Failure, Formation, and a Hopeful Future

By Mark A. Taylor

It’s a principle of leadership whose impact we may not have grasped for our spiritual lives: failure is often the prelude to success. In fact great success may not happen unless it’s built on a foundation of failure.

In a way, this is nothing new. We know about Thomas Edison’s thousands of efforts to find a filament for the electric light bulb. “I have not failed,” he said. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

History teachers tell us how Abraham Lincoln suffered defeat after defeat only to rise to greatness. Others describe J.C. Penney’s butcher shop failure that led him to work in a store he eventually bought and built into a successful retail chain.

Smart businesses—and effective ministries and local congregations—acknowledge failures and learn from them. The most successful encourage failure, because they know nothing can teach us more. Staff members allowed to fail will embrace risk. When their supervisors refrain from punishing failure but instead ask, “How can this help us decide what’s next?” future efforts are more likely to succeed.

Even though this is a common theme for inspirational speakers at leadership conferences, many find it difficult to put into practice. And this lesson is most difficult to apply to our own individual, intimate breakdowns. Especially among Christians, spiritual failure is too often a catalyst for unproductive shame instead of progress or growth.

Casey Tygrett addresses this problem in his challenging new bookBecoming Curious. He takes us to the familiar story of Peter’s threefold denial and points out the courage that led him to the courtyard close to Jesus’ accusers. Of all the disciples, Peter was the only one who didn’t run and hide, Tygrett reminds us. And consider what could have happened if Peter had not denied Christ. He, too, might have been seized and executed, and then we would not have his powerful Pentecost sermon (Acts 2), challenging example of bold witness (Acts 4), remarkable testimony about God’s will for Gentiles (Acts 10, 11), or principles for Christian life and growth preserved in Scripture (1, 2 Peter).

“Is it possible,” Tygrett asks, “that we can be formed even through our greatest failure, and that our failure could actually be a catalyst for great goodness?”

This is not to say sin isn’t wrong or obedient Christians won’t grow unless they slip up. This is not to ignore the devastating consequences that often follow spiritual failure. But by denying or hiding or trying to ignore the incidents or instincts that bring us greatest shame, we shortchange our spiritual development.

Instead, we can grow by admitting and analyzing our failure. We can become stronger when we ask questions like these: What can I learn from this mistake—what preceded it, how could I have prevented it? How can I avoid this problem in the future? What does this failure teach me that I can use to help others? In the face of God’s limitless love and grace, how does it motivate me to serve him with greater discipline and devotion?

Another, less familiar quote from Thomas Edison helps here. “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up,” he said. ‘The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

The apostle Paul, also no stranger to spiritual failure, tells us what he learned: “One thing I do,” he wrote the Philippians. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (3:13, 14).

Confronted with the question “Have you failed this week?” every honest Christian will answer yes. Therein lies the possibility for better days ahead. Failure, more often than we want to allow, can be the seedbed for success.


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