As I handed my carefully wrapped package to the postal clerk, I thought, By tomorrow, my publisher will have my manuscript, and in a few months I'll see a lifelong dream fulfilled—a published book!
I expected to feel elated, but instead felt numb. Completing the project had been a mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual marathon. I felt as though every intelligent thought I'd ever had I'd poured into that book. I didn't have a single word left in my brain!
A few days later, my editor called. "We love the manuscript. Just one more thing … we want you to write four more chapters. Get it to us as soon as possible. We're on a tight schedule."
It was as though I'd undergone a 9-month pregnancy, endured 24 hours of hard labor, delivered a beautiful baby, and a week later the obstetrician said, "You need to go back into labor for another 6 hours."
For the next three weeks, I struggled. I negotiated with God. I cried. Day after day, whatever I wrote went immediately into the wastebasket. Panic seeped into my thinking: I'm this close to the finish line, and I can't make it come together! The only thing that appeared certain was failure.
My extra book chapters eventually sprang to life—which is why I feel safer talking about them than a failed relationship or a failed business venture. Failure's something we'd rather talk about after it's overcome with subsequent success.
That's unfortunate, because failure teaches us things we can't learn any other way. The key is to treat failure as a visitor: allowed to deliver unpleasant news, but not allowed to take up permanent residence. We need to say, "Make your point—then leave."
Are you learning from your failures? Here's what I've learned so far from mine:
All failures are not equal.
When a beautiful, talented young woman is named first runner-up in the Miss America Pageant, we say she failed. Yet some people would give their right arm to experience that kind of failure—to be named the second most attractive female in a national competition. It's a matter of perspective. We need to look closely at our failures, and give them weight appropriate to their importance in the overall scheme of things.
For example, I once received a "D" in college. I know it's ridiculous, but that sticks in my mind like a pebble in my shoe. Why do I fixate on that grade, and not the fact it happened the semester I carried 19 credit hours, worked part-time, got engaged, and spent six weeks in the college health center with mononucleosis? When I put the experience in its proper context, it loses its power to undermine my confidence.
Failure teaches us what's important.
I have a close friend who was downsized out of a job she loved. It caught her by surprise because she was good at her work.
"I tended to be full of pride," she says. "I got away with it because I was successful. But losing my job under those circumstances really humbled me. In the end, I was glad. With pride, you have no permission to fail. It's a heavy yoke to wear. I don't wear it anymore, and I feel much 'lighter' in my spirit. I don't have the burden of having to be perfect."
The best part, she says, is how God used the experience to bring her to him. "Had my bubble not burst, I might never have become a Christian. Success doesn't require any explanation. But when failure touches us, we want answers. I began asking questions about life—and they ultimately led me to God."
Failure is a circumstance, not a life sentence.
I know a woman who spent 15 years in the extremely challenging restaurant industry. She felt from day one, when she opened her first franchise, that God had her there for a reason. She ran the business with integrity, provided excellent service, put out a quality product, and championed biblical values to everyone with whom she came in contact—employees, vendors, and customers.
It wasn't a cakewalk: Some-one threw a bomb into the restaurant three weeks after it opened. Then her chief franchise competitor opened a restaurant right next door. "Every day," she says, "I gave the business to God. It was up to him to keep it going."
As the business flourished, her husband joined the company as chief financial officer. Fifteen years later, they owned 14 restaurants, enjoying financial success and the respect of their peers.
Then one day the franchise company changed the rules. My friend and her husband felt they could no longer operate successfully without compromising their values. The parting of ways was messy; it exacted a heavy emotional and financial price. To observers, it looked like a colossal failure.
I wish failures didn't have to be in plain view—especially in view of those who hold biblical values in low regard. It feels so unfair. My friend admits it was a painful time. Over and over she and her husband revisited what happened, trying to drain off the wisdom from the situation before discarding the rest.
In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers says, "If through a broken heart God can bring his purposes to pass in the world, then thank him for breaking your heart." My friend and her husband chose that path. Now she's able to talk convincingly about the whole experience as a "Romans 8:28 thing": "We know that God is always at work for the good of everyone who loves him. They are the ones God has chosen for his purpose" (CEV).
She says she'd do it all over again. "God hands you a package and you open it," she says. "You don't always know what's inside. I want to spend my life doing whatever God gives me to do." Today my friend's a successful executive coach who counsels other CEOs on how to manage their businesses and their lives.
God sees failure through different eyes.
Book chapters, beauty pageants, and grades don't inflict the same damage as more serious failures—especially those brought on by our own choices: an addiction that threatens to undo us; an uncontrolled tongue that damages important relationships; a deceit that betrays the trust others placed in us. But it's vital to remember God views even serious failures differently than we do.
While God expects us to take responsibility for our part and to ask his forgiveness, he never confuses the sin with the sinner. God may be deeply disappointed in our behavior, but he never walks away. "But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful. But there is more! Now that God has accepted us because Christ sacrificed his life's blood, we will also be kept safe from God's anger. Even when we were God's enemies, he made peace with us, be-cause his Son died for us" (Romans 5:8-10, CEV).
It's impossible to fail so badly that God's grace can't reach us. We can hand over to God the messes we've made, and stand amazed at his ability to create beauty from the ashes.
Jesus' death on the cross looked like a failure. He hung there exposed and forsaken by his own Father. An angry mob called him a phony. He had warned his disciples that dark day was coming, telling them it would not be the end of the story. But when it happened, I doubt his followers believed any part of that could remotely "work for the good of anyone who loves him." Who knew?
That's the point, really. In the midst of what looks like failure—real or imagined, large or small, our fault or someone else's—God's perspective is the one that counts, regardless of other louder voices. He says the good guys win in the end, and he ought to know. Our job is to do what he told us to do until Jesus comes back.
Verla Wallace is an author, speaker, and spiritual life coach. You may contact her through her blog, Pilgrim on the Loose, at www.pilgrimontheloose.com, or at email@example.com.
How to Move Forward
It's no fun to revisit your failures—especially if they represent "unfinished business." But facing them head-on empowers you to get on with life. Here's how:
• Ask God for courage to look at your failure from his perspective.
If you're still depressed or angry about what happened, tell him all of it. He can handle it.
• Write down how it changed you as a person—good or bad. Be specific. Has it had more impact than it deserves?
• Do you need to take responsibility for any part of what happened? If so, tell God you're sorry and want to be released from the guilt or shame.
• Ask God to make clear any additional steps you need to take.
• Thank him for loving you unconditionally through all the experiences of your life. Celebrate God's grace!
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.