The Upside of Failing

06_VonKanel_JNBy Danny R. Von Kanel

Devastated or disappointed by your recent failure? Maybe you should see it as the first step toward your success.

Christian businessman James Cash Penney Jr., who founded the J.C. Penney retail chain in the early 1900s, failed in his first foray into business in 1898, after he refused to give liquor to the cook of the hotel that was buying a good percentage of the meat from his butcher shop.

Though Penney was devastated by the blow, in the end, it proved to be a blessing.

Penney had a unique view of failing that resulted in renewed energy for the next opportunity. Seeing the upside of failure comes when we view failure as:


A Momentary Winter

Failing can feel like the cold days of winter: dark and gloomy, a discouragement to initiative and drive. Yet, just as seasons pass, discouragement is just momentary, and spring is around the corner. Success is in the next opportunity.

Penney didn’t despair for long when the butcher shop failed. He soon got a job as a store clerk at the Golden Rule dry goods store (part of a small chain), became a manager, bought out the owners in 1907, and replaced the name of the stores with his own. J.C. Penney stores have survived ever since.1

Moses’ winter season came after he killed the Egyptian and fled to Midian (Exodus 2:11-25). The disciples’ chilling season of what seemed like failure started with the crucifixion of Christ. Joseph’s dark season came suddenly, when his brothers sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:12-27).

Yet, God did not leave nor forsake his people or his Son. Spring arrived. God empowered Moses to lead the nation Israel out of bondage in Egypt and to the edge of the promised land. Jesus was resurrected, as he had promised, and left the Holy Spirit to ignite his disciples to change the world. Joseph rose to prominence and was put in charge of the whole land of Egypt (Genesis 41:41).


A Time for Learning

What did you learn? What mistakes can you avoid the next time? What worked? Failure can teach us, but will we learn?

Years ago, I planned a retreat that ended as a total fiasco. It was poorly attended, the food was terrible, and participants came and went as they pleased. (For the record, I chose a venue that was too close to our church location.)

Since that day, I’ve scheduled retreat sites that are some distance from “home,” I arrange for food or catering that is highly recommended, and I limit our transportation to one vehicle or bus. I learned from my mistakes.

Life is full of failure. Whether we are seeking a job, pursuing an award, developing a relationship, or chasing a life goal, many of us face rejection, loss, and failure. The key is how we respond. To continue in the same manner will reap the same results. We must learn from our mistakes.

I have found these three things are helpful:

Ask—What went wrong? Why did I fail?

Correct—Work to improve your shortcomings. Do more research and preparation. Seek forgiveness and restoration. Examine goals in light of your skills, abilities, and commitment.

Celebrate—Identify the silver linings in your failures; rejoice in them and build on them. Find some form of unseen benefit in failure that will encourage renewed efforts toward success.


A Season for Reflection

Pride can precede failure. Confess pride, move on in humility, and trust God. Such dependence is necessary for future success.

After we fail, reflection on our pride might be the place to start. Did pride play a part? I know it did in the failed retreat I described above. Planning and administration are among my strengths. I remember saying, “This is the best retreat I’ve ever planned.” The problem is, it was my retreat, and God had nothing to do with it.

Pride is interwoven in our failures more times than we would like to admit. Pride comes before a fall (Proverbs 16:18).

A highly effective technique for eliminating pride as a reason for your failures is to surround yourself with people who will keep you humble—good-natured folks who are not above poking fun at you. Entering any decision, project, and endeavor in a spirit of humility offers the best chance of avoiding pride’s destructive power.

Yet pride is no laughing matter. King Nebuchadnezzar’s pride brought about his humiliation (Daniel 4:28-33). Haman enabled his own destruction because of pride (Esther 5:9—7:10).

King Nebuchadnezzar temporarily lost his sanity and lived in the wild in failure. Haman failed as a successful noble and political adviser to the king. Satan, the highest angel in Heaven, fell and became God’s archenemy because of pride. Reflection on others’ failings should cause us to pause and reflect on our own pride issues.


A Period for Renewed Preparation

Failure places us in a position to begin preparation for our next opportunity. As a part of that, counting the cost, knowing the risk, and assessing what’s needed should occupy our thinking.

Coupled with pride, many failures trace to simple lack of preparation. After failure, we should move forward toward success. Preparation is essential.

• Count the cost. What does success cost in time, energy, and money? What sacrifices to health, family, and spiritual well-being will pursuit of success bring? Make sure God is leading whatever you do.

• Know the risk. Every pursuit contains risk. Yet, history proves people who avoid risk never accomplish anything. Risks can include financial loss, missed time with family, rejection, dashed dreams, and misconstrued intentions, among others.

• Assess what’s needed. Successful pursuits always involve resources. Who you know always helps. Enlist family and friends in your endeavors. Never go alone. Make use of loans, grants, and other financial resources to reach goals. Enlist a third party to mediate resolution in soured relationships.

Preparation for new endeavors after failure puts us in the best possible place for success. As we trust God, he will honor our preparation.


A Marker from Where Success Begins

Failure can clean the slate for clear vision, renewed dependence on God, and a refreshed hope for better days.

Moses, Joseph, Daniel, and Peter, among others, seized the moment of their failure and began an upward journey toward prominence. Scripture speaks well of their ultimate end. History celebrates their contribution to God’s kingdom.

Mark the date of failure. Set periodical goals toward ultimate success. Let each one lead to the next marker. Celebrate along the way. Remember where you’ve been and where you’re going. Let it become a “talking point” in your life story, and join many other narratives from failure to success.

Failure does have an upside. Viewed as a momentary winter, a time for learning, a season for reflection, a period of renewed preparation, and as a marker where success begins, you can begin moving forward and find ultimate success.



1Doug McInnis, “James Cash Penney: From Clerk to Chain-store Tycoon,” accessed at


Danny R. Von Kanel is a freelance writer and public school music teacher living in Franklinton, Louisiana. His latest book, Building Your Life by the Owner’s Design, was released in 2013 by 4RV Publishing.


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