4 Tips for Handling Failure Biblically

Did you know that your methods of handling failure will impact your relationships tremendously?

Let's face it. There will be disappointments in life. Conflicts. Rejection. Criticism. Unmet expectations. More to do than you have time for. Discontent children, employer or customers. Complaining in-laws or friends. Character flaws you can't seem to overcome. Christian standards you can never seem to meet. You won't make everyone happy, all the time. You should just recognize this and not be surprised when any of those things happen, right?

But if you have a tendency toward perfectionism, you irrationally believe that if someone is displeased with you, if you don't accomplish enough, or if you aren't "good" enough, then you are a failure. Then you spiral downward with debilitating feelings of self-pity and depression. The nagging refrain you hear in your mind is, "I'm a failure." This is a hard identity to live with. 

A friend of mine who battles shame from being abused as a child shares the raw emotions of handling failure in her relationships when she lived with a church family for a while. Here is what she wrote in her blog,  "How can I still be, after all these years... a home wrecker? Dammit. I long for peace, yet I reap tension, bitterness, and strife. Is there nowhere I can truly belong? The cry of my heart is, Love me! Accept me! Be okay with who I am!...The curse of dysfunction follows me wherever I go. I cannot escape it. I feel like the specter of Death-- what I touch, whom I love, the very air I breathe... all becomes tainted, polluted, and decay sets in. Am I doomed to an isolated existence? I thought I had found the antidote to that... but instead, I found that it was a mirage. A placebo. You thought you could belong. Sorry. You're still ****ed up. What you touch turns to ashes. If only you believed in incarnation-- you could try again in your next life."

Have you ever been there? I have.

My Personal Experience in handling failure

It wasn't until recently that I realized I had atychiphobia (fear of failure). My pattern of handling failure left me feeling much like an air compressor.  

When I had devotions the switch turned on…brmmmmmmm….and the pressure started going up. I sensed God's unconditional love and my sincere desire for the day was to glorify Him with my life. My motivation and self worth climbed like the needle inside the gauge. I felt great like I had an inner force carrying me through my responsibilities.

Then, when off my guard, I would do or say something thoughtless and my husband would react with criticism or anger. He withdrew and I would feel like someone turned the knob on the bottom and let out all the pressure. I felt deflated. There was no air inside to keep going. I FAILED. I'm a Failure. I blew it despite my most holy ambitions. 

My pattern of handling failure was to nurse self pity and say insulting things to myself like,

  • "Why are you such an idiot?" 

  • "How could you be so thoughtless? Where's your brain?" 

  • "When are you ever going to get yourself together?" 

  • "Nothing you do is good enough"

I wished I could just melt into the floor and disappear or sleep the rest of the day. But since life doesn't work that way and responsibilities don't care if you are going through a conflict, I would turn on my auto pilot, and go through the motions of my day while stewing and making up excuses or finding reasons to blame my circumstances or my husband for my failure. I would clam up, become unaffectionate and irritable if my kids asked too much of me. Then when I was alone, I would cry and choke out a desperate prayer for help in handling failure. 

It was then that the Holy Spirit comforted me and empowered me with Scriptural discernment and the courage and humility to take the log out of my own eye and apologize. My husband would do the same and we kissed and made up and things would go back to normal. I am thankful we have always had reconciliation, but until that happened, my state of mind was a living hell. I realized I needed to study how God says I should be handling failure. 

What I learned is that there are different types of failures.

  • Structural Failure – Due to the infrastructure, goals are not achieved or realized. Example: You can't lose weight because you have thyroid issues. A biblical example would be the Israelites wanting a King. Changing their governmental structure led to centuries of failure for them as a nation. 

  • Glorious Failure - Going out in a botched but beautiful blaze of glory; catastrophic but exhilarating. It's the, "give-it-all-you-got" type failure where you still earn the applause of people for at least trying. Example: Proposing at a televised basket ball game and she says no. Humiliating, but hey, at least you tried. 

  • Predicted failure – Failure as an essential part of a process that allows you to see  more clearly because of the shortcomings. Example: Babe Ruth having the highest strike out record along with the most home runs in a season. It's not doing the same thing over again, expecting different results. But it's doing almost the same thing over again with little tweaks until you get it right. 

  • Common Failure - Everyday instances of messing up. Oversleeping and being late to class. Losing your keys. Not paying your bills on-time. Sticking your foot in your mouth. Burning your cookies. Getting turned down for a date. Flunking a pop quiz. Don't beat yourself up over it, but if you see a pattern, you may need to become more organized and self disciplined. 

  • Moral spiritual failure –You sense your guilt from acting irresponsibly or sinfully. These failures keep you from genuine intimacy with God and keep you from being authentic with others. Examples: Sexual immorality, lying, cheating, stealing, drunkenness, addictions, etc. 

In regards to handling failure on a moral level, one preacher pointed out, "Failure is one of those things at which all of us excel. And yet, we seldom talk about this subject of our “expertise”—except when it emerges from the closets of others. And because we seldom talk about our failures, many people think they are alone in their struggles with failure. They’re crying out for help, but they cannot seem to reach out to us. They think we’re so perfect—so successful—or so spiritual that we will not understand, but rather condemn, them. So they choose to hide their painful struggles with failure along with the rest of us, pretending all is well.” –Samuel Pippim, My Song in the Night audio series. 

If you have a pattern of not handling failure well, you will not only struggle in your human relationships by being fake and hiding your true self, but you will also probably struggle spiritually, with thoughts like these: 

  • “What’s the point of devotions if it’s not changing me?”

  • "Am I really converted? A converted person doesn’t have these thoughts and struggles." 

  • "If I've prayed before about this and nothing has changed, dare I pray again and hope for a different outcome?" 

  • "How can I witness to others of the power and grace of God when I mess up in such elementary areas?" 

Today I want to share with you how start handling failure biblically because it will immensely impact your most intimate relationships. 

1. Evaluate your definition of success

In the show, "The Biggest Loser," obese people exercise like crazy and lose a bunch of weight by the end. Does that mean the show was successful? Well, yeah, according to their standard of success. But, 85-90% of the contestants regain their weight afterwards. It all depends on how you're measuring.

You may feel like the biggest looser because you have a dark side. Everyone at church thinks you have it all together but you know better and you dare not reveal your true self for fear of being rejected or judged. You may struggle with sexual sins, addictions, eating disorders, anger, bitterness, or shame but you feel "they" wouldn't understand so you hide and pretend and deny...and you're getting tired of faking it. 

On top of the deep seated insecurities and character defects are all the annoying failures you experience too often. You lost your keys...again. You forgot to pay a bill and incurred a fee. You stayed up too late watching frivolous You Tube videos and now you're exhausted at work. You snapped at a customer. You're still single and there's no prospects on the horizon. You forgot your best friend's birthday and feel guilty about it. You have no self control over that bag of chocolate chips in your freezer and frankly don't care anymore. 

Feeling condemned all the time by yourself, by others or by God is stressful. The question is, how should you measure your success or failure? 

Look at Proverbs 24:15-16 "Don't be a cruel person who attacks good people and hurts their families. 16 Even if good people fall seven times, they will get back up. But when trouble strikes the wicked, that's the end of them. (Contemporary English Version)

Proverbs is full of contrasts between wise and foolish people, as well as righteous and wicked people. What distinguishes the righteous from the wicked in this verse? Perseverance. This good guy falls royally. Yes, seven is a holy number symbolizing perfection, fullness, abundance and completion. He is a complete failure. But he keeps handling failure by getting back up. He doesn't give up and quit. 

Look also at Psalm 37:24 "The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and he delighteth in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the Lord upholdeth him with his hand."

Your fall isn't fatal. It's a stumble. You tripped. God is still holding your hand and won't let you face-plant. The grace of God is so amazing. He's there to help you when handling failure. He doesn't forsake you. 

Micah 7:8 also says the "Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me."

You may be thinking, O great. So you're saying I should be handling failure by just continuing to try harder? I've been trying harder. It may work for a time but my best is just never good enough. I'm tired of handling failure." 

No, that's not what I'm saying. Your definition of success is hitting "the mark" every time (living up to everyone's expectations), but God's definition of success is growth. Handling failure biblically means being humble and repentant and allowing your failures to refine you and make you better. 

2. Evaluate your Identity

I've always laughed at Zig Ziglar's method of motivation and character growth, but I'm starting to see that he's onto something. He says every day for 30 days, you should stand in front of the mirror, look yourself in the eye and recite affirmations such as, "I am an honest, intelligent, organized, responsible, teachable person..." He says to do this because in Joel 3:10 it says "let the weak say I am strong." Therefore, even if you aren't these things, you can claim and develop these character qualities in your life by reminding yourself of the identity you can have in Christ because:

  • you are His child (John 1:12),
  • you are in the will of God
  • you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you (Phil 4:13).


Doesn't that feel like you're using pride for handling failure? No, it's retraining your thoughts and beliefs to become more in harmony with who God thinks you are and who he wants you to become.

In another book written by two successful biblical counselors, they elaborate about the issue of identity and how it affects our relationships:

"One of the most important ways we try to make sense out of life is by telling ourselves who we are. We all have an "I am ______, therefore I can __________" way of living....The identity I assign myself will always affect the way I respond to you. For example, if I tell myself that I am smarter than you, it will be hard for me to listen when you give me advice. If I tell myself that I deserve your respect, I will watch to see if you are giving me what I think I deserve. In ways like this, my sense of identity will always shape the way I think about my life and my relationships." Then the author gives an example from their counseling experience. "Rob got his identity from success and achievement, but he constantly felt like Matt was in his way. Matt got his identity from the respect and acceptance of the people around him; he personalized all the disagreements he had with Rob. You can see how issues of identity were complicating this relationship." (Relationships: A mess worth making, Lane and Trip, p. 57)

When you really stop to think about various characters in the Bible you can see how wrong reactions came when they forgot who they were, and the godly responses that came when they remembered. For example:

If Adam and Eve had remembered they were God's creatures, intended to live within the boundaries God had designed for them, not independent decision makers, they would not have bought into Satan's lies and ate the forbidden fruit.

Paul and Silas on the other hand remembered that their welfare and freedom were in the hands of an all powerful God who was their Father. As a result they were able to sing hymns in the Philippian jail...and become free! Their responses to circumstances stemmed from who they believed they were.

"Much of the disappointment and heartache we experience is the result of our attempts to get something from relationships that we already have in Christ....When you seek to define who you are through those relationships, you are actually asking another sinner to be your personal messiah, to give you the inward rest of soul that only God can give... If I am seeking to get identity from you, I will watch you too closely, listen to you too intently, and need you too fundamentally."  (p. 59) 

To summarize, they say "Either I get my identity vertically, out of my sense of who God is and who he has made me in Christ, or I will seek to get my identity horizontally, out of my circumstances, relationships and successes." (p. 58)

This is easier said than done, of course. 

I like to read a certain blog called "Hands Free Mama." In one of her posts, she talks about how during her earlier years of parenting, she bullied her child. "She could not make a mess without me shaking my head in disappointment. She could not forget her homework, her jacket, or her lunchbox without me making a big deal about it. She could not spill, stain, break, or misplace without being made to feel like she’d made the worst mistake in the world. Although it pains me to write this, I remember sighing heavily in annoyance when she fell down and hurt herself because it threw me off my “master schedule. My daughter was not allowed to be a child who learned by trying and yes, sometimes failing...Every time I came down hard on my daughter, I justified my behavior by telling myself I was doing it to help her—help her become more responsible, capable, efficient, and prepare for the real world. I told myself I was building her up. But in reality, I was tearing her down." 

She was shaping her daughter's perceived identity by her reactions. When we are children, what our parents think of us impacts our identities tremendously. If you had parents who were abusive or emotionally unavailable, you may struggle with self worth. And you continue to look to people around you for affirmation and validation. The way others respond to you can either give you "wind beneath your wings" or turn the knob on your air compressor and deflate you. 

Handling failure as an adult necessitates switching gears and finding your identity vertically, not horizontally. You must believe, by faith, what God says about you despite how you feel and despite the old broken records that replay in your mind from childhood. 

3. Change your Paradigm on Failure

Many leadership books concentrate on this point the most as a means of helping people overcome their debilitating habits of handling failure.  John Maxwell, a well known leadership guru wrote a book called "Failing Forward." (see summary here) He contrasts the difference between failing backward and failing forward. 

Failing Backward

Failing Forward

Blame others

Repeat the same mistake

Expect to never fail

Expect to continually fail

Accept tradition blindly 

Being limited by past mistakes

Thinking "I am a failure"

Quit

Take responsibility

Learn from each mistake

Know that failure is part of the process

Maintain a positive attitude

Challenging outdated assumptions

Taking new risks

Believe something didn’t work

Persevere

One of my favorite quotes in the midst of handling failure is this: "If you have made mistakes, you certainly gain a victory if you see these mistakes and regard them as beacons of warning. Thus you turn defeat into victory, disappointing the enemy and honoring your Redeemer." (Christs Object Lessons, 332)

Handling failure is a learning experience, not a defining moment. The key to overcoming failure doesn't lie in changing your circumstances. It’s in changing yourself. That in itself is a process, and it begins with a desire to be teachable. If you’re willing to do that, then you’ll be able to start handling failure with maturity.

4. Understand God's purpose for failure

The natural instinct of a Christian when handling failure is to claim promises, right? And we are supposed to believe that God will keep His word, right? Then how come when I claim Jude 24 I'm still perpetually handling failure?  

"Now unto Him, who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy..."

The answer lies in the story of Peter's denial of Jesus. What a failure he was! He promised he would never deny His Lord and before morning he had done it three times. Here is what Jesus told him before he failed. 

And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat:  32 But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. Luke 22:31-32.

These two verses are more thoroughly unpacked in a 7 part audio series by a seasoned bible scholar who fell into sexual sin and had to resign his ministerial credentials. After a season of heart searching and repentance he shared these messages which magnify the grace of God when handling failure. If handling failure is a common theme in your life, you will be blessed by listening to the whole devotional series. I will simply recap here some fundamental truths gleaned from the sermons.

  1. Satan hath desired to have you - God in his wisdom permits failure. Satan, in his diabolical intent prompts failure. You, with a free choice perform the failure. Behind every moral failure is Satan, not your boss, your spouse, your parents, your children, or your friends. Satan lures us into failure by leading us to believe we're beyond failure (pride) and after we fail, he makes us believe our failure is beyond recovery (guilt), which then leads to despair, apathy and more failure. 

  2. That he may sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith would not fail - Satan's target is to destroy your faith because he wants you to be eternally lost. Why your faith? 
    - Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6)
    - Faith overcomes the world – (1 John 5:4)
    - Faith is our shield against Satan's fiery darts (Eph 6:16)
    - Faith is the critical issue in the last days (Luke 18:8 – when the son of man comes will he find faith on the earth?)  (See also Revelation 14:12)

    Pride is the #1 obstacle to faith. Failure is an opportunity to develop humility in you, not a statement of your worth

    Jesus Himself is interceding for you in the heavenly sanctuary. He also provides you empowerment through the indwelling Holy Spirit and the word of God to instruct you. 

    Jesus knows that handling failure will result in a deeper conversion, more genuine humility, and a more powerful ministry of strengthening others. The only thing that will be shaken out is the chaff in your life.  

  3. When you are converted - Jesus does not  say "if" you are converted, but "when." He can say this confidently because he prayed for you and his prayer is backed by the promises of God (Ps 37:23; Pr 24:16; Micah 7:8).

    The truest evidence of conversion is brokenness. When you read John 21:15-17 where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loved him you see that the quality Jesus was looking for was brokenness. “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”  With those words, the broken apostle renounces all his self-confidence and self-trust. The man who on previous occasions thought he knew it all suddenly discovers that he didn't. He defers to Christ: “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Now he no longer trusts himself. He trusts in the Lord who knows all things.

  4. Strengthen your brethren - The person who experiences forgiveness and restoration from spiritual failure has an obligation to help others. We see in this part of the passage that we must break free from the culture of silence, excuses, cover up and denial when we fail. This command of Jesus shows that failure is not the end of a person, but the beginning of an new ministry. 


Here are some common negative thought patterns and their corresponding biblical thoughts. Handling failure biblically will require repetitively training your mind to think Scripturally. 

Lies: No matter how hard I try, I'm a failure



Lies: I can’t get my act together - I’m a bad Christian


Lies: It is horrible when someone disapproves of me.





Lies: If they want to say that about me, they should look in the mirror and get a good glimpse of their faults. I oughta blast them.





Lies: I can’t stand people being mad at me.



Lies: I’m such an idiot, moron, loser, retard, etc.

Truth: I’m a work in progress: I am Christ’s workmanship – his masterpiece - created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. Eph 2:10

Truth: My hope is not in myself it is in Christ. My weakness is united to His strength, my ignorance to His wisdom, my frailty to His enduring might. (Steps to Christ, p 70)

Truth: I must seek to please God. The fear of man bringeth a snare. Let their disapproval provide an opportunity to develop humility because humility is the only soil in which grace takes root. “It is in our most unguarded moments that we really show and see what we are” (Humility, Andrew Murray, p. 58)

Truth: I will not disappoint my Savior. “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:5 "Meek people are those who give soft answers to rough questions." I will open my mouth with wisdom and on my tongue will be the law of kindness. "When discouraging words are spoken to you, do not reply unless you can return a pleasant answer." (Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, p 50) 

Truth: Their response is their responsibility. My response is my responsibility. I must take ownership of my wrong, confess it to them and to God and ask for forgiveness and learn and grow from this experience.

Truth: So you are not to look to yourself, not to let the mind dwell upon self, but look to Christ. Let the mind dwell upon His love, upon the beauty, the perfection, of His character. Christ in His self-denial, Christ in His humiliation, Christ in His purity and holiness, Christ in His matchless love --this is the subject for the soul's contemplation. It is by loving Him, copying Him, depending wholly upon Him, that you are to be transformed into His likeness.  (Steps to Christ, p. 70) 

Conclusion

• You may be chronically irritated because you are afraid of handling failure, therefore you like to be in control. You loathe the thought of people seeing your weaknesses. This will prevent intimacy with anyone. 

• You may be battling depression, guilt or anxiety because you can’t seem to gain victory over something and you feel like you can’t reach out for help because “good Christians” don’t fail. Handling failure this way will also prevent vulnerability and genuine friendship.

• You may be timid to try new things because mediocrity is better than failure in your mind. You know you could achieve more if you tried but that level of performance is unsustainable so you settle with expecting less of yourself. 

Jesus says “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). I always thought that verse sounded so pretty and wonderful, but I couldn’t fathom how it could be possible. I always wanted that to be true for me, but in my experience, I felt like my weakness reflected poorly on the Lord. I felt embarrassed that I was tainting His image by my failure. But I've discovered something paradoxical about handling failure. It's when you feel the farthest away from God that you are actually the closest.

When I fail I feel like the publican who couldn't even look to heaven, but beat his breast and say, "God, be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13). In those moments I'd rather be the Pharisee who led a comfortable life, feeling confident and pious all the time. But, it was the Publican who went home justified. As a result of pondering this parable, I've been led to see how proud I am and how earnestly I need to embrace those things that humble me and which call for God's grace. Being like the Publican, though it feels like you're off of God's "good" list, it actually means you're on it. Humility is one of the most attractive qualities anyone could possess. Don't view humility as a thing to shun. Embrace it. "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6).

How do you embrace the failures that make you feel like a loser? Share them in the comments below!

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