The effect of failure can be devastating. But, it should not be definitive. Failure should refine, not define us. What matters is not how you failed but what you do following the failure. We have two options when our actions lead to less than pleasurable consequences: We can dwell on it or we can learn from it. The former will add more anxiety to your proximity. The latter will allow you to live through it and become better from it.
All of us have made mistakes that could have been avoided. Here is a small sample of examples:
- Not following the speed limit
- Making a foolish financial decision
- Making a damaging decision in an organization
- Creating a negative atmosphere based on improper action taken
- Saying something that otherwise would have been better left unsaid
- Basing your reaction on raging emotions rather than tranquil contemplation
- Stifling maturity by focusing the situation on “you” and not seeing the bigger picture
No one can flee the fluid flavor of failure. No matter how smart we think we are, failure is inescapable. It is a part of life but should not characterize our life. Some of the most valorous leaders we know have experienced failure:
- Moses failed by directly disobeying God thereby eliminating his ability to lead the people into the Promised Land (Nm. 20:12).
- Abraham failed by demonstrating unbelief concerning his fertility thereby having an illegitimate son with his maidservant (Gen. 16:1-16).
- David failed by performing infidelity with Bathsheba thereby bringing upon himself a calamitous curse of a new-born son’s death (2 Sam. 11:12)
- Solomon failed by being engaged in licentious and sacrilegious activity with his numerous and flirtatious, femme fatales (1 Kings 11).
- Peter failed by denying the Lord Jesus three times immediately following his courageous confession of the exact opposite (Jn. 18:15-18).
- Paul failed by being so zealous about persecuting the church, he (initially) entirely missed the Creator of the church (Php. 3:5-7).
How could these people fail? Are not some of them included in the hall of faith (Heb. 11)? Are they not those who are considered to be perpetual pursuers of God’s own heart? Are they not instruments God used to bring 3k & 5k to repentance and faith in Jesus? Are they not authors who penned the majority of the epistles in the New Testament? Are they not considered the wisest and wealthiest of all the men who walked the earth?
There is a common thread that we see with the above people. They possessed a nature just like ours. They failed and fell down. But, their failure did not determine their future. Even with the enormity of their failure, we are still to imitate and follow them. The deep mercy of God is visible in the deep failure of man.
Failure, although painful is not final. Realizing that you failed is important. What is more important is being intentional about learning a lesson and moving forward. This is what the above people did. This is also what we should do.
Here are seven critical components that have to do with learning from your failure and not letting it define you:
1. Realize. We must accept responsibility for our actions. We must first realize that we have failed. We cannot allow our failure to fall into relative obscurity within our mindset. Being open for others to point out to us what we easily overlook is a best practice. This activity assists with the process of realization. We did something we should not have done. We said something we should not have said. We engaged in behavior that should have never characterized us. We have sinned against God and against man. We need to understand it, learn from it and move forward away from it.
2. Repent. A sincere acknowledgement of the failure must take place. The bible teaches us to confess our sins to one another (Prov. 28:13; Js. 5:16; 1 Jn. 1:6-9 ). Our repentance must be clearly verbalized, both publicly and privately. Authenticity and clarity are key components that should accompany your repentance. When repenting, avoid using vague or abstract language. Statements such as “I am sorry,” “I was wrong,” and “I committed a sin” are not popular in our culture today. But, if we want our repentance to include potency, items need to be labeled respectively. Avoid using mild terminology while overlooking the reality. Most people can tell if the repentance is forced and faked or factual and faithful. By repenting, you are acknowledging your depravity and your intentionality to change.
3. Restore. It is imperative that immediately following a failure, we must seek to restore that which was ruined. Expedience is of the essence. There is no reason to maintain a moratorium on restoration. This should not be approached with complacency but rather urgency. What specifically is in need of restoration? Every situation is unique. For some it is trust that needs to be earned once more. For others, it might be a financial burden that needs to be repaid. Still for many, it might mean time, energy and resources need to be reestablished for the restorative process to take place. Recompense, to the best of your ability and availability must be demonstrated, not delegated.
4. Reconcile. This is the component that brings two opposing parties together in an amicable union (Matt. 18:15-19). Nothing else can bring more pleasure to the anxious soul than this. An apology has been extended to the offended party by the offending party. A failure is followed up by a fervent desire to reconcile. The desire for reconciliation should be the motivating force behind every failure. The focus should be taken off of “you” and realigned onto the needs of others. If we love Jesus authentically, this desire should come to us naturally. Regardless of the depth of your failure, reconciliation should be relentlessly pursued. Regardless of the complexity of your situation, reconciliation should be actively attempted.
5. Reflect. Recovering from a failure can be a lengthy, painful progression. But, it does not have to be a wasteful process. Use what you have learned to avoid having failure characterize your life in the future. This is most effective when you are reflective of the past. Asking these penetrative questions can help avoid future pitfalls:
- Where did I go wrong?
- What could I have done differently?
- How can I use what I learned to alter my future choices?
- What critical component from the above list has not yet been fulfilled?
- What specifically do I have a disposition towards that I need to be aware of?
- What has this failure taught me about my sinful nature and about my sinless Savior?
6. Renew. After a difficult failure in your life, it is important to renew your battered soul. No, I am not talking about secular therapy or self-help books. What I am talking about is intentionally disengaging from the throes of life, temporarily. This might look very different for everyone. Your schedule might or might not allow it. With the proper planning, you are able to do this. The quantity of time is not as is important as the quality of time. It might mean taking a break from some sort of activity that you were always engaged in. Take a Sabbath from something to get a fresh perspective. Disconnect and perform a digital detox. Do your daily devotional in an unfamiliar place. Get out of your comfort zone and your usual social circle. Interact with people who you have never met. Rejuvenation is just as important for you as for the people you have been chosen to lead. You will come back refreshed; they will be ready to receive counsel from a weathered veteran.
7. Remain. Now that we have learned this much from failure, we are not going to let it define us. In order for this to be perpetually present in our life, we must be intentional. We must remain in close proximity with Jesus through our spiritual disciplines. We must remain humble and teachable. We must remain attuned to the Spirit of God speaking into our lives. We must be attuned to the voice of our friends, critics and foes. We must always have a singular focus of glorifying God in our life. This is the single most effective preventative methodology that we can embrace. I am not saying we will never again fail in our life. I am saying that our reaction to future failure will be more holistic in approach. Remain open to criticism and rebuke. Remain cognizant of your depravity. Remain maintaining clarity about the brevity of life. Remain in the presence of Jesus. Remain in His Word. Remain in the company of His people.
Failure, although painful, does not determine your future. Learn from failure and use it to live and lead a life with purpose — For the glory of God and for the joy of all people.
Question: What have you learned from past failure? How has failing in the past helped you avoid failure in the future (present)? What else would you add regarding the fact that past failure does not determine or define your future?