Failure's Great Rewards
by Chip Ingram
Failure. It’s the bottom line on many of our fears. We fear failing as a spouse, a parent, a friend, a student, or a professional, and it wreaks havoc on our sense of peace.
It’s amazing that with some people, failure is a stepping stone. Their failure makes them stronger and results in great things. For many, it’s a millstone; they were cruising along, hit a divorce or a disease, and then everything went downhill. The millstone goes around their neck and hangs there forever. What makes the difference?
The first thing to realize is that failure is universal. If you are a human being on planet Earth, I have news for you: You will fail. The only issue is how you’re going to deal with it.
The second thing to realize is that the fear of failure can be a dominating force in your life. Often, the fear of failure is worse than failure itself. Some people shy away from starting a business, getting into a relationship, or exploring their desires because they just might fail. They miss the marriage or the career they could have had—all because of fear.
John 21 is a biblical model of how God deals with each of us when we fail. And since we are all going to fail, this is really important to understand: How will God deal with us afterward?
An Apostle’s Failure
In John 21, Peter was a real failure. He had denied the Lord three times. He was discouraged, not sharing his faith and winning the world like we see later in the New Testament. He was probably questioning his future. Peter was in a crisis, and in a crisis we always go back to something comfortable and safe. So when John 21 opens, we find Peter in his comfort zone—fishing.
One night, Peter and his companions caught nothing. Now you really have to feel for the guy. Not only is this macho follower of Jesus kicking himself about denying the Lord, he’s not even productive at his own profession. Once again, he has fallen short.
When we fail, our confidence is shaken. Failure reduces our self-worth and causes us to doubt ourselves. Like Peter, we go back to what’s safe. We try to avoid the fact that we failed. We may get depressed, become a workaholic or a sleepaholic, or withdraw from relationships. We may turn to pleasure, watch TV all the time, obsess about our hobbies, or eat. Instead of helping the problem, we complicate it.
Jesus certainly wasn’t surprised about Peter’s failure—in fact, He predicted it. But when Peter and the other disciples got to shore, Jesus extended a gracious invitation: “Come and have breakfast.” He didn’t say, “Hey, you betrayer, what are you doing out fishing? Why don’t you get with the program?” He said, “Let’s grab a meal together.”
Is this how Jesus would respond to the person who has had an affair, betrayed a confidence, or inflicted incredible pain on someone that he loves? Who violated a friendship or broke an agreement? Who pledged to remain pure but last weekend was sexually immoral, or got caught up in those late-night cable shows and Internet sites? What is Jesus’ attitude toward everyday people who are struggling with everyday temptations and everyday flaws?
The first part of the answer is grace. The second part is truth.
God’s first response to our failure, no matter how terrible, is grace. That’s an unconditional acceptance of you, regardless of your past performance or lack of it.
That’s what Jesus teaches Peter, and He shows it in an unusual way. This professional fisherman has failed, and what’s Jesus’ response? A lot of big fish—153 of them, to be exact.
Grace is getting something you don’t deserve, and Peter knew he didn’t deserve Jesus’ love. Jesus taught Peter that when someone fails, He still offers unconditional acceptance, not focusing on our behavior but on our personhood. Instead of honing in on where we blew it, He focuses on His love toward each of us as a person.
But a lot of times, accepting grace isn’t our problem. Restoration is. How does God put our life back in gear so we can be useful again, so that joy returns?
He says, “Hey, come and grab a meal.” We’re afraid God carries a big club around, waiting to use it whenever we’ve messed up. Peter has betrayed Him in the thick of battle, and what’s Jesus’ response? “Let’s get together and talk about it. You want another piece of fish?” Grace means God is easy to live with; He’s not a demanding boss.
God’s grace always comes in meaningful ways—like fish for a fisherman. And, like Peter, we love it enough to dive right in after it. We realize it’s worth everything.
Our view of failure will greatly determine the extent of our true success. Most of us spend the greatest energy of our life hiding our failures so no one will see them. But when we can view failure as a stepping stone—when we focus on grace—failure is not the end of the world.
So you blew it? A marriage failed? A business? A promise or a high standard? OK, then you failed. Was it God’s plan? No. But is the world over? No, of course not. If you perceive it to be over, however, you will not come to God and find grace, and your failure will be a stone that will drag your life down.
Until we admit that we’re all going to fail and then deal with it, we’ll make very little progress. But when we can confess it, we can experience the gentle grace of God and grow from it.
The Truth About Forgiveness
That’s the first step, but Jesus does not stop with grace. The Son of Man came to reveal grace and truth. So after being extremely gracious to Peter, He turns the tables. With the scalpel of Scripture and some penetrating questions, He gets to the truth of the matter in Peter’s heart.
Three times the Lord asks critical questions of Peter, and each time the purpose is to narrow in on the very root issue of Peter’s failure. Why? Because Peter was focusing on his failure, and that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that Peter was proud and his love for Jesus wasn’t as strong and deep as he thought it was. So Jesus asked Peter three times—the same number of times he had denied the Lord—to affirm his love. He made Peter face the truth.
We’ve got to face our failures. We can’t sleep them away, smoke them away, entertain them away, or pleasure them away. We all have ways of dealing with our struggles, and none of them work except this one: Face them. Honestly confront them, and Jesus will be there with His grace to deal with them.
But there’s more. Jesus doesn’t want your failure to be just a stepping stone; He wants it to be a trampoline. He gave Peter an outward focus and an invitation to use his failure to minister to others.
However far you’ve fallen, bring your failure to God and say, “Lord, let me grow from this instead of being dragged down, and let me tell others what You did in my life.” He wants to take your failure and make it the vehicle by which you become a more devoted follower. Failure is never final.