I don’t think failures exist. I think situations that can be perceived as failures are just life experiences. Let’s take for example a biblical situation where people “pointed fingers” at a person, an attitude that can easily suggest they thought of her as having failed:
10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8 :10-11[i])
Jesus’ action, attitude, and words towards the woman suggest a thinking that could be paraphrased as follows: “Woman, you are not a failure. Your life is not a failure but a series of experiences you have been through, just like many others. I offer you a new experience. Do you want to accept it? Do you want to escape from your old habit patterns? I would be very happy if you did this, because, for me, you are so precious that my biggest concern is to make you better! And I promise to go with you on this journey.”
Or, think of the Samaritan woman, or of Mary Magdalene when she was rebuked for pouring expensive oil on Jesus’ feet. Were their lives or their actions failures? The problem deepens when we choose to get stuck in a certain experience. If Moses had gotten stuck in the thought “I am a murderer! I am a murderer!” what impact would that have had on his call? If David had gotten stuck in thinking of himself as an adulterer, what would he have accomplished in life? If Joseph had remained stuck in the thought, “My brothers, my own brothers have sold me, and God did nothing to stop them!” what would his life and the destiny of the chosen people have been?
Before we go any further, let’s take a quick look at the definition of failure.
Failure: an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success.[ii]
Suppose you pursued a degree that you thought suited you well only to realize, over time, that it didn’t. A friend, a colleague, a family member, or mere acquaintances, might have suggested that you did not think carefully enough beforehand, or that you were impulsive when you made the choice, or that you did not inform yourself sufficiently. Or maybe you have prayed that God would help you start a family and work to spread the good news of the Bible but, even though you married a person who seemed to have the same values as you, in time it turned out that it wasn’t so and the relationship ended in divorce. You may have participated, for a time, in unethical business practices, but eventually you left it behind. In each of these and many other situations, some people may have thought of you or your actions as failures.
Such attitudes reflect the thoughts, mentalities, prejudices and limitations of people who know you more or less and desire your wellbeing more or less. To what extent can they be judges of your life? Moreover, the way we were taught to look at failure and the different mentalities we came in contact with have shaped our own views of failure from a human perspective. And yet we cannot make perfect choices, because we are not perfect beings and we do not live in a perfect world. We are fallen, weak beings who live in an imperfect world. So, if we can’t choose perfectly, and the world is not perfect, the goal is imperfect, how should we understand failure? The application of the definition of failure depends on the reference point.
A key question in understanding failure concerns the reference point in life. If we choose God as our mentor, guide, and reference point for all aspects of our lives, can we really speak of failures as described above? Or does God have a completely different view on this subject? How should Christians, who believe in an omnipotent and benevolent Creator who works miracles, as demonstrated throughout biblical history and in our lives, interpret our shortcomings? Don’t we limit God when we see a temporary lack of success as failure?
If the Bible is the Good News and a source of hope, then how can we talk about failures? For all our helplessness, for any shortcoming, the Bible has good news, a way to overcome the situation and move on. Thus, as we learn to see our lives from the perspective of a powerful and loving God, we understand that we can have a thousand jobs in which to use the potential that God has placed in us; that there are a thousand possible partners with whom we could build a good relationship; that there are a thousand different children that we could potentially produce.
Failure Has no Plural
The Bible speaks of only one situation that is truly a failure: if in the great cosmic struggle between good and evil we end up on the side of evil and not on the side of the good. This is described in Revelation as follows:
11Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” (Rev. 22:11)
Therefore, the only failure would be if, at the end of the great struggle between good and evil, God were to say to you: “I do not know you!” – an expression by which He recognizes our choice reject His love and salvation. From this perspective, failure is built up by repeated rejections of God until He withdraws His Holy Spirit from the earth and those who have rejected Him will fully taste the consequence of their choice.
As in other aspects of life, the Bible directs our thoughts by revealing to us God’s perspective, which is infinitely superior to our fallen thoughts and the mentality in which Satan wants us trapped. Jesus declares our importance and the importance of our choice when He says:
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)
But Satan, God’s adversary, is constantly at work, whispering our shortcomings in our ears, wanting us stuck in a situation, in an experience, a mentality, or a prejudice. He comes with illusions and counterfeits, disputing what God sees in us. For example, he can tell you: “Surely you will not end up in divorce, because you have ‘kept your guard up,’ you have respected the principles of morality and it cannot happen to you!” Or, “Sure, if you study hard and work hard, you will have a stable, well-paying job, kind co-workers and a partner who will appreciate your effort.” What then about Job, a righteous man who suffered unjustly (Job 1: 1), whom his friends and wife pointed to as a failure? From whose perspective did they look at him? Was their perspective the same as God’s? To make someone feel guilty, useless, small, ugly, weak, powerless, to make someone feel like a failure is the work of Satan. But God says something else about us:
30But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:30)
28And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30)
33But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
There are so many other precious promises in the word of God! I challenge you to find other promises in the Holy Scriptures, passages in which God defends humanity, declares Himself as our shelter and support, as the One who offers forgiveness, peace, fulfillment, and a new experience! If God has endowed us with many talents, then it means that we are able (and free) to do many things, in many places, in many situations. But in our day-to-day tasks, life requires a variety of experiences. We cannot find our place and our utility in this world and in God’s plan if we do nothing for fear of failing. Every teaching, every experience, every trial is part of life, such as this life is. If we accept God’s perspective on us, if we trust in Him and receive His guidance, our life experiences can become a place of rebirth and restoration, a monument to God’s power and love which, seen from the cosmic perspective, leads us to the only truly important success in the light of eternity: salvation.
Be God’s Disciple!
If you are deeply rooted in God and possess wisdom gained through life experiences, think of a person you could take under your wing. It could be someone who does not feel accepted by their family or by their spouse. Or maybe you know someone who does not have a job at the moment or feels uncomfortable at their current job. Get close to them and think of ways to help them feel accepted, regardless of their decisions. Be a mentor who looks out for others, who sees people from God’s perspective, who makes them feel valuable and helps them see their potential from God’s perspective.
If you are still young in faith, make God your mentor and the reference point of your life. Interpret your life experiences in relation to God and the way He defines failure, not from the perspective of the world. Be a trophy in the hands of God, not in the hands of Satan. Always remember that God has promised to “work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Do not lose sight of the world above, where there is no suffering, no death, but only peace, joy, eternity.
[i] ESV. All Bible texts in this article are from the English Standard Version.