7 Ways To Fail Well

No one likes to fail, but we all do it. We attempt a project that produces few results. We launch a venture only to see it flame out. We try to maintain regular family devotions and do well for, like, two weeks. We fight to overcome a particular sin pattern and then fail . . . again.

Life is filled with failure.

I’ll be honest—the common counsel isn’t that encouraging to me most days. Failure is preparation for something great. All great men fail before they succeeded. Learn from your failures. Fail forward (or is that fall forward?). Either way, I’m certain there are glimmers of truth in these statements. And, maybe sometime far down the road when I’m far more mature than I am currently, I’ll process life this way.

Right now, I just want to fail without giving up.

Let’s save the silver lining around the cloud of failure for some other day. Yes, God is at work changing me through my failure. Yes, God is exposing idolatry in my heart. Yes, God is preparing me in some way for the future he has planned for me. Yes, in some weird and painfully frustrating way, failure is a path to joy.

But I still hate it.

And I still want to give up.

And I know that it won’t be the last time I fail.

So what do you do with failure? Here are a few things I am doing (or trying to talk myself into doing).

Discuss the Pain with People You Love

Failure feels bad enough as it is, so why compound the shame by talking it out with someone else? I need to talk about failure because it forces me to be honest with how I feel rather than pretending like I have it all together and don’t hurt when things don’t go my way.

We all know that failure hurts. It’s painful to have something you’ve worked for blow up in your face. It hurts to have someone let you down. It’s frustrating to be incapable of consistency in areas of spiritual growth.

So, rather than avoiding the obvious, sit down with a friend and tell him why your situation stinks. Hopefully you and I have a few friends who will not try to fix our problems but who will listen, hurt with you, and pray.

Slow Down and Let Some Time Pass

Failure creates a certain mental fog that is difficult to escape. You’re angry, frustrated, and unable to muster up the energy to try again.

Many of us only know how to escape this mental turmoil by mustering up the energy to run after something else—in hopes that this time we’ll succeed.

The problem is that such an erratic pursuit of the next best thing is often fueled by a desire to prove that you can make it or prove that you can get it right. Then, when failure rears its head again, the pain is compounded because you’d placed your hopes in this new task.

I’m learning that it’s better to sit in failure (though I hate it), process the pain, and wait for a while before I run after anything else. In time, by the grace of God, it does seem that the pain of failure wanes a bit, and I make better decisions about what should be next.

Watch Your Words (Or Say You’re Sorry When You Say Something Stupid)

Failure causes me to want to vent, which is rarely good. I don’t tend to say godly, mature words when I’m “just speaking my mind”. I say foolish things—often to the very people I love the most. I find that I am prone to at least one of these expressions:

Overstate my situation: “Nothing I do is ever right!”

Manipulate others to make them feel sorry for me: “I wouldn’t be in this position if you would have done more.”

Shift blame from the real issue: “It’s amazing I get anything done with these pesky kids around all the time.”

Pretend like I’m a martyr: “I tried so hard and this is all I have to show for it. . . I’m never trying anything again.”

Suddenly, you’ve not only failed, but you’ve failed in talking about your failure. And, now you’ve got to do more hard work to seek forgiveness and reconciliation from those who have been the recipients of your venom.

Instead, use your words sparingly, journal your other thoughts, and take some time to get your head back in the game before you talk through the issue.

Cling to a Specific Truth of the Gospel

Spiritual disciplines are vital for the entire Christian life. In the midst of failure, you should certainly make Bible reading and prayer a priority. But, probably more critical is to find one or two specific truths that speak to your situation and marinate on those deeply.

Rather than continuing in your Bible reading plan, it may be better to find one particular passage or verse, memorize it, and cling to it daily.

If you’ve fallen to sin once again, be reminded that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).

If you’ve lost a job or seen a massive project blow up in your face, you know that “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which he’s prepared in advance that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).

Return to this truth repeatedly in the wake of failure until you actually begin to believe it.

Double Down on Areas of Known Weakness or Temptation

Our adversary prowls at all times, yet he seems to be particularly present in moments of pain or prosperity. In each season, our defenses are often lowered, and we are prone to being devoured. Failure makes you and me especially vulnerable to any offer of escape, even via deviance and sin we thought we’d outgrown in middle school.

We feel pain and we don’t like it, so an immediate out is far easier than the massive self-mastery required to fight through seasons of drought and trust God with the future. New areas of sin may emerge, but the temptation to fall back into patterns of life you know and have sought escape from in the past is just as likely.

So, it’s wise for us to ensure our protective measures are in place and to erect new defenses to safeguard us from sin that will have long-lasting consequences.

Continue to Practice Spiritual Disciplines, Even Though You Don’t Feel Like It

The last thing I want to do with my failure is to talk to God about it because most often I am prone to blaming him for the failure in the first place. I know it’s not true—I know that God’s interaction with his children is not punitive in nature. But it feels like it, at least at first.

The same is true for Bible reading or community with others in my church. I’d much rather sulk in private than engage in public. Others might not even know that I feel broken, but I do. And something about being around other people compounds this anxiety and insecurity.

But it is rarely in my best interest to do what I feel like doing. In these moments, I must step into the God-ordained practices for personal transformation and trust that, over the long haul, prayer, Bible reading, community, and other disciplines will be a means by which God will allow me to find equilibrium once again.

Do Something Out of the Ordinary and Fun

Most failure is not total though it certainly feels so at times. Yes, your book may have bombed, you may have lost your job, and you may have done harm through your actions or your inaction. But for most of us, those failures are not the end of our story.

One of the best ways to remind us that life goes on is to find something that makes you enjoy the life you have and go have fun. Take a ride on your bike. Go camping. Take in a ballgame. Run after whatever it is that you do to have fun. These actions will not make your failure go away, but they will remind you that there is a glorious God who loves you even when you feel like a failure and who has chosen to give you another day under the sun to live and love. This is far more grace than any of us deserve.

I’ll continue to take these steps. One day soon, I may have something far more Tweetable to do with my failure, but for now this seems like the best I’ve got. And, maybe, that’s exactly what God wants after all.

I am married to Sarah and we have four children: Corrie, Avery, Hudson, and Willa. We live in Greenville, SC where I serve as the pastor of The Church at Cherrydale. I am a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD) and enjoy reading and writing. I am also the author of three books: Aspire: Developing and Deploying Disciples in the Church, Seven Arrows: Aiming Bible Readers in the Right Direction, and Mergers: Combining Churches to Multiply Disciples. Find Matt online at http://mattrogers.bio or follow him on Twitter @mattrogers_