Strategies for Coping with Failure

I have a problem with failure.  Some people seem to be able to handle it, to wipe off the blood, dust off their jeans and gear up for the next rodeo. I’m not one of those people.  Failure shames me.  I replay it in my head, looking for a way out; I examine and magnify my flaws; I flagellate myself so that no one else has to; I curl up on myself and give in to hopelessness.  I imagine that I’ve failed while the jury is still out, and there are days when I walk around in a failure cloud when nothing has really happened at all.  It takes me out of the game, which is just what the enemy wants. (And what I want sometimes, too.)

So what do we do with failure – real or imagined?  I want to offer a few suggestions out of my vast reservoir of experience, and I hope that you will offer some of your own.

  • Be still.  If it suddenly appeared in my living room, failure would look something like a huge hamster wheel.  It’s active and repetitive and irritably squeaky.  It uses up our energy without getting us anywhere.  If I can just be still for a few minutes, not trying to change anything or go anywhere, just knowing that God is God, it helps.
  • Remember that God is bigger than failure.  God has got to be bigger than all our grief, suffering, sin and failure.  If He’s not, then the whole idea of redemption is just pie in the sky.  But if He’s really much greater than my latest epic fail, then it’s never too late to invite Him into the circumstances and ask for redemption.
  • Remind yourself that we don’t see very well.  Remember the noetic effects of sin.  That’s a $5 word for you, no extra charge.  Noetic means “intellectual.”  The Fall has affected our ability to think and judge clearly.  We make mistakes about things we think we know.  Like our own failure.  What seems to be failure this side of Heaven may turn out to be something else entirely when the mists of sin have cleared away.  Jesus’ ministry looked like the ultimate failure on the night He was betrayed.  That was never the real story.
  • Offer God your failure.  God wants us to give Him whatever we have.  Sometimes, what we have is failure.  After Peter denied knowing Christ, he returned to Christ, gathering with the disciples, running to the tomb to verify the resurrection, eventually becoming one of the greatest Christian leaders in history.  Judas, on the other hand, hid from God in his failure.  God is still using Peter’s sin to encourage people.  Judas’s failure is just failure.  And the difference?  One was openly given back to God; the other was concealed in a tight little ball of human despair.
  • Take the opportunity to be loved unconditionally.  Most of the time we run to God with our shiny crafts made out of string and tinfoil for His approval.  I know He loves that, but in my head, at least, I know He loves me just as much when I have nothing to bring.  Failure is a unique opportunity to experience that kind of unconditional love.
  • Seek comfort.  Mostly I am seeking a solution, some big fix I can apply to my failure.  When I really give that up, I am ready to seek comfort.  God always waits to hold me; not for nothing does He call Himself, The Comforter.  There are others who would love and pray me through my feelings, too, if I let them.  Sometimes The Comforter puts skin on.
  • Live in the moment.  Failure keeps us stuck in the past the same way that worry keeps us stuck in the future.  There is always a present moment to be lived.  There is always some beauty to find, some challenge to meet, some need to fill, some prayer to be offered, someone to be loved in the present moment.  Don’t miss it.
  • Tell yourself the truth.  Most of what we say to ourselves about failure is a lie.  “I am worthless.” “Nothing ever works out.” “No one cares.” The truth is that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, that God is in control, and that He loves us more than life. People ask how to get these truths from their head to their heart, and the only answer is that you live them.  You struggle well with them.  You preach and teach them to others.  That’s what I’m doing right now.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Ps. 73:26