Failure isn’t really the main problem in this world. There are remedies for failures, and often clear steps to take so that in the wake of failure our lives can be stronger, richer, more compassionate, and more honest than they ever might have been without failing at all.
So failure’s not the biggest problem any of us face. The critical moments are the steps we take immediately after though. It’s those steps that will become the main determinants of our future. So here’s a quick and (I hope) practical guide, offering both critical steps to avoid and critical steps to take, after failure.
Steps to Avoid
Denial – Rock climbing is nice because a fail is always an obvious failure. It can be valuable and transformative, but it’s always a failure. Nobody cheers when you fall. I wish all of life were that easy because perhaps the biggest problem with respect to many failures is that we remain blissfully and intentionally unaware. We’ve got a temper problem, or control problem, or abuse problem, or a drinking problem, but don’t see it. In our own minds though, we’re just social drinkers, and have the guts to tell the truth when nobody else will, or to take control of things, or to put people in their place so that things can get done.
Any failure that remains hidden will be repeated over and over again until it becomes a deep part of our character. This is the first and primary reason we’re a world of addicts and abusers. If we could ever move beyond the denial stage, we’d eventually do the beautiful and hard work of transformation, but until we overcome denial, we can’t overcome anything else. This applies, of course, to persons and institutions. A relentless commitment to uncovering reality, or “ground truth” as Susan Scott likes to say, is not the solution to anything—but it’s surely the first step for everything.
Of course, it’s easier to see your failures than mine. There’s no shortage of critics in this world. That’s why I love David in the Bible. His interest was in his own transformation when he prayed that God would search his heart and “reveal any unclean ways”. Try praying that, and the remedy for failure will begin to work immediately!
Blame – Once I’ve embraced the reality of the situation, it’s vital that I own my part. If it’s marriage, or church, or the corporate world, I’ll be sorely tempted to deflect my responsibility for the problem by blaming “circumstances beyond my control”. You know the suspects: spouse, board, pastor, co-worker, boss.
Of course there are circumstances beyond our control, but our response to those circumstances is entirely ours. We were free to leave and we stayed, or vice versa. We were free to respond with grace, but we lashed out. We were free to find comfort in some redemptive way, but we self-medicated with drugs, or porn, or drink, or shopping instead. It happened. Don’t blame the others.
Shame/Cynicism – For lots of Christ followers these twins are the biggest problems. Though they’re not exactly the same thing, they both have the effect of taking us out of God’s story. Embrace shame and you’ll say that you’re nothing but rubbish, and that God has nothing for you, and can’t/won’t use the likes of you. Don’t believe it for two seconds. A quick overview of the Bible shows us that some of the people most deeply involved in God’s story had also sold family members as slaves, slept with their daughter-in-law, committed adultery and murdered the husband, had a quick temper and rushed to judgement, doubted, had arrogance problems until their catastrophic failure forced confession etc., etc. O yes. God can use you. Whether you stay in the game or go to the bench for a break is God’s prerogative, not yours. But don’t preemptively bench yourself—you may never get back in.
Steps to Take
Embrace – This is really the positive flip side of denial. “Yes” we say, to ourselves if our failure is private, or to the one or ones we’ve hurt if public, “I failed—I own it without excuses.” You drank too much, or ate too much, or look back at your week and see that you didn’t pursue Christ, or exercise, or engage your neighbors in conversation, or whatever it was that you said you’d do and didn’t.
Own it. In the Bible this is called confession, and we’re told it’s the key to moving forward, both with relationships, and in our own internal freedom. I needed to do this again this morning—and pray it will remain a lifestyle for the rest of my days.
Learn – This principle requires more space than a sub-point in a blog post, but it’s vital. If you failed to a reach a goal, maybe it’s too big a goal and you need to adjust, or maybe it was just a bad week and you need to start fresh tomorrow. If it’s some besetting sin like anger, drinking, cynicism, or unhealthy sex, you need to discover why you go there; what are the triggers that move you, and how can you avoid them?
How can you build your life differently to favor transformation? Do you need accountability? Counseling? A chat with a friend who’ll walk with you in pursuit of your transformation? Someone to exercise with? Find your next step and take it.
Receive – Receive forgiveness from Christ, and hopefully from others, if others are involved. It’s vital to believe we’re forgiven because there’ll be a little shadow creature perched on your shoulder telling you that you are your failure, that you’ll never get over it, that you’re worthless rubbish and “why bother”—all in an attempt to keep you stuck in your patterns and failure. Give that voice the finger please—any finger you want, as long as the result is that you stand in the truth that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ.
Continue – I watched a little kid take an epic fall skiing a couple years ago. I was heading up on the lift and I saw him lose control, fall, slide 150′ down the hill, scraping his face on ice the whole way, and then screaming as he lay there in pain. I quickly got off the lift and skied down to see if I could help or call ski patrol. By the time I got there, he was putting his skis on again and within seconds was off again, bombing down the mountain.
I thought to myself, “Learn from this, R. This is how you fall and fail well. Whatever else you do, you need to get up and carry on.”
Please don’t misunderstand this critical last step. I’m not suggesting that we simply proceed as if nothing’s happened. Do that and we’ll just fall harder the next time. There’s a time to leave your job; or your church; or your leadership position, or your abusive relationship. The steps we’ll need to take in order to be free and really grow often require dramatic changes.
But, and here’s the key, they are changes toward transformation. Wisdom will be able to identify the steps God has for us. Leave your position. Change your church. File for separation and insist that your spouse get help precisely because you want a loving marriage rather than a shell. Join a gym. Find a program that limits your time on social media. Whatever it is… do it.