psychiatrist Paul Tournier writes about one of his most
humiliating experiences, which occurred when he spoke at a
university assembly. “I felt right from the first word that I
was not going to make contact with my audience. I clung to my
notes and laboriously recited with growing nervousness what I
had to say. As the audience left I could see my friends slipping
hurriedly away. . . . On the way home in my car with my wife, I
burst into tears.”*
The next day a professor of philosophy phoned him and said that
Tournier’s talk was indeed the worst he had ever heard. But he
added that he had sat through countless erudite lectures in his
lifetime that had left no impression on him, yet somehow he was
drawn to Tournier. A lasting friendship between the two
developed, which resulted in the professor’s becoming a
Christian. Tournier came to look back upon the disastrous
lecture as one of the great successes of his life.
His experience reminds us that God so often sees success and
failure in different terms than we do. One of the most
unfortunate effects of failure is the pessimistic outlook it
brings on. We start imagining all sorts of dreadful consequences
resulting from our bungled effort. Ironically, our failure may
be a success in God’s mind, contributing in a most positive way
to our future and to his intentions for our life.
I think of several disappointments in dating that I had when
I was single, where relationships didn’t develop as I wished. In
each case my sense of failure was so overwhelming that I saw my
future cast in concrete as a miserable, lonely person. Today I
look on those experiences quite differently. Not only did I
learn volumes, but the no’s--so painful to hear at the
time--eventually cleared the way for a yes from one who was much
better suited to be my life mate.
Losing the Battle
There are, to be sure, times when failure is more than just a
perceived experience. There are times when we have clearly
fallen short not only of our own standards but of God’s. Here it
becomes especially difficult to feel positive about failure.
A military defeat of the Israelites in Joshua 7 is
instructive. The Jews have experienced many successes in battle
under Joshua and have become headstrong. Now they decide to take
on Ai with only a few thousand soldiers, greatly underestimating
their opponent’s strength. In addition, they don’t know that one
of their number, Achan, has taken some “devoted” items from a
previous battle--items which God commanded destroyed--thus
arousing his wrath against Israel.
Ai chases back Israel’s army and kills thirty-six men--a
relatively minor defeat--but “the hearts of the [Israelites]
melted and became like water” (v. 5). Joshua, devastated,
wallows on the ground and prays, “Ah, Sovereign LORD,
why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver
us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? . . . The
Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about
this and will surround us and wipe our name from the earth” (vv.
God doesn’t debate Joshua’s predictions of doom, but gives
him practical instruction: he is to rid Israel of the one who
has taken the devoted things. Joshua obeys. Then God tells him
to take all the fighting men and attack Ai again. This
time Israel has a resounding victory.
The Israelites gained two immeasurable benefits from their
defeat with Ai: a deeper awareness of where they were vulnerable
to sinning against God, and a sharper understanding of the
logistics necessary to rout a formidable foe. When they
repented, and put their new insights into action, they became
remarkably successful at a point of previous failure.
Winning the War
When we know we have displeased God, we’re often tempted to
remain at the wallowing stage. Like Joshua, we cannot see past
our failure, and all our thoughts are colored by it. “God
intends to keep punishing me, and the whole future is on a roll
against me,” we suppose. At such times we must put into practice
everything we know about repentance and about the grace and
forgiveness of Christ.
But we must also take into account everything we know about
the creative power of God. He is speaking to us as he did to
Joshua, telling us to learn what we can from our failure and
move on. Through failure we can gain vital insights into
ourselves--our strengths and limitations--that may not come any
And, as Tournier’s experience reminds us, failure may have
more than just educational value. The failure may in fact be a
success that we don’t yet recognize. There are times when we
don’t live up to our own expectations but fulfill God’s quite
All of this is not to suggest that we
should ever court failure. As Christians we’re called to
excellence and diligence in what we do. But too often the fear
of failure keeps us from taking the risks necessary to build
relationships and develop our potential for Christ.
In their classic
In Search of Excellence, Thomas Peters and Robert
Waterman note that the most productive American corporations
encourage their employees to be comfortable with failing. A
certain number of failures are necessary to produce an effective
product or to enjoy a breakthrough in research. Without the
freedom to fail, creativity is stifled. So, in the workplace,
and in our daily lives, failing can be a good thing--a necessary
means toward our growth and eventual success.
How much more this is true with our service for Christ! There
are few principles of the Christian life more important to
learn. We must not fail at this point.