How to Fail Without Becoming a Failure
One of the hardest facts to face in life is the fact of failing.
As hard as we try, as smart or talented or spiritual you may be; as much as you study, as often as you practice, there are times when you fail. We miss the mark, we drop the ball, we choose the wrong road. We may ignore our failings, we may try to hide them, try to deny them. The wisest of us will try to learn from our failures.
Charlie Brown’s best friend Linus is trying to encourage him after he’s made another fine mess. He says, “You know, Charlie Brown, they say we learn more from losing than from winning. Charlie Brown sadly replies, “That must make me the smartest person in the world.
Failing never really seems to make me feel any smarter. But I have learned one very important thing about failing: everybody fails, but not everybody is a failure. Plenty of the world’s greatest people have failed miserably before going on to achieve incredible success.
Before he made it big in the auto business, Henry Ford filed for bankruptcy—twice.
Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs, but he also struck out 1330 times.
Who said it? I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. --Michael Jordan
Just because you fail doesn’t mean you’re a failure. That’s especially true about your walk with Christ. Before you become a Christian, you have to admit you are a sinner, that you have failed to live up to God’s righteous standard. But it’s also true that you and I who are committed to following Christ still fail Him, to one degree or another. The question is, how can you fail without becoming a failure? How can we get past our failures and faithfully follow the Lord?
Jesus addressed this issue in a conversation with a man who failed so miserably that we still talk about it today. What makes it worse is Jesus warns him about his future failure, and he still fails. Yet this man was certainly no failure. He proved that you can fail and not be a failure in your relationship with the Lord. Let’s listen in on a conversation between Jesus and the man who failed--Simon Peter, recorded in Luke 22:31-34. As we listen, let’s pick out some principles for how to fail without becoming a failure.
How can you fail without becoming a failure? First of all, Jesus urges Simon:
I. DON’T LET FAILURE DRAG YOU DOWN. (v. 31)
Larry Olsen describes a man lost in the desert: “He’s been out of food and water for days. His lips are swollen, his tongue is swollen, he’s all beat up and bloody. Some of his bones are almost peeking through. He’s been scraped and beat by the cactus and sand and sun.
He’s blistered. As he’s crawling over this little hill he comes across this little plant and props himself up on one bloody elbow, looks down at this plant and says, ‘You know, if things keep going like this I might get discouraged!’” [i]
Most of us get discouraged a lot easier-especially when it comes to
failure. Many a Christian has let failure not only discourage them, but drag them down to defeat. Failure can be a powerful weapon in the hands of the devil.
Maybe this is why Jesus warns Peter don’t let failure drag you down.
The scene for this conversation is sometime after Jesus finishes the Last Supper, after Judas has left to betray Jesus, after the disciples argues over who’s the top dog. Jesus knows what is about to happen, but they have no clue. Jesus knows Peter will soon fail Him, and yet His heart goes out to the man He named the Rock. I believe it’s with tears blinding His eyes Jesus says Simon! Simon! Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat…!
The you here is plural= ya’ll. Jesus isn’t just speaking to Peter—He’s saying all of you will be sifted. You know what it means to sift don’t you? It means to separate. Farmers use to sift grain to separate the wheat from the chaff. My mom used to have a flour sifter, to separate the soft flour from the lumps. This kind of separation involves a lot of stirring up and shaking around, which is exactly what’s going to happen to Peter. Satan wants to shake Peter up, and separate him from his Lord.
How would you respond if Jesus said these words to you? Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat! I know what I would’ve said. Lord, You did tell him no, didn’t you? You wouldn’t let the devil touch me, would you, Lord?
Apparently Jesus does allow this sifting to occur. In vs. 32 Jesus says He’s praying for Peter to stay strong, but He also says …when you have returned to Me…
Peter, my Friend, Satan will sift, you, and you will fail me. Satan will try to use your failure to discourage you, to defeat you, to destroy you. But when you fail, Peter don’t forget your failure cannot separate you from my love. Cling to your faith in Me, and you will make it.
Peter was not the last person Satan wanted to sift. The devil wants to sift you, too. He wants
to shake you up, to trip you up, to drag you so low you give up. He wants to shake you and separate you from your Lord.
Lord, You won’t let that happen, will You? Jesus, You love me too much to allow me to go through something like this, don’t you?
Ask Job. A man who had it all, lost it all, walked through the darkest, lowest valleys of suffering, all to prove that you can trust God even when your world falls apart.
Ask Jeremiah. A man who lived with visions of death and destruction, and then lives them out when they became reality.
Ask Peter this question. A man who promised to die for Jesus who ends up denying he even knows Him.
Ask them: will God allow you to be sifted? Will God allow you to fall flat on your face?
Yes, there are times when He’ll do just that. In those times you will be tempted to believe Jesus has abandoned you, that He doesn’t love you, that your failure means you and Jesus are finished.
But that wasn’t true for Job. It wasn’t true for Jeremiah. It wasn’t true for Peter. It will never be true for you. When you fail (not if) it’s not time to feel sorry for yourself, or to let failure drag you down. It is time to remember that Jesus loves you, even when you fail, because if Jesus didn’t love people who failed He wouldn’t love any of us.
The only way failing can make you a failure is if you listen to the devil and turn away from the Lord. Instead, Jesus offers us a better option:
II. TRUST CHRIST TO USE FAILURE TO LIFT YOU UP. (v. 32a) I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail, and when you have returned to Me…
Not if but when. I wonder if those words ever replayed in Peter’s mind after his failure. He said when, not if…Jesus knew Peter would return to Him after his failure.
So what’s the point? Why let Peter go through all this agony of defeat? Jesus looks beyond Peter’s failure, almost as if to say Peter, it will be through this failure you will return to me a different man, a humbled man, a man who understands that failure teaches you to depend more on Jesus. Let me show you how this works by comparing a couple of other passages.
First, look in Matt. 26:31-35 (read). Peter sounds like a pretty self-confident guy here, doesn’t he? Everybody else may fail You, but not me! I love you more than all of these other guys put together!
Now fast-forward past Peter’s denial, Jesus’ death and resurrection to the scene on the shore of Galilee, with Jesus, Peter, and the other disciples sitting around eating breakfast in John 21:15-17 (read). Do you notice any difference in Peter? Before it was Lord, You’re wrong! I’ll never deny You! Now it’s Lord You know all things! Lord You know that I love You!
Peter’s failure draws him closer to the Jesus He loves. It shows him his own weakness, and teaches him to depend more on Jesus than himself!
That’s what Jesus wants your failures to do for you—to draw you closer to Him, to make you more dependent on Him.
Too often when we fail the Lord, we quit praying, quit trying to live right, quit trusting Him. How can I come back to Him when I’ve failed Him so badly? Why would He want me back when I’ve made such a royal mess?
Here’s the key: Jesus can take even our failures and use them to draw us closer to Him. That doesn’t mean Peter’s failure didn’t matter. Denying the Lord was wrong, it was sinful and cowardly. But God’s grace can take even our worst failures and use them to help us depend on Him more. Jesus is not pleased when you and I fail, but He’s also not surprised. He knows what you’re really like, what I’m really like.
Ps 103:14 For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.
That’s no excuse for failing. Jesus’ words to Peter are not meant to say that sin doesn’t matter. But they are meant to comfort us with a simple truth: failure is never final for the believer, because Jesus can use even our failures to draw us closer to Him.
Somebody once asked the great British statesman Winston Churchill, "What most prepared you to lead Britain through World War II?" Churchill's response: "It was the time I repeated a class in grade school." The questioner said, "You mean you flunked a grade?" Churchill said, "I never flunked in my life. I was given a second opportunity to get it right."[ii]
That’s what Jesus wants you to see your failure as—another chance to get it right, another chance to draw near to Him, another chance to depend more on Him. That’s the difference between a person who fails and a person who is a failure. But Jesus has one more encouraging word for us when He tells Peter to:
III. USE YOUR EXPERIENCE TO HELP OTHERS WHO FAIL (v.32b)
…when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brothers…
One of the most amazing things about your failures is that Jesus calls people who fail to help others who fail. Jesus commands Peter to strengthen, to encourage the other disciples after he’s gotten past his own failure. Can you imagine Peter saying Lord, I’m so unworthy! Look what I’ve done! Me—the one who bragged about my love for You the loudest used my big mouth to deny I even knew You! Lord, how can somebody as weak as I am help anybody?
Jesus replies, in so many words, Peter you can strengthen them because you know what it’s like to fail. Doesn’t that make sense? When you’ve blown it, when you’ve really fallen short, who will encourage you more—somebody shaking their head saying I can’t believe you did that! Or somebody with eyes of mercy who says I’ve been where you are. I know how you feel. Let me help you get past this. This is what Jesus calls Peter to do. Your brothers will also fail me in different ways---but when you get past your failing, help them get past theirs, too.
Imagine looking back over your life and being reminded of your biggest failure. Now imagine Peter facing his biggest failure every time somebody told the Gospel story! But I have a hunch that didn’t bother old Peter too much. I have a hunch when Peter was reminded of his failure, he would smile and say Jesus took my failure and helped other people get past their failures.
Maybe you’re tempted to look back on your failures and say, “Lord, how can somebody who has failed as much as I am, who is as weak as I am help anybody else?” Yet so often Jesus calls us who have failed to reach out to others who fail because we know what it’s like.
Perhaps people who have failed are more merciful and gracious to others who struggle with failure. I wonder if sometimes the people who are struggling, the people who fall and who fail need someone who has been there to say, “I’ve been where you are. I know how you feel. Let me help you get past this.”
A young employee secretly misappropriated several hundred dollars of his business firm's money. When this action was discovered the young man was told to report to the office of the senior partner of the firm. Upon his arrival he was asked if the allegations were true and he answered in the affirmative. Then the executive surprisingly asked this question: "If I keep you in your present capacity, can I trust you in the future?" The young worker brightened up and said, "Yes, sir, you surely can. I've learned my lesson."
The executive responded, "I'm not going to press charges, and you can continue in your present responsibility. But I think you ought to know, however, that you are the second man in this firm who succumbed to temptation and was shown leniency. I was the first. What you have done, I did. The mercy you are receiving, I received." [iii]
So what’s the lesson here? That failing the Lord isn’t really that serious? No. Jesus is not telling either Peter or you and I to be presumptuous upon His grace.
But what He is telling us is even when you fail, you don’t have to become a failure. God’s grace is strong enough to help you get back on your feet and become the person God wants you to be. The Lord doesn’t want you to see how much you can fail. What He wants is to show you how in spite of your failing, He can make you the person He created you to be.
Failure doesn’t mean you should give up…
… it does mean you should try harder.
Failure doesn’t mean you’ll never make it…
… it does mean it will take a little longer.
Failure doesn’t mean God has abandoned you…
… it does mean God has a better idea!
All of us have failed, but not all of us are failures. You don’t have to be a failure. The same Jesus Who loves Peter loves you. The same Jesus Who used Peter’s failure to draw him nearer can do the same for you. The same Jesus Who used Peter to help other failures can use you to help others who have failed. Will you bring yourself, with all your failings and faults, to Jesus, and ask Him to do for you what He did for Peter—forgive you, draw you near to Him, use you to help somebody else?
[i]Larry Olsen, Outdoor Survival Skills Charles R. Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart and
[ii] John Ortberg, "A Mind-Expanding Faith," Preaching Today, Tape No. 126
[iii] Don Mallough, Crowded Detours