Failure is Not Fatal
I am forever grateful to Landon Saunders¹ for opening my eyes to this truth and thereby transforming my walk with Christ.
What is Success?
How do you define “success?” What does that look like? What is that stuff?
If we look outside the body of Christ, success is almost universally defined by the accumulation of wealth and materials that are indicative of that accumulation — it’s stuff. How much stuff do you have? Is your stuff as good as my stuff? Better than my stuff? Do you own your own stuff, or are your buying it on credit? How many bedrooms and bathrooms are in your house? Does your salary match mine? What are you driving?
Today, almost everyone has a cellular phone. I can recall an age when only the successful people had mobile phones. They were not called cellular phones at that time, but rather, “car phones.” They were actually satellite phones, were roughly the size of a toaster, and mobile only in the sense that they were mounted in your car.
Tapping in to the vanity of consumers, some brilliant entrepreneur started producing fake handsets and stick-on antennas for poorer folks who desperately wanted to appear successful, but who could not afford to put toaster phones in their cars. Success for our society is inexorably tied to such silliness and we are drowning in seas of debt to support this illusion of success.
Who in their right mind would classify Jesus as a failure? No man or woman before or since has had as great an impact on humanity as Jesus has had. There was nothing particularly triumphant about the place or manner of his birth. I do not get the impression that he ever owned much more than the clothing he wore. He ate from the fields of others, rode a borrowed donkey, and was buried in a borrowed tomb. Jesus was undeniably successful, but he did not have much stuff.
Maybe success is better defined like this:
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. — Micah 6:8, NIV-1978
Or, perhaps we find success here:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. — 2 Timothy 2:15, NIV-1978
Maybe pursuing and accomplishing these things would allow me to be a successful follower after Christ, and to hear from the most successful man who ever lived: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”
The Sobering Truth
But the truth is, we are not very good at any of the things listed above. We do not often act justly, we do not love mercy, and we do not walk humbly with our God. Neither do we give our best effort to presenting ourselves approved to God as workmen.
We are not that faithful in our walk, blowing it over and over again. At times, it is as if the dam has burst and sin gushes out of us. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life ooze from our pores. We feel beaten down, defeated, and discouraged.
We do not always articulate it that way. It’s clearly not that we are failing. Rather, we blame the church. We blame the board of elders or the senior pastor. We figure there is something wrong with the programs. People are too cliquish, or the music is not to our liking (and perhaps downright inappropriate).
But who is the real culprit? What is the real problem here? Deep down, I know that the problem is what stares back at me from the mirror. The problem is me.
So here we are in this walk with Christ, the Spirit of God indwelling us, embarked on a life that is supposed to bring us peace that passes understanding, a life defined by joy unspeakable and yet we feel wretched, guilt-ridden, oppressed.
We think we see it in others, you know that guy who seems to have genuine joy from his hair follicles to his toenails. And all too often, rather than learn from him or her, and be happy for them, we end up resenting them for the gift of God inside them.
Why can’t I have what they have?
It is vital, Christ-follower, to understand that there is a world of difference between guilt and conviction insofar as what they do inside us, and in regard to their source. What is described above is guilt. Guilt comes from the evil one. Conviction comes from the Holy Spirit of God. Guilt oppresses us and keeps us down. Conviction calls us to a higher plane of living.
A Much Better Way
In 1979, Landon Saunders (mentioned above) was addressing a crowd of guilt-ridden believers, and in his address, he presented a biblical truth that profoundly changed my life and completely reshaped my concept of what it means to be a “successful” Christ-follower. If you can comprehend this and develop it, I believe it will change your life as well.
To grasp the concept Jesus presented at the end of John 16, we have to take a close look at what was happening with Jesus and his disciples earlier in the chapter, and even in prior chapters. Jesus was addressing the small group of men who were closest to Him, those with whom His life was deeply and intimately intertwined. He had lived with them, walked with them, and taught them for three years.
In verse 11 of the preceding chapter, Jesus told His disciples that He wanted their joy to be full. He said it again in John 16:24. Our joy is to be full. Do not underestimate the desire or the ability of Christ presented in these verses. It is absolutely the will of God that you, as a follower after Christ, be full of joy. Joy is a gift from God, given for our good.
It is in that context, that environment that Jesus says this:
These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; an hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but will tell you plainly of the Father. In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father. I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father. — John 16:25–28, NASB
Jesus had a habit, or perhaps a gift, for teaching in stories. Sometimes the stories were easy to understand and other times they were real chin-strokers, difficult to wrap our minds around. It seems this is what Jesus was talking about when He said that up to that point He had spoken in figurative language — but not now! Now, he said, he was speaking plainly to the disciples with no more riddles or parables. And it is here that the disciples run into a problem.
Look at the response of the disciples in verses immediately following:
His disciples said, “Lo, now You are speaking plainly and are not using a figure of speech. Now we know that You know all things, and have no need for anyone to question You; by this we believe that You came from God.” — John 16:29–30, NASB
Oh, Jesus! Yes, brother! Now you are speaking plainly. This, we get! It is all so clear. Now we know that you know everything and you sure do not need anyone to question you. By this we believe that you came from God!
That was my crude paraphrase, but I am confident I captured the spirit of their response: “Whoa!! Now we see it, Jesus. Now we get it. Now we know. Now we believe.”
And Jesus looks them squarely in the eyes and says, “Oh really? Do you?”
I am aware some translations say something closer to, “You believe at last!” as if Jesus was relieved that the obtuse disciples finally understood. That is not at all what Jesus said or meant, because they did not get it. They did not understand — that is the entire point of the passage.
Here the disciples have made a great profession: “We finally see it, Jesus! We finally know. Now it is all so clear.”
How many times do we, just like those eager disciples, say: “Now I see it God. Now I know. Now I get it. I will never doubt again”? And then how many times after saying things like that have we gone out and really blown it, falling flat on our arrogant spiritual faces? And how does it feel when that happens?
I am not an emotionally-driven guy, but I know there is something about getting away from the campus, away from the facilities to some wooded area on a river and sitting around a campfire that (seemingly) puts our souls on the right wavelength to hear God or to sense Him chiseling away at our stubborn will.
Maybe it’s a retreat or a seminar. Maybe it’s neither. It could be after some terribly traumatic event; an accident, a devastating loss, or an illness. It may be during a particularly moving Sunday morning service where everything seems to be said and done just for you — a moment wherein you feel especially close to God. The sensation builds and crescendoes. You close your eyes just for a moment, and it’s too overwhelming, so you say it:
“Finally, now I see. Now I get it. Now I truly believe.”
When we do this, just as he did with the disciples, Jesus looks at us and asks, “Do you? Do you really believe?”
As Christ-followers, we need to be careful of making such grandiose pronouncements, because we cannot in and of ourselves, in our own strength, our own knowledge, our own understanding, rise up and proclaim, “Now I know! Now I believe.” This is not some euphoric, light bulb, “aha” experience where we pull ourselves together because of an especially heightened religious experience and say, “Now all doubt is gone. Now I see it. Now I know.”
Recall Jesus’ sharp rebuke to the Pharisees in John 9, who claimed to see.
Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. — John 9:41, NIV-1978
We do not see as clearly as we believe we see, and we do not know or believe like we think we know or believe. Jesus understands this and he knows that repeatedly we are going to fall on our faces and skin our spiritual knees. And when we do, we will recall our mountaintop experience and that bold proclaimation we made, even if only subconsciously.
And when we think back on our “aha” experience and the grand pronouncements we made because of it, either we are going to feel badly for making those pronouncements or we will doubt the reality of God working in our lives, because we have equated God’s working in our lives with some hyped-up religious moment we experienced.
“Boy oh boy! God really showed up,” we say.
I do not want to downplay the importance of emotion to the believer’s experience. Neither do I want to downplay the profound moments I, myself, have had. What I do want to do is be cautious regarding what we read into such moments.
If I were sitting with Jesus as he began to say some particularly profound things and I got caught up in the wonder of the moment and somehow exclaimed, “So that’s what discipleship is all about. Finally I see it, Jesus. Now it all makes sense,” Jesus would look at me in love and say, “Oh, do you now? Do you really? Because Damon, you have made a big pronouncement here. You feel like you have tremendous amounts of faith. Right now, you believe you could face down any temptation — and it feels good. But hear me my son, and understand — you are going to fail.”
Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” — John 16:31–33, NASB
The disciples have proclaimed their faith, which is what we would think Jesus wants and, in response, Jesus seemingly backhands them across the face!
Do you really believe? You’re all going to run away and leave me alone. You think you are standing so strong, but you’re all headed for a profound failure.
We are human by design, and part of being human is free will, the ability to make choices, and with this ability comes the possibility and inevitability of choosing poorly — of failure. We do choose, and we do fail. It is a built-in feature. And with our failures come the unpleasant emotions and the voices in our heads that keep us down. When this happens, remember to ask, “Is this conviction, or is this guilt? Is my failure drawing me close to God for his forgiveness, or causing me to run from him in shame?”
If I have established my standing before God on the basis of programming failure out of my life, and if my joy and peace as a follower after Christ is tied to the absence of sin, then I have set myself up for misery, frustration, anger, and a hopeless walk as a disciple. I will become increasingly frustrated with myself because I cannot walk the line I have drawn as a measure of success in my life with Christ. It is a hopeless formula, and society is giving itself a mound of ulcers because it does not seem to realize, or want to admit, that failure for humanity is not a matter of choice.
Today, I want to impress upon you what brother Saunders impressed upon me forty-three years ago.
“Failure is not fatal! I’ll tell you what’s fatal. What’s fatal, is failing at failure.”²
He is absolutely correct. What is fatal is when we give in to failure, when we do not know what to do in the midst of a failure, when we seem to come unglued each time we fail, or when we are exasperated or paralyzed by failure.
What Jesus was telling His disciples in John 16 was, “I know you’re going to fail. What I want is for you to know that you are going to fail.”
And here is the beautiful thing about it: Jesus already knows that! He expects it, and has planned for it. Yes, He would rather we did not fail, but He knows we are going to, and He has provided for it beforehand.
It becomes important for us to know what we are going to do when sin occurs, to plan ahead of time how we are going to respond when we face the reality of our own failure: How will I take this failure and turn it into a success? I believe Jesus gives us the answer to that in John 16:33.
Jesus had just told them, “Look, you are going to go out and make some huge blunders here real soon. You are going to blow it and abandon me.” Then He told them why He said this to them. Was it to make them feel horrible? To feel guilty? No. Quite the opposite.
I have told you these things so that in me, you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33, NIV-1978
Why did Jesus want the disciples to know that they were going to fail? It was so that they might have peace. That formula works by teaching us that we cannot rely on ourselves, our strength, our power, or our ability to stand.
Note the prepositional phrase in that verse, “in me.” Where is that peace?
It is in Christ. It is not in our own ability to avoid sin and failure.
“In me, you might have peace.” Where then is trouble?
“In the world you have trouble.” Indeed we do!
The message from Jesus is, “You are in me, and in me you have peace. Yes, the world gives you trouble, but that’s okay because I have already overcome the world.”
I do not have to overcome the world. You do not have to overcome the world. And really, in and of ourselves, we cannot. Jesus has already overcome the world, and in so doing, lifted a tremendous burden off our shoulders.
“In me, you have peace.”
“In me, you have joy.”
“In me, you have forgiveness.”
“In me, you are made righteous.”
“In me, you are washed clean.”
“In me, you are made holy.”
That is good news. That is faith. That is the grace. That is what so many of us miss.
We sin, and in our frustration, self-abasement, and shame, think, I’m too bad. I’m too weak to do this.
What Jesus is saying here is, “Exactly! That’s why you should run to me rather than from me.”
There is a world of difference between trusting the finished work of Jesus, and trusting my own ability to believe and live purely. There is a substantial difference between eliminating sin from my life through sheer willpower and saying, “I am okay with God simply, and only because I will trust Jesus. No matter how great my failure is, yet will I trust him.”
This is why 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”³ This does not say He will merely ignore our stains or look past our transgressions. Clean is clean. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”⁴
Note that it is God who removes our sins and cleanses us, not we ourselves who do so. We cannot say, “I will not yield to sin. I will stand strong against it.” However, we do have something to say about trusting and choosing not to trust. If we could but learn this lesson, we would find ourselves dependent on Jesus in ways we never before imagined.
Our best hope for peace in this life, for spiritual survival in the midst of our failure, is that we have the dynamics clear in our minds:
Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God.
Jesus has, in fact, overcome the world.
In Him, I will put my trust.
In Him, I will find my peace.
Blessings upon you, my friends.
Victoriously in Christ!
1. Landon Saunders — http://www.landonsaunders.org/
2. Saunders, L. (1979). Lessons on Feeling Good About Being a Christian [Cassette Tape]. Abilene, TX: Big Pig Music Limited.
3. 1 John 1:9, NASB
4. Psalm 103:12, NASB