When Failure Saves and Success Destroys

Like almost everybody who’s 40 years of age or older, I’ve known my share of both failure and success. I can look back on my life and see areas where I’ve succeeded far beyond my expectations and areas where I’ve failed far beneath my hopes. But I’ve learned to be thankful for both success and failure. I’ve learned to see the kind hand of God in each of them.

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There’s something captivating in success. It feels good to excel in our vocations, to achieve our goals, to surpass our friends, to make our mark. It feels good to receive the plaudits of the people we admire. It feels good to feel like we’re making a difference at last. And while this success can be a tremendous blessing to ourselves and others, it can also be the stuff idolatry is made of.

Failure, on the other hand, feels wretched. It feels awful to fail to advance in our vocations, to miss our goals, to be surpassed by our friends, to miss out on making our mark. It feels soul-crushing to fail to receive the plaudits of the people we admire. And while this failure can be a tremendous sorrow to ourselves and others, it can also be the stuff blessing is made of.

Here’s something I’ve learned through 40 years of success and failure: God’s care for us may be better expressed in allowing us to fail than permitting us to succeed. That’s because we’re often better at handling failure than success. Failure has a way of bringing us to the end of ourselves, of causing us to rely even more on the Lord. Success has a way of increasing our confidence in ourselves, of causing us to rely even less on the Lord. Sometimes failure saves us where success would destroy us.

One of my regular prayers, which I’ve written about elsewhere, is that my success would not exceed my sanctification. I’d far rather fail than gain success beyond what I can handle. Like with any Christian, my desire to succeed has to be matched with the desire to be sanctified. Perhaps this explains why we’ve seen so many Christian leaders rise so quickly and collapse so horrendously. They longed for success and got it, yet didn’t have sanctification to support it. I wonder if they would be the first to say that a healthy dose of failure might have been what they needed most.

Like the great missionary said, “we want to expect great things from God and attempt great things for God”, but our expectations and attempts must be matched by a great expectation for holiness and great attempts to gain it. It is good to long for success and attempt to achieve it, but we must be willing to receive from the hand of the Lord his blessing as it’s displayed in both success and failure.