Failures are going to happen. This is a life-reality “no brainer”! Still, we struggle mightily whenever we say or do the wrong thing, make the wrong choice, or pursue the wrong path. One of the most difficult consequences of our failures is how it affects other people. None of us starts off in ministry wanting to hurt people. Yet, inevitably, you can count on the fact that you will experience failure and people will be affected.
But, we take heart! The Scripture has so much to say about failure. The psalmist puts it this way, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26). I am especially encouraged by Prov. 24:16: “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.” One of the discernible signs of the righteous is their resiliency in failure. If only we could remember that our strengths often play rival to Jesus’ agenda while it is our weaknesses which are his allies. The apostle Paul learned this: “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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
In the last post, we looked at three lesson we can learn from failure in ministry. So what other lessons can we learn from our failures?
We tend to forget that for our spouses and our children, faith and trust in God is “caught” more than “taught.” It’s what they see in us when things are hard that will shape their minds and hearts to far greater degree than what our words alone can do. This is the power of what Moses recorded as our “by the way” teaching that happens in the learning community of our family. Your spouse is watching and learning from you—even on your darkest day. Your children’s view of God and of the Christian faith are being shaped in the midst of the stress and turmoil. Don’t forget your responsibility to point them to God and to submit to him even in the heartbreak.
This doesn’t mean trying to hide things from them, especially from your wife. rather, you can bring your cries of anguish to the One who cares for you and for them. I know this is one of the reasons why so many raw emotions and words from the lips of the saints have been inscripturated for us, cries like “How long, oh Lord!” Remember that you teach your family the true nature of faith when you are in pain as much, if not more than, when you are blissfully happy. Show them what faith in 1 Pet. 5:6–7 looks like by obediently humbling yourself “under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
Jesus knows our hearts so well. He correctly identifies the source of sin in Mark 7:21–22: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” Here are all the ways in which we fail to honor the image of God as it exists in us and our neighbor. Much on this dark list comes from the sinful responses we have toward others for whom we have developed negative feelings for one reason or another.
I confess that I as I review this list I can identify sins that took hold of my heart and life because of the bitterness I had from those who, in the course of ministry, kicked me while I was down. In response, in my heart, I returned them the favor, something that Jesus directly addressed (see Matt. 5:21–22). It reminds me of something one of my first mentors in ministry said. “As you grow older in ministry, one of two things will happen,” he said. “You will either sweeten, or you will sour.” It is so true. The gospel provides the remedy to our deepest level of brokenness. In receiving new life and being united to Christ, we have new abilities and desires. Paul instructs us, therefore, to put away the evil practices of the “old self”: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk (Col. 3:8). Consider how liable we are to committing these particular sins when we’ve been hurt by others! Then consider what we are called to “put on” by grace: “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:12–14).
So, beware the “root of bitterness” (Heb. 12:15). Wash your wounds with the Word and seek forgiveness and healing. Bitterness that festers in the wounds of the heart will lead to poor decisions and reactions, which only spreads more hurt and pain.
This lesson goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. But the issue here centers on the spiritual reality of which Eph. 6:12 reminds us. Our primary foe is not the flesh-and-blood type, but the invisible-and-evil type. In Jesus’ greatest moment of human weakness, his temptations in the desert, Satan drew near to him. He attacked him at a point of vulnerability. You can be sure that our Adversary and his minions will be watching and waiting for just such an opportune time in your life. The admonitions of Eph. 6 are useful especially in such times. Jesus shows us the way to handle these attacks. He fends off the Enemy by clinging to the Word!
Your spiritual integrity will be tested by failure. You will be laid open to Satan’s attack. These are the times when we must run to the Word and desperately cling to every truth, every promise, and every command. The Word is a refuge for us. We must not forget this. David proclaimed about God that “his way is perfect” and that “the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 18:30; compare 2 Sam. 22). Let this be our anthem in failure!
Of all the lessons I have learned in ministry, this lesson is the most repeated. God is sovereign. “The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Ps. 33:10). No matter what occurs, regardless of the choices made, we can rest assured that God’s plan is going according to plan. We must remember this when we fail. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Prov. 19:21). Yes, we struggle to reconcile our ability to choose and bear responsibility for those choices with his sovereign and single plan for time and eternity. Yet, the Scripture acknowledges repeatedly (because we forget) that, at the end of the day, his will is done (see Isa. 46:8–10). And this should be a great comfort to us. We are to take refuge in the incomprehensible mystery of the sovereignty of God, especially when things are at their worst in our lives. What greater testament is there to this than Paul’s words in Rom. 8:28? “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
In the midst of failures, it’s the words “all things” here that comfort me most. “All things” means all things! This includes all my failings and shortcomings. My successes too are part of the “all things.” God is on the throne. We need not fear failures because they are no surprise to our glorious King and Ruler. Knowing this doesn’t mean that we simply shrug off our failures or think that they don’t matter. They do. And that’s the point. Your failures do matter in the same way everything matters. God is in control of every detail, every event, every circumstance, every moment.
As his children by grace, we have been made aware of this by God himself. Why? So that we can trust him more. Trust him! Trust him with your failures. Trust him with your heart. Trust him with the outcome. Trust him with the hurt no one sees. Trust him with the unknown. He is worthy of your trust. Even in your failures, don’t fail to trust him.
Josh Matteson is married to Tracey and they have three sons. They live in Phoenix where Josh pastors GraceLife Church. He is a graduate of Phoenix Seminary and has pastored in the valley for over 15 years. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter.