brought him to the verge of bankruptcy. Today he is worth in excess of 2.2 billion dollars!

In addition to patience and perseverance, we only learn humility and dependence on God when we fail to achieve real life success in our own strength. Carefully read Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10:

‘To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong’.

This powerful declaration brings into focus the real nature of success. We sometimes fear failure because we see it as denying us success, yet failure is actually a potent means to true success. Paul defines success in terms of humility and dependence rather than arrogant independence, and in weakness rather than strength. Why? Because he understood that a major part of our life’s goal is to become like Jesus, and Jesus was the epitome of truly ‘successful’ qualities. J.I Packer wrote in ‘Knowing God’ that ‘so many in our day seem to have been distracted from what was, is, and always will be the true priority for every human being – that is, learning to know God in Christ’.

William Lane Craig tells the story of how he failed his oral examination for his doctor of theology degree. He and his wife had relocated to Germany so that he could study under the great Wolfhart Pannenberg, the same man who gave him a failing mark. William returned to the USA humbled and disheartened. However, the German higher education system allowed a failed candidate to retake the oral examination after a further year of preparation. He recounts how during that year he learned more theology than he had acquired in all of his formal education to that point. A year later, he was re-examined by professor Pannenberg and passed Cum Laude. William Lane Craig has now written or served as editor for over 30 books, he debates the sharpest minds in the non-Christian world, and was named as one of the 50 most influential living philosophers.

“Success is often the product of failure and great success the product of many failures.”

If you would like some examples of monumental failures recorded in scripture then examine the lives of people like Gideon, Jonah, and Peter. I believe that Peter would have been unfit to lead the early church if his flawed character had not been redeemed through failure. Of course, the greatest example of all is the Lord Jesus Christ. John 6:66 records how after hearing Jesus teach some difficult concepts ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him’. After His crucifixion there were only 11 disciples and 109 other men and women left (Acts 1:15), yet the ‘gates of hell’ (Matthew 16:18) have not prevailed against His church and as of 2010 there were over 2.2 billion Christians worldwide – one for each dollar acquired by Elon Musk, yet inestimably more valuable.

If atychiphobia is the word for the fear of failure, I wonder what word would describe the acceptance of failure as a means to true success. Let me know if you come up with one.

‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards’ Søren Kierkegaard, Danish Christian philosopher and theologian, 1844

 

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