Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man.
—Ecclesiastes 9:11-15 ESV
We hear a lot about the sovereignty of God. How He is in control of all things. When good things come our way, we rejoice, and it’s ridiculously easy to feel the favor of God’s sovereignty in a moment of joy. His blessings are raining down. His will is at work. And we know it.
I’ve been in Christian circles all my life, so I’ve witnessed the myriad ways we respond to God and to other Christians. I’ve seen that thrill of experiencing God’s will.
But I’ve also seen what happens when His will appears to us to go “awry.” I’ve seen how we Christians respond to failure, and I’ve concluded that more than just about anything, we need a Gospel that speaks to failure.
You won’t hear much about failure in the American Church. In Evangelicalism in particular, failure gets held at arm’s length, as if people who fail do so because they’ve acquired a disease. We’ve made failure into some kind of plague. “Don’t come too close! I might catch your failure and it will ruin my perfect little world!”
We live in a country where failure isn’t an option. Every system we’ve erected in America extols the self-made man and kicks the failure when he’s down. While we venerate the rag-to-riches stories and laud everything that led to those riches, we come up with excuses to explain the mirror opposite, the riches-to-rags story.
The American Church acts more like Americans and less like the Church because we adopt the same belief about failure as the world does. Failure makes us squirm. And though we’re all ready to jump on the “God is sovereign” bandwagon when blessings rain down from heaven, failure presents a problem for us.
When blessings come, they come solely by grace. We don’t truly merit blessings. God offers them to us out of the grace and riches of His heart. Or so we say. But what happens to our view of God’s sovereignty when failure strikes? What becomes of His grace when someone’s life winds up in the toilet?
Many American Christians believe failure results from something the failing person DID. Yet if we claim to be people who truly live by grace, acknowledging that we did nothing to deserve the benefits of grace, why then do we approach failure with a morbid works righteousness? The response to failure in people’s lives seems to abandon God’s sovereignty and grace to become a legalistic list of activities the person who failed must now undertake in order to dig himself out of his hole. The Gospel we’re so ready to trumpet in good times suddenly gets turned on its head, and grace goes out the window.
Think about it. Our business failed because we didn’t pray hard enough. We need to pray more. We got a chronic illness because we didn’t read the Bible enough. We need to read the Bible more. We lost our home because we didn’t tithe enough. We need to tithe even more.
Yet blessing was all of grace and not because of anything we’ve done? Curious dichotomy, isn’t it?
Sadly, we only like one side of the coin when it comes to God’s sovereignty. We’ll take the blessing, and our church will love to gather round us then, but how to explain failure in light of sovereignty? If failure IS a part of God’s sovereignty, why do we address failure so differently from how we deal with sovereignty in the midst of plenty?
But [Job] said to [his wife], “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
—Job 2:10 ESV
Why is it then that the American Church talks like a foolish woman when it comes to failure and the sovereignty of God?
Yes, some failure clearly stems from sin and a lack of faith. We all understand this. Our problem becomes one of ALWAYS applying that standard to every case of failure we encounter. Case in point: what was Job’s sin?
We see our faulty mentality at work in the following Scripture:
As [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
—John 9:1-3 ESV
That’s God’s sovereignty at work.
The problem goes beyond merely accepting God’s sovereignty even in the midst of failure. Our response to failure either takes the form of piling on a list of things for the failure to do in order to fight against the sovereignty we supposedly uphold, or we act in another faulty way.
Consider this famous person of faith:
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
—Luke 21:1-4 ESV
We tend to comfort ourselves by believing that people who have failed in the world’s eyes will somehow rise up out of their failure so long as they have faith and persevere. Yet I’m not certain it works that way. The poor widow who faithfully gave all she had may have been putting in all she had for a long time. We probably weren’t seeing a one-time event; she faithfully contributed not once, but every time she visited the temple. Faithfulness tends to be a pattern of life, not an isolated incident.
Yet by all standards of Jesus’ day (and ours), that woman was a failure. No husband. No money. Failure. And we’re not given any assurances from the Luke passage that her condition changed immediately after her contribution. (We can only hope that she became a believer and was cared for by the early Church.)
The poor wise man in the Ecclesiastes passage that begins this post fell back into obscurity after rendering his faithful deed. He got his pat on the back and that was it. One day lauded by the city, and the next forgotten by everyone. Success for a moment, but a failure otherwise.
Notice that many of my failure examples so far in this post have dealt with money. In America, success equates to money. Sadly, the American Church has bought this lie. As a result, our standard for spiritual success and maturity automatically means passing the wealth test.
Too accusatory? Well, consider this. Your church is looking for new elders. Which of these two 40-year old men has a better chance of becoming an elder, the self-made man who runs his own company OR the fellow who works the night shift as a convenience store clerk? In the split second (Blink!) you thought about that pair, did class distinction enter into your assessment? Has anything been said about the spiritual maturity of those men? Don’t we assume that one is more spiritually mature simply because he runs a successful business, while the other only makes $8/hr.?
Did Jesus ever think that way? He summons the less esteemed to the head of the table, while one who believes he belongs in the place of honor is sent down. The beggar Lazarus, whose sores were licked by dogs, winds up in heaven, while the rich man suffers in torment. Jesus said nothing about Lazarus’ spiritual maturity, did He? But Lazarus is the one in Abraham’s bosom. Obviously, failure and poverty have nothing to do with one’s eternal destiny and spiritual depth.
Why then do we place such an emphasis on success and pour so much contempt on failure?
We need a Gospel that speaks to failure. I don’t believe that most churches and the Christian people who comprise them deal with failure biblically. Instead, our models for responding to failure are psychobabble self-help tomes, blithering business books, and positive confession self-talk. We talk, talk, talk about grace and sovereignty, but find them in short supply when confronted both with people who did dumb things and failed and the innocent bystanders pumped full of rounds by the world’s drive-by shooting.
So we must ask, What does a truly biblical Gospel that addresses failure look like?
Please leave a comment. I’ll consider what readers say and comment in another post on this topic in the future.
32 thoughts on “We Need a Gospel That Speaks to Failure”
Listen to this excellent series,
So far I listened to the biographies of Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Brainerd. Those men could have been considered failures from human standpoint, but God used them in might ways…imho.
1Co 1:26-29 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
This has been one of my favorite passages for quite some time. I think it’s because I often feel weak and despised, and of course, a failure. And here God says I’m exactly the kind of person he chooses on purpose. That has always encouraged me. And like Fransisco mentioned, God has a history of choosing these kind of people for his greatest work, the people we would consider the least likely for the job.
I think what you’re saying about how we treat people who fail is very true. Most often when I’m struggling, whether with depression or any sin, the questions I get are “are you praying, reading the Bible” ect… The truth is we don’t believe our blessings are truly God’s grace, but that we deserve them. Otherwise we wouldn’t respond this way in difficulty and failure. We would simply cry out to God on behalf of each other for grace and mercy to sustain us and ultimately bring us through as he always does.
I’m not sure failure is the best word. You talked about four different issues.
(1) The providential circumstance of suffering (Job) and God’s sovereignty in that.
(2) The consequences of sin (James 5) and man’s culpability in that.
(3) The providential circumstance of illness, disease, or handicap (John 9) and God’s sovereignty in that.
(4) The providential circumstance of poverty (Luke 21) and God’s sovereignty in that.
You could have also talked about persecution. I know the world could and many times does call these things “failure”, but the Bible never does. Therefore you have to take each one as a separate issue and understand the Bible’s guidance for handling it. I completely agree with your premise – we don’t have a complete theology to handle life when it isn’t “good” or “successful”.
I just think we need to be careful about using the word “failure” for things the Bible has other terms for. The world will consider failure from a totally different perspective and you are completely correct in your assessment that the world’s philosophy has infiltrated the church. That is why I believe a correction in terms is so necessary. Let’s call it what it is. Typically the only Christian books written about failure are geard toward leadership and business – “Failing Forward” by John Maxwell is one example. Why is that? Because we only see “failure” as one thing – the mistakes of man for which he must take full responsibility. That is a partial theology for sure.
Some of the best things I have come across are from John Piper and the Desiring God Conference of 2004 (I think). They really helped me understand suffering and the sovereignty of God.
I was thinking along the same lines: Define “Failure.” There were various issues presented, but all with the same label. Another question I would have is the idea of a “truly Biblical Gospel that addresses failure.” We have one: Grace. What we need is the practice of that Gospel. And first, we need to look at the Word and redefine failure as God sees it, and transform our understaning accordingly. Practicing grace should follow from the depth of our understanding. The woman caught in adultery was a example of how God treats spiritual failure: We are all in the same boat, what she did is no worse than what the purest of us could claim…So why should we hide our failures from one another? “Where are your accusers?”
But because we compare, rate, judge and measure, we tend towards the self-righteous man who stands in the temple and says: “Thank you that you did not make me like that sinner there!” As Ken Medema sang, “One left slightly wrinkled, the other left reborn.”
Dan, as usual, this was an great post. And as you seem to do at least once a month, you really have hit an area that is so close to me. I’ve commented here before about some of my struggles, particularly with the church and others after I fell from grace.
The conclusion I’ve come to after falling off of a pedestal is that while I have absolutely no doubts about God’s ability to forgive and to restore, the church as it stands doesn’t do that well at all. I have continued to almost hide myself, for various reasons, but none of them really that I don’t think I’m worthy any more. My worth is not within me, it is only in Christ. But to many others, I am more than worthless, I’m actively harmful.
What I find ironic is that I go to and have gone to a church where we would never even think about turning someone away for a sin they had committed, or even a sin issue that they were struggling with. They are welcomed with open arms. But when a brother (or sister) has an issue, I wish the same level of grace was evident.
Anyway, thanks for the post, I really needed to see something like it today. I was starting to despair again today and this feels like God trying to pull me back.
Ekval – my experience has been identical. As a result, I no longer care whether or not a church PREACHES grace. I care only if they practice it.
I couldn’t agree more. You rightly point out that the church has adopted the cultural standard for success. You mention a few examples. But this runs much deeper than who we decide to make leaders in the local church.
We judge ministries and ministers by a cultural standard.
Jesus was a failure according to the cultural standard of his day as well as that of our day. Paul was told that he would be effective in his weakness.
Something that N. T. Wright said has transformed my thinking. Paul was not effective in spite of his weakness. He was effective because of his weakness. Jesus won his victory over sin, Satan and death by defeat.
You’ve done an excellent job of pointing out the problem, though I think you maybe didn’t go far enough in your critique.
But I take issue with one of the steps of your argument:
I respectfully submit that this is bad theology (even from a Reformed perspective).
In an effort to defend God’s sovereignty and emphasize grace, many people have tried to believe things that are logically inconsistent and impossible to live out in the real world.
(I don’t want to get off on a sidetrack here, so I won’t fully develop this point. I’ll just give an example.)
When you work for your employer, do you earn your paycheck? But every good thing in your life ultimately comes from God. Without his grace, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to earn that paycheck. But you still earn it. The grace is primary, but the effort is essential as well.
(I would be happy to discuss this line of thinking further at a different time.)
That being said, I think you are addressing two different issues here:
* A biblical understanding of success and failure
* How to act and think when things don’t “go well.”
The first order of business would be to develop a biblical understanding of success.
Then we also need to have a biblical model of how to respond to adversity.
One way in which I think God’s sovereignty does come into play is the Romans 8:28 view that God causes all things to work together for the good of his people. (I think we might have different ideas of what that means.)
We also need to pick our heroes more carefully. We need to hold up people like Dallas Willard as examples of godly people who have learned the “secret” of cooperating with God’s grace in spiritual transformation.
We need to stop giving “successful” people a free pass for behavior that is not Christlike because of “all the good they are doing for the kingdom.”
Obviously, I haven’t given a complete answer to your question. But I hope I have contributed something positive to the conversation.
God loves you and values you no matter what you’ve done or failed to do.
He promises to work in your life (as you allow him to) to cause even your own mistakes to work for your good.
Your mistakes do not make you worthless for effective ministry. You might find yourself disqualified for certain official positions, but God has an important ministry for you in his kingdom.
Whatever this problem is that you had or have, it has the opportunity to make you more effective as an ambassador for the kingdom. As you allow God’s grace to work in your life, you become a living testimonial of God’s power, love and grace.
“Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”
One of the battles you will have to fight is bitterness toward those who have discarded you. But the same grace that allowed Jesus to say, “Father, forgive them for the know not what they do,” can transform your heart so that you can joyfully forgive those who have wronged you.
Thanks for the encouraging words. I totally agree that the tough part of it all has been fighting the bitterness. Fortunately, through his grace I think I’m through that. And yes, I know that there will be other ministry for me, and that I will hopefully be more effective because of all of the things that have gone on. That is the way God works!
This piece was a lifejacket that saved me from drowinng.
One concern. I don’t want anyone to think that calling sin “failure” is diminishing its sinfulness. That is the problem of replacing the biblical words. The woman caught in adultery did fail, but her specific failure is called sin. She failed to live up to the standard of God’s holiness. (Of course we all fail in this way every day!) Praise God for grace!
To me this is less about moral failure, we already have a gospel that’s supposed to cover that, but about being one of the “also-rans” in life. Our Aussie culture is traditionally less success-oriented than American culture, but I have seen a marked change in the last 20 years or so, and it has definitely affected the church. So if you’re not thin enough. young enough, articulate enough, earning good money, well-educated, happliy married, etc etc, you fly under the radar. Likewise if you’re shy, have significant health problems, are an abuse victim or any other significant personal problems, the church simply doesn’t know what to do with you. You don’t fit the image, you’re not one of “us”. Yet i wonder if, to some of those who have it all in this world, Jesus wouldn’t say “they have their reward already”
Blessed are the poor, the broken, the confused, the rejected, the struggling and the needy. God is very near to those of a contrite and lowly heart. Sometimes we forget that the Jesus we are called to follow never founded a mega-church or won a popularity contest. He had no beauty that we should desire Him, and was despised and rejected of men. I don’t think we can have a gospel for the failed and the needy and the broken until we come back to the foot of the cross and see how the death of jesus brings to nothing all the successes we would claim for ourselves, even our successes in His service. only there, where we are forced to admit that we really have nothing except Him, will we learn how to open our arms and embrace those who embarrass us by openly displaying the reality of failure and neediness
Dire Dan: Don’t we assume that one is more spiritually mature simply because he runs a successful business, while the other only makes $8/hr.?
Yes, it does seem to be the case. There seems to be a preference for wealth, for the fortunate few who seem to have lots and lots of money. They’re the ones who invariably get put on the church boards.
I agree with you, Dan. Nowadays, everything is so completely backwards, so totally upside down. Dysfunction is now the normal state of affairs. So why do we assume Xnty will even survive here in North American? I can think of several examples where the Church has virtually disappeared from some parts of the world. For example, in North Africa (Augustine’s old stomping grounds) and Asia Minor (remember Byzantium?). Already western Europe is going the same way. Xnty is on its way to being completely extirpated there by soul-destroying secularism that’s killing us. Therefore, perhaps here, in the good old Eu-ess-say, the “lampstand is being taken away” as well?
It’s all become so depressing to me that I can hardly stand to think about it anymore. No matter how much we talk, or blog, nothing seems to change. I fully believe that unless there comes some sort of a full-tilt-boogie Spiritual Revolution, everything will be coming down like a house of cards.
Dear Oengus Moonbones,
You say, “It’s all become so depressing to me that I can hardly stand to think about it anymore. No matter how much we talk, or blog, nothing seems to change. I fully believe that unless there comes some sort of a full-tilt-boogie Spiritual Revolution, everything will be coming down like a house of cards.”
And I say, “It will, and it has.” But should that surprise us? Jesus says — nay promises — that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Matt 24:35) What is there to the Enlightenment that makes it above decay?
Get hold of a copy of G. K. Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man,” and read Chapter VI, titled “The Five Deaths of the Faith”. A teaser:
Keep the Faith (once delivered to the Saints),
I speak only to the unsuccessful here. There are funny little verses like “many are the troubles of the righteous man but the Lord delivers him out of them all”. Also: “though you suffer for a while…..” from the NT. Also, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” This one is near and dear to my heart. He has proved this to me and I almost wish He’d smite me again. Almost.
We have to do our own homework, do our own research, and look at reality and stop depending on the theologians, teachers, etc. Give a lot, you’re blessed, give a little, you get cursed. Hmmm. I thought God’s blessings were a gift not a payback. Does His blessings have a pricetag?
“I did everything I was supposed to, and now I’m suffering. What happened?” Just ask Him”Is there something I need to know?” Don’t worry if you say many times ” get rid of this pain “, rather than ” I trust you”.
Oh, no, everything may NOT turn out allright and you get back what you lost. What’s pruned, stays pruned.
Funny you should write on this topic today. This morning one of the men of our congregation came by my house to tell me the men of the congregation had met last night and decided they don’t want me preaching with the congregation anymore–as in, find something else to do tomorrow morning.
Carolyn and I are at peace that we have done nothing wrong to deserve the treatment we’ve gotten. I suppose we’ll find out how other portions of the body of Christ universal looks at it when I begin looking for other jobs.
Let us never forget that the gospel is good news for Failures like me.
I was doing some pondering on this subject and I thought of your line: “Well, consider this. Your church is looking for new elders…”
I’m sure we are familiar with the qualifications of being an elder, and can quote the parts about an elder being the husband of one wife, with obedient children, not given to drunkeness, etc. But how often do we ask people in the non-Christian community their opinion of the elder-to-be? 1 Timothy 3:7 “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”
My wife works as a bank teller, and in a small community, that means she knows most of the business people in the community. From her stories, not many of them would pass the “outsiders” test. But I happen to know many of them are elders and deacons in their churches, some of them pastors.
Failure is a complicated word. In many ways, one can be a success, and still be a failure.
Just wanted to add my “great post!” to the others. Whenever this topic of the presence of “success” in N. American Christianity shows up, I always think of Jim Harbaugh. Is it only circumstantial that your post comes on the same day of his appointment of head football coach at Stanford? For me, no way!
In 1995, Harbaugh lead the Colts to victories in the wild card game and the semi-final game on last-second or last-play of the game “Hail Mary” touchdown passes. As one who enjoys watching football, this kind of competition was a great thrill.
Following each of the victories, I vividly recall Harbaugh getting accosted by some sideline TV-reporter asking him about the play that gave his team the victory. Both times, Harbaugh replied, “I just want to give thanks to Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior.” He then went on to describe the game-winning play.
Next week: AFC Championship. And, it looked like at the end of the game, Harbaugh might again lead the Colts to victory on a late play of the “Hail Mary” version. Not this time, although the game was well played and the competition was incredible by both teams.
So, the sideline reporter comes up to Harbaugh and asks him about the end of the game play, and so on. I’m thinking, “OK, Harbaugh, tell America that it’s not about the victories or the losses: it’s about a life of thanksgiving to Jesus Christ.” Harbaugh starts in about the play, and his disappointment, and not a word about thanksgiving to his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I felt sick…
Dan, thanks again for your post: I am not discouraged but emboldened to affirm the importance of God’s grace, not the successes of humanity.
Thank you for this thought provoking post. I agree that the gospel we preach should reach out to those who have failed – and that we often shun those who fail, but the gospel isn’t supposed to help us feel content in failure. We are accepted even as abject failures, but God, in his grace, doesn’t leave us as abject failures.