Reframing Failure as Discipleship

I've never met anyone who says that they like to fail. I hate failing. I'd rather sit in a dentist’s chair for eight hours than experience and work through failure.

In our spiritual lives, we can live with the perception that God has little room for our failure. Verses like, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48), can shape in us the expectation that God will bench us if we make a mistake. However, when you read through the gospels, you see that the disciples failed all the time. Jesus used their failure to teach and disciple them rather than shame and condemn them.

There's a story recorded in Mark 9 of when  Jesus was up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John. Down below, the rest of the disciples were ministering to a large crowd that had gathered. They were trying to cast out a demon from a young man, but couldn't do it.

In this story, we see failure both on the part of the disciples, in that they couldn't cast out the demon, and also on the part of the boy's father, who lacked belief that Jesus could do anything.

When the boy was brought to Jesus, the father pleaded with Him saying, "If you can do anything take pity on us and help us."

Jesus rebuked the father saying, "If you can? Everything is possible for one who believes." Jesus then proceeded to heal the young man, in spite of the father’s lack of faith.

From this encounter, I observe three things.

1. Failures in ministry can happen while doing things we've previously done successfully.

By this point in Mark's gospel, the disciples have already been sent out by Jesus to preach about the kingdom and drive out impure spirits (Mk 6:7ff). We're told in Mark 6:12 that they drove out many demons and healed many sick people. They have already had success, but that doesn't mean that they don't have more to learn.

Years ago, I preached an excellent sermon at one of our Sunday services. It's a message I still use to this day when I speak in different places. It was so good, that after the service was over I felt like I had made a huge breakthrough in my preaching.

Leading up to the next Sunday, I grew over-confident in my ability and didn't put as much time into sermon prep for the following week's message. When the next Sunday rolled around, my sermon tanked. It was awful and incredibly humbling. Jesus used that moment to teach me about depending on Him rather than my previous successes to be effective in ministry.   

2. Jesus trusts us with ministry even though He knows we'll fail.

Perfection isn't a prerequisite before we can join Jesus in his mission. Many stories in the gospels illustrate that the disciples didn't fully understand the scope of Jesus’ mission until after the resurrection. And all throughout His ministry, Jesus knew the disciples would fail.

He knew that Judas would betray Him. He knew that Peter would deny Him. He knew that all of the disciples would squabble over who was Jesus' favorite. Yet, He specifically and intentionally called each one and sent them out to represent Him and His kingdom even though they didn't always get it right.

It's easy to count ourselves out before we even begin, believing that Jesus will be disappointed in us if we're not perfect. Jesus knows we won't get it right. Looking at the way He sent out the disciples, it seems that He has  more confidence in us than we typically have in ourselves. He's not afraid of our failure, so we shouldn’t be either.

3. Jesus isn't turned away by our failure or unbelief.

When the disciples couldn't cast out the demon, when the boy's father was uncertain if Jesus could do anything, Jesus didn't throw up His hands and walk away saying, "I'm done  until you get it right." Rather, He sees this moment as an opportunity to reveal more of Himself to the father and to teach the disciples more about the ministry of healing.

In light of this, perhaps we need to redefine failure. Instead of seeing failure as failure, maybe it's more accurate to understand it as learning. When learning a new skill, no reasonable teacher would expect a student to do it exactly right the first time. They'll be patient. They'll coach. They may challenge and even rebuke, but they will continue to say, "Get back in there and try it again."

Don't let the fear of failure shut you down before you begin. Welcome the invitation to engage. Embrace failure when it comes. Have confidence that Jesus believes in you, and keep going while trusting that He's working even when we don't get it right. Because ultimately, it's His work, not ours.