By: Greg Phelan
"I’ve been working on some projects that are just not moving forward. My boss has recently shut some of them down, and I can’t help but feel I’ve wasted a lot of time on things that failed. This is difficult, because I prayed diligently and worked as hard as I could on them. How can I let go of this frustration and feeling of failure?"
If I’ve experienced anything the last few months, it’s consistent failure. As my available time has shrunk in half, the unforgiving limit of 24 hours in a day has shut down more projects than I even realized I was working on. In my case, and I suspect I’m not alone, failure is a central part of life these days.
For many of us, work is shot through with “supply shocks”: we have less time, less access, less capability, less support—and more demands—than ever before. At the same time, we may carry more responsibilities for aging parents or sick relatives or children out of school. Our work—both formal and informal—requires more of us, but from fewer resources than before.
On our own, we can’t do more with less. Our work goes unfinished. Our tempers get the best of us. Our words are harsh and unkind. Hopefulness evaporates. The inward curve of our souls turns deeper.
God made us finite and our world is broken. A boss shutting down a project is but one picture of that. We won’t escape failure, but we can find hope in it.
Our Failure Isn’t God’s Failure
First, what looks like failure to us—what might be failure on our end—could be something else in God’s economy. Consider the first martyr. Stephen, rising star and gifted leader in the church, gave an impassioned defense of Christ and got stoned. Surely it looked to some like a long-term evangelistic failure.
What looks like failure to us—what might be failure on our end—could be something else in God’s economy.
Let’s be honest: Stephen would have lived, and maybe made a few friends, if he had toned down his language a bit. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been a persecution. Stephen would have had other opportunities to proclaim the gospel, care for the Greek widows, and do signs and wonders. A lot of good work died with Stephen.
But Stephen’s death forced the church to scatter to Judea and Samaria and beyond, just as they’d been commanded but hadn’t yet done. And Stephen’s death likely pricked at the heart of the Pharisee who’d become the greatest apostle to the Gentiles. Stephen’s behavior only looks like failure if you don’t read past Acts 8:1. Or if you don’t realize that Stephen was being obedient unto death to the One who had died for him.
God is sovereign in our failures, weaving all things together according to his plan. What gets shut down by our boss or by the limitations of capacity and time, God may well work out for some greater success.
Grace in Humility
Second, there is grace in failure if we respond with humility (James 4:6). Only then will we find what we need to keep going.
Why did we need a Savior in the first place? Because we could never succeed at any self-salvation project. Even our best works were riddled with unrighteousness. Only by admitting defeat could we accept Jesus’s redemption.
We can find hope in our failure because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.
We’re always fighting pride that, when it defines us, can crush us. When we are proud, our identity is found in what we do, what we’ve achieved, what we’ve become. Our pride is why we can’t handle falling short, and our pride is why we forfeit God’s grace when we do.
But we can put that pride to death by remembering the source of our deepest identity. As it’s been said, we are human beings, not human doings. We are defined not by what we do, but who we are—really, whose we are. We are defined by our belonging to the God who purchased us. Even when we fail, in Christ we are not failures.
Ultimately, God’s sovereignty and grace frees us to fall flat. Because while we cannot do more with less, God seems to specialize in doing just that. We can find hope in our failure because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.