Today is one year to the day from when I made a very ambitious goal to be in “perfect shape by age 29.” I gave myself a year to do this in the hope that somehow I would be inspired and maybe get some positive benefits from peer pressure in the process. I kept that goal in mind all year. I believed it could be done – and I still do! I made some progress, experienced some setbacks, fell into seasons of difficult feelings of failure, and found my feet again.
And the end result was… well, not really perfection. In fact I consider it miraculous that I accomplished even 20% of my goal* in that time. Do I consider this year a success? Yes. Do I consider myself a success? No. At least not yet. Two things I consider to be successful about this year have been that I did make progress, and I learned a lot along the way: about my health, my life, my body, and my mind. I did not consider that I might have some internal obstacles to confront even prior to beginning my goal that would make it impossible for me to realize that goal in the time limit I set; and for that I do not consider myself to be a success yet. That still remains my goal, to reach the summit I set for myself, to accede to a better place of living in my own body.
The uncomfortable setting I find myself in right now is failure. I failed at my goal. I failed it publicly in front of people I respect and care about. Maybe worse, I set the goal for myself. I could have set it privately, or a bit lower to get the easy win – there is probably some practical wisdom to this. But I didn’t want to do that. I set a big, public goal because I knew I would reap the consequences of that. The success would have been spectacular, this I knew. “But oh,” says someone, “If you fail though, won’t you be humiliated?” To this I would say that I know this mindset well: it is the mindset of fear. But I learned that humiliation is part of a verb, part of something done to me. People can attempt to humiliate me, which is their choice. But far more painful is when I choose to pre-humiliate myself in anticipation of that event, which hurts far more deeply. I decided to stop imagining my failure and get on with living, which is bound to have failure.
There are a lot of reasons why I failed a big goal like the one I set. There are plenty of common difficulties of life that got me, plus some hidden obstacles in my own self I hadn’t anticipated. I felt a bit like the person who began to build a tower yet did not bring enough material, like the one Jesus described in Luke 14. But more of me feels like God took me into the fire of trial and I emerged purer, even if not in perfect shape, in my mind, body, and soul this year. That is how I overcame the fear of failure.
Fear of Failure
I could talk about a thousand things I learned in this time, can expound on numerous applications from this year. But what I want to talk about is failure. Failure has been called “the ultimate sin of Western societies.” Many of us fear failure almost as much as death because we understand that failure is a social experience. We don’t count failures that we think are isolated from our social experience. If I burn some eggs on the stove-top, I may not consider that a failure; but if I feel I need to showcase a perfect photo of my breakfast on Instagram** to prove my worth to others, I can easily lament this inconsequential incident as of the gravest calamity. I may consider that I am an all-together worthless person, that I can do nothing right, that I will be doomed to perpetual failure and ignominy. One failure begets a whole host, we think, and we avoid it like the plague.
It is easy to understand how our perception of failure shapes our fear of the thing. But what is the reality of failure? What are its consequences? Does our life really collapse after we fail something? What are we so afraid of?
We all want to have Instagram lives, live like every moment is perfectly filtered to reflect the best of who and what we are. Socially, we may buy into some lie that success, even rampant and spectacular success, is the norm, and that those who fail are consequently incapable, weak, and hapless fools. We avoid those people lest they bring us down. For this reason I believe many people would rather not try at all, lest they try and fail. But who among us has not failed at something? Whether it was visible or unseen, I have failed thousands of times. I cannot remember that ever leading to me becoming a social pariah – in fact I cannot think of any person who completely despised someone for failure unless they were envious of that person, as we do with celebrities, athletes, actors, politicians, even pastors or preachers. Many of us even have a fear of success because we fear, by gaining success, we will set ourselves up for greater failures. It is easy for us to sit and shame those who try and fail publicly, which has become our sort of cruel spectator sport, not unlike gladiatorial combat of the Romans. Because we see how viciously people treat failure, we are less apt to try anything great ourselves, and more likely to slander those who stumble.
The world today is full of fail-shaming, which in our day is perpetrated by a nebulous group of people known as “haters” but the Bible called “scoffers.” Psalm 1:1 says “Blessed is the man who… sits not in the seat of scoffers.” Whenever I get a chance to teach on Psalm 1, I make a point to say that scoffers are always sitting. They sit while others try, work, strive, and fail, and they point and laugh the whole time. The Internet has greatly afforded these people the opportunity to scoff, and it provides an excellent picture of the biblical portrait. They literally sit in their chairs, watching their screens, cynically and critically deriding the unfortunate and the fallen. That is where many of us are, even if we didn’t realize it. If you are watching others live their lives and judging them for it, you are a scoffer. If you make fun of others attempting to do things and criticize them, you are cruel and petty in your heart, and you don’t even know it. I was like this once. Then I realized what a small person I was on the inside because, in spite of all my judgment, I had done nothing that could be criticized because I hadn’t even tried to do anything worth doing. I thought I was so wise for this, but I was the greatest fool of all. Thank God that my mind was changed! Far better to try and fail than to be a perpetual bench-warmer. Teddy Roosevelt once said in a speech called “Man in the Arena,”
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Encountering failure is key to embracing failure, which is in turn key to emancipation from the fear of failure. Failure is helpful. If we were to realize that everyone fails at something, at some point, in some way, we would be inclined not to shun the experience of failure and be more likely to normalize failure. Most of what we do each day in our lives is trying failing, at some point, at everything we do. Who has ever had a perfect day? The bible says “The righteous man stumbles seven times.” That is saying that even the best of us fall down sometimes. If we never fail that means we are taking an easy road, one with no glory or reward at the end. The road to ultimate success does not consist in glamorous shots of your life’s highlights, but standing bloody over the slain corpse of your fallen foes. No one would ever watch a Rocky movie if his eyes didn’t look like ripe prunes by the end.
Failure hurts at the time. It hurts and feels humiliating. But failure has yet to kill me. In fact the only people who are killed by failure are those who have put it off so long they can no longer absorb the blow. What comes from failure though is confidence. If we fail, and yet are not destroyed by the experience, we have become stronger. Even in failure, somehow we overcome. In spite of the pain, we find purpose in what we experience. I love what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Through Christ, he says, and by spiritual rather than human power, we will emerge as “victors in the midst of strife,” as the old hymn said.
I have adopted a smaller, quieter, wiser view of failure. I say to myself, “how shall I grow as a result of, yet in spite of, this failure?” The clause in the middle must be answered spiritually, and I use the promising passage above for that. But the main part can be answered practically once the spiritual part is dealt with. If I have this view of failure, I can accept it, even welcome it as an opportunity. I do not speak as one who as attained such a thing, but one who presses on to reach the goal.
As I write this, I realize I am not alone in experiencing failure and frustration. I also have two close friends who are godly men who believed in God to start a business that would honor him; yet in spite of all they did and prayed, they had to close their doors after a few hard and faithful months. What encourages me so much about this is their attitude towards failure is not one of misery but of humble confidence. The Lord was good to lead them in this road, and he is good still – that is their disposition. Their frustration transformed into focus, putting it back onto the goodness of God. They understand the principle that a fail and a fault are two separate things. They do not walk hand in hand. In their eyes, a business collapsed of mostly natural and common causes; but God did not fail them, nor do they count themselves as failures – I couldn’t be more proud to know them!
My wife is currently reading a book called Every Bitter Thing is Sweet by Sarah Hagerty, which is ministering to her powerfully and personally. This book deals with some sensitive issues about fertility, unrequited prayer, and the goodness of God in his ways. What I am learning as we talk about this book is that our correct response to failure should be to see a God who never fails us. Deuteronomy 31:6 is one of my favorite scriptures, “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” God may let a pitch go by but he never strikes out. God doesn’t forget, lose interest, or chicken out. That is our confidence. If we put the burden of success or failure on our shoulders, we will be crushed by its weight. But if we yoke with Jesus and carry the easy and light burden, we will be perfect. He has yet to set out to do something that he did not accomplish (see Isaiah 55:10-11).
That is the only success we can rely on. Indeed it is the only kind that counts or matters.
*I weighed in at 220 at the start and I want to get down to 175 as my target weight (45lbs difference). I made progress, and I am still keeping this as my goal. I am in a better place now to pursue this than I was a year ago, mainly thanks to a great group fitness that I began attending in February. Leah and I also did the Whole 30 diet (which kind of became the Whole 20…) and we are planning to do it again – we saw good results on our bodies, our energy, and our moods.
**Leah and I use Instagram, though we do not consider ourselves terribly bound to living our lives on there, nor of getting our worth from it in any way. We recognize that many people from our generation in particular do feel this kind of perpetual urge to perform and compare that leads them to feeling more afraid and prone to despair for their faults and failures. Our heart and prayer goes out to people such as this, who we believe the Lord wants to reveal his great love, compassion, and strength to them – you do not have to perform to be loved!