Fear of Failure
January 23, 2000
There is something rumbling beneath the surface of our lives. Most of us keep it under wraps, somewhere buried in the subterranean part of our existence. I am talking about those dreams, plans, and aspirations that we would all tackle today if we knew we would succeed. What’s holding us back? What’s keeping us penned in? It is the anxiety and the fright of failure, trying something and messing up, attempting something and falling flat on our face.
The word “failure” sounds so defeating, so depressing, doesn’t it? Failure. When we fail, we can either curse it, deny it, or blame others for it. Or we can allow it to mature us and develop us and leverage us to greatness. It is our choice. The fear, the anxiety, of failure.
One of the main reasons we struggle with this fear is because most of us have a skewed view of success. We don’t understand success. When you think about it, success, as far as our culture is concerned, is more or less relative. For example, a successful basketball game for Dallas Maverick’s center, Sean Bradley, would not be a successful game for Los Angeles Lakers star center, Shaquille O’Neal. A successful meal prepared in one of our homes would not be seen as successful through those condescending eyes of Martha Stewart. Who is more successful, parents of an Olympic champion or parents of a physically-challenged child? Even though we are in the midst of an unprecedented eight-year run in the economy, even though there are more successful people running around these days than ever before, we don’t get success. In God’s economy, success has a different dynamic. So before we get into the fear of failure, I want to define true success. To do it, I am just going to let the Bible speak into your life and mine about success.
First of all, in God’s economy success is relational; it is not circumstantial. Success is relational; it is not circumstantial. Close your eyes for a moment. Think about, while your eyes are closed, the ultimate set of circumstances for your life. I am talking about the ultimate appearance, the ultimate performance, the ultimate you. Now ask yourself this question: would that bring you lasting satisfaction? If all the circumstances fell into place, would that quench your soul hunger? I think if we were all honest with ourselves we would say, it would be nice, but no, it wouldn’t really do it.
Listen to the following verses as we talk about the relational aspect of success. Right before the children of Israel, after wandering in the wilderness for forty years, were to enter the Promised Land, to close the ultimate real estate deal, here is what God said in Joshua 1:8, “Do not let this Book of law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you might be careful to do everything written in it.” And here are the results, “Then you will be prosperous and…”—let’s say it together—“…successful.”
Prosperous and successful. Do you see any circumstances here? Do you see anything about the weather or Wall Street or success against enemies here; any contingencies here? No, no, no, no. It just says meditate on the word of God day and night. It says be careful to do everything written in it, and then you will be prosperous and successful.
Jeremiah 9:23-24, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me…’”—that is the relationship thing going on—“’…that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.” But our culture cries, it is about circumstances. You have got to have the circumstances arranged. If they are in order, oh man, then you will be successful. It is about circumstances. No, it is not. It is about a personal relationship. It is about knowing God’s word, understanding it, living it out. And it is about having an interactive connection with Him.
Do you know God through Christ? Do you. A lot of us fear this relationship. A lot of us say to ourselves, “I cannot accept what God did for me through Christ. Jesus paid the price on the cross for all of my shortcomings, all of my failures and rose again. You say He loves me and I can accept Him. Well, if I accept Him and receive Him, I am going to fail Him.” We have this fear of failure even concerning this most important step we can ever make and take in our lives. Guess what. I have received Christ; I am a follower of the Lord, and I still fail. Jesus specializes in taking failures like me and reshaping me and remolding you and changing me and tweaking you by His grace. You want to find success, it is relational, not circumstantial.
Let me give you another thought about true success. True success is about character not achievement. The Bible says it is about character not achievement. All of the Biblical objectives concerning personal performance are character driven, ladies and gentlemen. It doesn’t matter if you are a carpenter, commodities broker, coach, teacher, professor, whatever, God says it doesn’t matter. What matters is character. If you have Godly character and you reflect the aspect and the nature of the living Lord in all that you do, it doesn’t matter what you do, you will be and are successful. Is that a cool deal? Man, that is great stuff.
I want to read to you one of my favorite verses in all the Bible about character development. And this verse focuses on our failures—1 Peter 1:7. But let me read Verse 6 first. I want you to jot down several comments about this text because this is rich stuff from the Bible, God’s word to us. “Though now for a little while…”—remember the words “a little while”—“…you may have had to suffer grief and all kinds of trials.” A little while? A little while? I talked to a guy the other day who told me, “Ed, I wish I could stay up 24/7, man. If I could stay up 24/7, I could accomplish and achieve everything I want to accomplish and achieve.” I thought to myself that he had it all wrong. You will never accomplish and achieve what you want to, nor will I. There is not enough time. But there is just enough time to do the will and the way of God, just enough time. And Simon Peter says, “Though now for a little while you may have had to suffer….” Have had. Have had. “…have had to suffer failures and trials….”
You mean to tell me, Ed, that God sometimes causes us to fail? He causes us to falter? He causes us to experience trials? Yes. We need trials. You ought to write that down. We need failure. Why do we need it? Because God knows that we need discipline. The Bible says that God disciplines those He loves. I discipline my four children because I love them. If I didn’t discipline them, it would mean that I didn’t really love them. God disciplines me. It is not always fun, but He does. I need trials for discipline. I also need trials for growth. God wants to grow me up. He wants to grow you up, if you know His Son personally. And He is going to give us trials and temptations. He will give us difficulties and even failures to produce this character stuff.
God also gives us trials to prevent us from sinning, to keep us from messing up. Man, if I tried to run my own life, I would mess up. I would go through the wrong door, take the wrong path, the wrong avenue, get off at the wrong exit. I am so thankful that God has shut the door in my face, that God has blocked this freeway and that exit. He has prevented me from sinning because of failure in my life, because of trials in my life. They are opportunities. This text says we need trials.
This verse also says that trials come in different makes and models. See the phrase here, all kinds? In the original language, it means various colors. Small trials. Big trials. Small failures. Medium failures. God uses it all, good and bad to work together for good. He does.
Now Simon Peter does something weird. Let’s go back to this text. He brings up gold. Now when I read this text, I was thinking to myself, what is up with that? Why does he start talking about gold? Well, let’s read it. “These have come…”—talking about the trials and failures—“…so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” We need trials and failures, don’t we? They come in different makes and models, don’t they?
A third observation about this text: God controls the temperature of the trials and failures. Simon Peter was talking about a goldsmith here. A goldsmith would pour the liquid gold in the smelting furnace and crank up the temperature. As he would heat it up, all the impurities would rise to the surface and he would scrape them off. Turn up the heat, the impurities would rise. He would scrape them off, scrape them off, scrape them off. And watch this. The goldsmith would know the gold was ready, when? When he could see his reflection in the gold. God has poured me and poured you in His smelting furnace. He has turned up the heat of trials, the heat of failures, and all the impurities in our lives rise to the surface. He just skims them off. He skims them off, skims them off, and then when He can see His reflection in our lives, He says, “Hey, you are ready to go. I am going to launch you now into another level of character development.” What trials are you going through right now? What kind of failures are you facing? What is fear doing to you? It is probably a gift from God.
I frequently talk about basketball. The reason I do is that it was such a huge part of my life for so many years. From the time I was twelve years of age until I was nineteen, it was my goal to play major college basketball. I thought that would be the ultimate if I could have those circumstances fall into place and achieve that. I thought that would really be it. I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to Florida State University. During my sophomore year, I broke into the starting lineup. I had several key opportunities to shine, to do well. I was playing out of my head in practice, but during the games I failed. And I believe God shut the door on that dream. Why? Because if I would have succeeded like I thought I should have, I would be at least four years behind where I am today spiritually, relationally, and emotionally. I would have stayed at Florida State and done that whole deal. God tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Ed, I want you to give up your full scholarship and go into the ministry.” I didn’t hear an audible voice, but I walked into my coach’s office and said, “Coach Williams, I feel led to go into the ministry. I appreciate it, but I want to give up the scholarship.” That was very difficult for me because I had so identified with the game of basketball for so many years. I failed, but God taught me something through that failure. He taught me that success is not scoring 20 a game or being All Conference. He taught me that failure is from Him and that true success is character-driven.
I learned that as I lived my life as a Christian witness there in Tallahassee, Florida, I was successful even though I shot many air balls, even though I messed up many times. I also learned that God caused that failure to take me out of one situation and put me somewhere else. At the time, I didn’t get it. At the time, I didn’t understand it. But I said, “God, I trust You.”
What failure are you going through? What trial are you going through? Are you cursing it, denying it, and blaming others for it? Or are you saying, “God, I don’t get it now, but I want You to grow me and development me and use this time to leverage me into a deeper connection with you.” It is about character. It is about character. It is about character.
Courage, commitment, discipline, vision—that is what God wants to see. He doesn’t care how many zeros appear in our compensation or how many toys or trinkets we collect. He doesn’t care where we live or what we drive. It is about character. That is success. That is success.
I have another comment about success, and we will do something else. Success is about management, not ownership. It is about management. We don’t own one thing. We came into this life with nothing. We’ll leave this life with nothing. “Well, Ed, you don’t understand, man. I’ve pulled myself up by the bootstraps. You don’t know what I have made of my life. You don’t know my background. I’m a fighter, man. I am a junkyard dog.” Who, gave you, sir, who gave you, ma’am, your life, your creativity, your drive, your people skills? Who gave you your money? Who blessed you? Who enabled you? Who empowered you? God gave it to you like the snap of a finger. He can take it away like that. Just like that.
Jesus illustrated this beautifully when He talked about the parable of the talents. He said a wealthy landowner was going out of town on a business trip and he gave one of his slaves five talents, another two talents, and another one talent. While he was gone, the slave who had five talents parlayed his into ten talents. I don’t know if he invested into tech stocks or what. The one who had two talents parlayed his into four talents. And the one who had one talent dug a hole and just sat on his talent. The day of accountability arrived. The wealthy landowner came back. He said, “Men, you guys who have parlayed the talents, good for you. You were faithful over little, now I’ll make you faithful over much.” And to the slave who had dug a hole and sat on his talent he said, “Get out of my face. Get out.” Then he took his one talent and divided it among the others.
I am to develop my gifts and abilities. I am to invest my gifts and abilities and give them back as an act of worship to God. I am not supposed to take my ability and sit on it. I invest it. I use it within the context of a career, within the context of marriage, within the context of the local church. As I develop this gift and give it back to God, God says, “Well done. I have given you the ability to communicate. I have given you the ability to make money. I have given you the ability to work with people. I have given you the ability to organize. You have developed that and now it is an act of worship.”
There is more wealth today than ever before in our nation. Yet a lot of you are selfish. You are greedy. As your earnings have gone up, your yearnings have gone up, and you are just throwing God and this church pocket change. One day He is going to come back and look at you, and a lot of people that go by the label of Christ-followers will hang their heads in shame because of the greed and selfishness of being away from God’s will. And any time people say, “He is talking about money again,” that is a billboard advertisement that they are greedy. Hey, you don’t have any stuff. God has your stuff. If you think you have your stuff, just wait. Just wait.
You know what? I know this about pilots. They sit there in the cockpit and punch buttons and kind of test all their machinery and the computers. They see the plane is functioning and they are ready to go. God has a quick button that He can push in my life and your life. It is the resource button. God talked a lot about money. Why? Maybe because He knows we will all deal with this greed stuff, that we will think we made it, that we earned it. When God pushes that button, what are you doing? Are you giving God what is His? Are you living by a budget? Are you saving 10%? Are you giving God and His church at least 10% of what you make? We are talking about the Christian life, folks. It is your call. Success is relational not circumstantial. It is about management.
Well, now, let’s look at some examples that we can connect with. Let’s look at examples concerning how we can mess up when we fear failure and how we can succeed. The bottom line is: it is an either/or deal. We have to look no further than the Bible to see how many people did great with the fear of failure and how many people blew it. The fear of failure will either cause us to hide behind baggage or bolt into the light.
There was a guy named Saul. He was gifted. Saul was tall, head and shoulders above the rest. He was articulate, handsome. The Israelites were like our kids—“Oh, God, the neighboring nations have a king. We don’t have a king.” “Mom, Dad, they get to stay out until midnight. Why not us? Mom, Dad, they have this video game. That is not fair. Why not us?” Sound familiar? God said, “OK, OK, OK, I will give you a king.” And Samuel, God’s prophet, tapped Saul on the shoulder. If you read I Samuel 10:11 you will see that Saul’s peers, his contemporaries, were talking trash about him. The people he hung out with, the people he had gone to Palestine High School with were saying, “What? Saul, king? What a joke.” And Saul had those rabbit ears. Well, maybe I am a joke. Maybe I don’t get it. Maybe I am not really good.
Samuel had a big press conference at Mispah to announce Saul to the entire nation of Israel. It was a time for Saul to go public. But they couldn’t find Saul because he was hiding behind the baggage. He was hiding behind the fear of failure. It had him incarcerated because he was listening to the comments and he was playing the head games of what people were saying about him. Do you do that? Is that keeping you from some great plan, dream or aspiration? Are you hiding behind baggage? Are you listening with rabbit ears to what people are saying about you? “Oh, she can’t do that. He can’t do that. Oh, I remember him.” A lot of us are doing the Saul thing. We are hiding behind baggage. All of you could share your five top life failures. Do you think that we would laugh at each other? Do you think I would stand here and laugh and say, “Do you believe that she did that? How stupid.”
I want our church, ladies and gentlemen, to be a fortress for failures. We are all failures. I want us to welcome failures. We are not perfect. I am far from it. Our staff is far from it. Our leadership team is far from it. But we want to welcome you. If you have failed, welcome to the Fellowship Church, the fellowship of failures. That is what I want. God sent Jesus Christ, and when Christ died it looked like a failure, didn’t it? It looked like it was a failure. Yet Jesus rose again. And He is in the business of taking failures like you and me and transitioning us and changing us into His people. So don’t hide behind the baggage; bolt into the light.
Remember Noah. Noah was building that boat on dry land. People were laughing at him, making fun at him. He didn’t do like Saul. “Whoa, what are they saying? They’re saying I am foolish. They’re saying what is this guy doing building a boat in the middle of nowhere.” He just kept on building. He heard the voice of God. He went for it. He stepped out. Yeah, he was fearful, but he faced those fears. And because he heard the voice of God and didn’t listen to the negative talk, what happened? Noah went to higher ground while the others drowned. And that is what will happen in your life and mine when we hear the voice of God. It will take us to higher ground.
Let’s do another one. Facing the fear of failure—I am talking about an either/or situation—will allow us to look at our weaknesses or play to our strengths. To look at our weaknesses or play to our strengths. God said, “Moses, I want you to deliver the children of Israel out of Egypt. I want you to talk to them and articulate My vision to them.” Moses said, “No, no, no, God. I can’t speak. I am fearful of getting in front of people. I can’t do it, God.” Moses was looking at his weaknesses, his shortcomings, his failures. He was incarcerated by the anxiety and the fright of fear. Is God telling you to do something? “God can’t use me. Surely, God can’t take a failure like me.”
Well, instead of looking at our weaknesses, like Moses did, we need to play to our strengths. David, when he fought Goliath—David, a guy who had just gone through puberty, probably listening to the Back Street Boys; David, having pimples all over his face; David, having never really fought another human being; David, having to take on Goliath, a nine-foot, 550-pound giant, a giant who could have Goldberg and Stone Cold Steve Austin for an appetizer—David played to his strengths. David said, “I have taken out the lion. I have taken out the bear. I can do it. God is on my side. He will give me victory.” And God provided the resources, the stones, the sling. He took the giant out. Are you thinking about your strengths or your weaknesses.
Also the fear of failure will cause us to either exaggerate the obstacles or engage the enemy. Going back to the Hebrews, the first time they stood on the edge of the Promised Land, God told them to send out twelve spies to check out the land. Ten of the twelve spies came back and said, “Oh, we can’t do it. There are giants in the land. The sons of Anak are there.” They were distant relatives of Goliath, believe it or not. “We can’t do it. The cities are fortified. The walls are thirty feet thick.” Exaggerating the obstacles. “Oh, I can’t start this business. I really can’t make sense of my blended family. Surely I can’t tell the truth to this person.” Don’t exaggerate the obstacles. Engage the enemy.
Gideon has 32,000 soldiers ready to fight. Do you know what God did? God cut his army down from 32,000 to 300, and Gideon was freaked with fear, the fear of failure. He thought he would die. God allowed him to sneak into an enemy camp, and he overheard a conversation from his enemy. His enemy was building Gideon’s army up more than Gideon was. The enemy spoke truth into Gideon’s life.
If you are dealing with the enemy, sometimes listen to what they are saying. God will sometimes speak through them and give you words of truth and words of courage and words of strength. And Gideon took out this army and won the victory. He was fearful. He admitted it. But he faced his fear.
Success is relational not circumstantial. Success is about management. But at the end of the day it is an either/or deal. What’s it going to be for you?