What is the Meaning of Failure for the Christian?
William Lane Craig speaks at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church
Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, Marietta, Georgia, United States – January 1, 2007
William Lane Craig discusses "failure in the Christian life" vs. "failure in the life of a Christian," and focuses on the latter.
It is wonderful to be here with you this morning and it is an honor and a joy to be filling the pulpit this morning. I want to say how grateful I am to Bryant Wright for giving me this tremendous privilege of ministering the Word of God this morning. I want you to know, as well, that I do not take lightly the responsibility of standing behind this sacred desk and, therefore, I would like to ask us to begin with a word of prayer to ask God’s help this morning.
As we bow our heads in prayer, would you pray for yourself this morning. Pray that God would speak to you this morning. Pray that he would remove every distraction from your mind that might prevent you from hearing the Word of God. Holy Spirit, we pray that you might move among us and that you might illumine your inspired Word to our hearts. Convict, reprove, encourage in each case as you see fit. Speak to us this morning, Lord, we pray. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I have been a Christian now for over forty years. I figure that in the space of that time I have attended literally thousands of church services, not to speak of hundreds of chapels while a student at Wheaton College, as well as scores of Christian meetings at conferences, retreats, and so forth. Yet, in all of those years, I never once – not a single time in all those thousands of meetings over some forty-odd years – ever heard a Christian speaker address the subject of failure. In fact, I probably would not have thought seriously about the topic myself if it had not been for a devastating failure in my own personal life which forced me to confront this issue squarely.
This silence on the part of Christian speakers about this topic is certainly not due to any lack of importance in the subject itself. Any Christian who has failed at some time in his life knows how devastating the experience can be and the questions that it raises: Where is God? How could he let this happen? Am I outside his will? What do I do now? Does God really care or even exist? These are agonizing questions. What is the meaning of failure for the Christian? This is the question that I want t o consider with you this morning.
In tackling this problem, I think it would be helpful if we distinguish between two types of failure. What I will call failure in the Christian life and failure in the life of a Christian. By failure in the Christian life, I mean a failure in a believer’s relationship and walk with God. For example, a Christian might experience failure by a refusal to heed God’s calling on his life, or by succumbing to temptation, or through marrying a non-Christian. Failure of this sort is due to sin. It is essentially a spiritual problem, a matter of moral and spiritual failure.
By contrast, what I am calling failure in the life of a Christian is unrelated to spiritual considerations. It is not due to sin in the life of a believer. It is just some defeat that a person who happens to be a Christian experiences in the ordinary course of life. For example, a Christian businessman might go bankrupt, a Christian athlete might see his boyhood dreams shattered when he fails to make the major leagues, a Christian student might flunk out of college despite his best efforts to succeed, or a Christian workingman might find himself unemployed and unable to find a job. Cases like these are not instances of failure in a person’s walk with God; rather, they are instances of failure in the ordinary course of everyday life. They just happen to occur in the lives of people who are Christians.
In his best-selling book Failure: The Back Door to Success, Paster Erwin Lutzer of Moody Church in Chicago attempts to come to grips with this distinction I am trying to make here. He attributes failure in the Christian life to three factors: lust of the flesh (or sexual gratification), pride of life (or egoism), or lust of the eyes (or covetousness). Failure in the life of a Christian that is not related to these three elements is just part of life. Lutzer finds no particular difficulty with this second type of failure, but he does find the first kind of failure problematic. He writes:
What causes failure? What makes a man come to the end of his life and admit he lived in vain? What motivates a man to commit suicide because he is not as gifted as others? . . . What causes a man to jeopardize his Christian testimony and have an affair with his neighbor’s wife? The answer: Sin – specifically, pride, covetousness, or sensual desire.
Of course, there are failures quite unrelated to sinful motivations: a student might fail in school, a man might make an unwise investment. Many people have failed at their jobs or simply fallen short of their goals. We shouldn’t minimize this type of failure, but in the long run it is not as serious as spiritual failure.
Lutzer therefore devotes his entire book to discussion of failure of the first sort, failure in the Christian life, because he thinks that this has more serious consequences than the second type of failure. In one sense, he is right about that: failure which is in the Christian life leaves us morally guilty before God. Failure in the Christian life breaks our fellowship with God and has eternal consequences. We need to confess this type of failure to God, and ask for his forgiveness and cleansing. Otherwise, we will be held accountable for it and judged for it. So in an ultimate sense, the consequences of failure in the Christian life are far more serious than failures that occur in the ordinary course of everyday life.
On the other hand, however, it is not always true that in terms of everyday consequences in the world in which we live, that failures of the first sort have more serious consequences than failures of the second sort. In fact, if we do not know how to respond to it properly, failure in the life of a Christian, that is in the ordinary course of life, can have consequences that are far more devastating and far more crushing than failure that is due specifically to sin.
Now I have myself do not have any particular difficulty in understanding failure in the Christian life. Of course, sin leads to failure! What else could you expect? Nor is the solution to this type of failure difficult to understand: repentance, confession, faith, and obedience. So I do not find failure in the Christian life to be particularly puzzling, especially when I reflect upon the weakness of my own flesh. It is not surprising that we sin and fail.
But the second type of failure is problematic to me. When someone is walking in faith and obedience to the Lord, how can he be led into the pit of failure? Think about it. How can obeying God’s will lead to failure? This is puzzling. Therefore, I want to focus our attention this morning upon this second type of failure, failure in the life of a Christian, and see if we can come to understand it.
For many years I had the point of view that Christians who are walking in God’s will basically cannot fail. Now, you may think that I was just outrageously naïve, but I don’t think so. I had actually given some thought to the matter and had qualified my position on important points. For example, I distinguished failure from persecution. Scripture is clear that people who are trying to lead godly lives in Christ Jesus will experience persecution, and Jesus said that they will be blessed for it. So, Christians who have died in concentration camps or suffered discriminated or lost their jobs because they were Christians could not properly be said to have failed.
Similarly, I also distinguished failure from trials. Again, the Scripture is clear that as Christians we are not exempt from trials and that such testing produces maturity and endurance. Without trials we would remain pampered and spoiled children. But I believed that if we endured our trials in reliance upon the Lord’s strength, he would see us through and bring us victoriously to the other side. Basically, it just did not make sense to me to say that God would call a person to a particular end and then – when that person was obedient and relying on God’s strength – allow him to fail.
And, in fact, there is actually some Scriptural support for the position I took. Listen to what Psalm 1:1-3 says:
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
Now, what could be clearer? In all that he does, he prospers! But then I experienced a disastrous personal failure which drove me to rethink this entire issue. It occurred while Jan and I were living in Germany and I was finishing up my doctoral studies in theology at the University of Munich under the famous theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. My dissertation had already been submitted and approved, and all that remained was to pass the oral examination in theology (ominously called the Rigorosum). Not knowing what to expect, I tried repeatedly to make an appointment with Pannenberg in advance to discuss with him how I might prepare for this examination. But he was always too busy to meet with me (German professors tend to be much more reclusive than their American counterparts). So I went to his teaching assistant, a brilliant young German theologian who had earned his own doctorate under Pannenberg and asked him how I might prepare. He brushed aside the idea of preparing for the examination. “Forget it!” he said. Well, I wasn’t that stupid, so I pressed him on how I might prepare. “Pannenberg always asks questions only over his own writings,” he advised me. “Just read what he has written.”
That seemed like a good strategy, and so over the next several weeks I read and studied virtually everything that Pannenberg had ever written. I felt confident that I had mastered his thought.
On the day of the examination I entered Pannenberg’s office. He would deliver the exam himself, and the whole process was to be monitored and recorded by the dean of the theology faculty and by one other professor of theology. We shook hands all around and sat down for the questioning to commence.
Almost immediately things began to go wrong. Pannenberg began to ask questions over subjects that were not discussed in his writings. He began to ask questions about the particularities of this or that man’s theology. And I could not answer the questions. Again and again I had to confess my ignorance. I cannot convey to you the sense of helplessness and fear that swept over me. Question after question, I realized that I was watching my doctorate slip away before me, and – like trying to grasp sand slipping through your fingers – there was nothing I could do to stop it. This torture went on for nearly an hour until at the end of the hour’s examination, just to make my failure patently evident to all, Pannenberg asked a couple of condescendingly easy questions, as if to come down to my level. My humiliation was complete.
Devastated, I left the theology department to meet Jan to go out to dinner at a restaurant where we had planned to celebrate. She came running up to me, smiling, with a look of expectancy in her eyes. “Honey – I failed,” I said. She just couldn’t believe it. It was just before Christmas, and on the twenty-third of December we were flying back to the United States to spend the holidays with my folks and then begin teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School after the New Year. Now, we were going home in defeat. As if to add injury to insult, on the flight back, Lufthansa lost our IBM typewriter, Jan’s handbag where she had packed her most valuable personal effects was stolen, and I lost both of my contact lenses!
But those material losses were nothing compared to the turmoil I felt inside over losing my doctorate. I just couldn’t understand how God could have allowed it to happen. He had called us to Germany and had miraculously supplied the finances for my study. We were walking in his will; I was sure of it. I had not been overconfident or negligent. I had tried frequently to see Pannenberg prior to the exam, but he was always too busy to meet with me, so I prepared in the best way that I knew how. But especially, we had prayed earnestly and faithfully for this examination, and there were others, too – Spirit-filled Christians in the United States, praying for it, as well. The examination itself had been entirely fair, I couldn’t deny that. I had just failed it, that’s all. But how could God have let it happen? What about his promises? “In all that he does, he prospers.” “Whatsoever you ask in my name, I will do it for you.”
It wasn’t just that I had failed an examination. More than that, my failure was a spiritual crisis in faith for me. I felt hurt and disgraced, but even more, I felt betrayed by God. How could I ever trust him again?
As I worked through my feelings in the ensuing days, it became clear to me that Psalm 1:1-3 just could not be construed as some sort of a blanket promise that covers every case. Christians don’t always prosper in what they undertake. Sometimes they do fail, and that’s just a fact.
Now someone might say, “You can’t use human experience to nullify God’s Word! His promises stand regardless of your experience.” But the problem with this response is that Scripture itself gives examples of such failure. For example, God had promised to give the land of Canaan to the twelve tribes of Israel. But in Judges 1:19, we read, “The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots.” Look at what it says here: the Lord was with the armies of Judah – but although they conquered the hill country, they failed to defeat their enemy in the plains because the jokers had iron chariots! It just doesn’t seem to make sense: God was with them, and yet they failed. How do you make sense of failure in the life of the believer?
Some people might try to answer that question by claiming that God has no specific will for our individual lives. God’s will is his general will that we obey his spiritual and moral commandments, that we develop a Christlike character, and so forth. But he has no specific will for each individual person that includes things like getting a doctorate, marrying a certain person, or entering into a particular business deal. So when we undertake such things, we do so wholly on our own initiative and may well wind up in failure.
But this solution strikes me as inadequate, despite its apparent appeal to some people. In the first place, it implies a deficient concept of God’s sovereignty, providence, and guidance. Although the Bible does teach human freedom, it also has a strong emphasis on God’s sovereign control and providential direction over everything that happens in the world. Nothing happens in the world without God’s either directly willing it, or, in the case of sinful acts, at least permitting it to happen. Moreover, God has so providentially ordered the world that his ends are achieved though the free decisions that we make. Therefore, those decisions cannot be a matter of indifference to God. Moreover, he has promised to guide us in the decisions we make. “In all your ways, acknowledge him and he will direct your paths,” says the Scripture. All of this suggests that God does have a specific will for our lives.
But that point aside, in the second place, this solution really doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. For even if God does not have a specific will for our lives, the fact remains that he has promised to be with us, empowering us and helping us. That is why the example in the book of Judges is so puzzling. The Lord was with them, and yet they failed. So even if God has no specific will for our lives, that still doesn’t explain how we can fail in things that we undertake in the Lord’s strength.
So I was led to what was, for me, a radical new insight into the will of God, namely, that God’s will for our lives can include failure. In other words, God’s will may be that you fail, and he may lead you into failure! For there are things that God has to teach you through failure that you could never learn through success.
In my own case, failing my doctoral exams forced me to see my life’s priorities in a new light. When we returned to my folks for Christmas, I broke the news to my parents that I had failed the oral examination in theology and didn’t receive the doctorate. To my utter astonishment, my mother retorted, “Who cares?” I was absolutely stunned! To me it seemed like the catastrophe of a lifetime, but she just shrugged it off as though it didn’t even matter. It dawned on me that in one sense it really didn’t, that there are things in life a whole lot more important than doctorates, publications, and academic fame. In the end, it was human relationships that really mattered – especially family relationships.
My mind went back to a scientist that Jan and I had met in Germany who had been divorced for many years and who longed with all of his heart to be reunited with his wife and little boy. “When I was first married,” he told us, “I spent all of my time in the laboratory. All I could think of was my research to the exclusion of anything or anyone else.” It had seemed so important to him then. But now he realized that it wasn’t. “I was a fool,” he told us. And so now I, too, realized afresh the blessings that I had in a faithful wife who had sacrificed for me and worked with me all of those years that I was in school and in loving parents who accepted me unconditionally just because I was their son. That Christmas marked the beginning of a new relationship with my folks. Jan and I came to know them not merely as parents but as friends.
You see, I had failed to understand what true success really is. True success is not achieving wealth, power, or fame. True success lies in the realm of the spiritual, or more specifically, in getting to know God better. J. I. Packer in his marvelous book, Knowing God, puts it in this way:
We have been brought to the point where we both can and must get our life’s priorities straight. From current Christian publications you might think that the most vital issue for any real or would-be Christian in the world today is church union, or social witness, or dialogue with other Christians and other faiths, or refuting this or that -ism, or developing a Christian philosophy and culture, or what have you. But our line of study makes the present-day concentration on these things look like a gigantic conspiracy of misdirection. Of course, it is not that; the issues themselves are real and must be dealt with in their place. But it is tragic that, in paying attention to them, so many in our day seem to have been distracted from what was, is, and always will be the true priority for every human being—that is, learning to know God in Christ.
When I first read Packer’s statement, it took me aback: “refuting this or that -ism or developing a Christian philosophy.” Exactly what I am about in life! And yet it is not the most important thing. One could succeed in it and yet, in God’s sight, still be a failure.
We can be doing many things for the Lord and yet still fail to be the kind of person that God wants us to be. In fact, my greatest fear has been that someday I would stand before the Lord and see all of my works go up in smoke like so much “wood, hay, and stubble.” What did Jesus say? “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” It is not success in the eyes of the world that ultimately counts, but success in the Lord’s eyes.
Now this is both encouraging and convicting. It is encouraging, on the one hand, because even though we may fail, failure may well be the better part of success in the Lord’s eyes. I have a hunch that God is not so much concerned with what we go through as with how we go through it. Though we may fail in the task that we’ve set out to do, if we respond to that failure with faith, courage, and dependency on the Lord’s strength, rather than with despair, bitterness, and depression, then we are counted a success in his sight.
On the other hand, it is convicting because we may think that we are accomplishing a lot for the Lord when in fact we are actually failing in the Lord’s sight. The apostle Paul recognized that he could be a brilliant and gifted theologian, one who lived in poverty because of his generosity and who was even martyred for preaching the Gospel, and yet, if he lacked love, still be nothing in God’s sight. For true success is found in loving God and our fellow man.
Well, what practical application does all of this have for our lives today? Let me make three points.
1. Give thanks in the midst of your failure. The Bible says, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will concerning you.” In other words, it is God’s will that we have thankful hearts regardless of our circumstances. We may not be able to thank God for those circumstances but we can still thank God in those circumstances. We can thank him for forgiveness of sins, for the indwelling Holy Spirit, for eternal life, we can count our blessings. A thankful heart is the best antidote to bitterness.
2. Learn from your failures. When we fail, we shouldn’t adopt the sour grapes attitude of the fox in Aesop’s fable. Rather, we should analyze our failure to see what lesson we can learn from it. I want to emphasis, that does not mean trying to figure out why God allowed us to fail. In many cases, we’ll never know why. Too many Christians fall into what Packer calls the “York signal box mistake.” He explains that in the train yards in the city of York in England there is a master control room or signal box containing an electronic panel showing in lights all of the trains in the yard. For someone in the signal box who sees the whole panel, he can understand precisely why a particular train was put on hold here or why another was shunted into a siding there, but to someone down on the tracks the movements of the trains around him is apt to appear chaotic and even inexplicable. The Christian who wants to know why God permits every disaster in his life is asking, in effect, to be in God’s “signal box,” and, for better or worse, we just don’t have access to it. Therefore, it is pointless to torture ourselves about why God permitted this or that disaster to enter our lives.
But although we don’t always discern or comprehend God’s providential design, we can still learn from our failures. “It isn’t necessary to know why God sent us the misfortune in order to profit from it.” Ask yourself what sort of reaction God wants you to have in these circumstances. What character trait can be developed in your life as a result of this defeat. Ask yourself what you should have done differently or what you could do differently next time. Learn from your failure.
3. Never give up. Just because you failed, it’s not all over for you. Here an example of a man like President Theodore Roosevelt is instructive. Weak and sickly as a boy, Roosevelt battled mightily to achieve great things. He was the only U. S. President ever to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor on the battlefield. Later in life, Roosevelt reflected,
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
You’re never finished when you fail. You’re only finished if you quit. But don’t quit! Stay in the arena. With God’s strength, pick up the pieces of your failure and go on having learned from them.
That’s what we did in our case. At German universities, if you fail the oral examinations the first time, you can retake them. Jan and I both knew that I had to try again, and our friends encouraged us to do so. So after beginning to teach at Trinity, I spent the next entire year preparing again for the Rigorosum. I worked through Harnack’s prodigious, three-volume Dogmengeschichte, Pelikan’s multi-volume History of the Development of Doctrine, Cunliffe-Jones’s History of Christian Doctrine, Loof's Dogmengeschichte, two lengthy study guides on the whole of Dogmatics prepared for German university students in theology, as well as studying the documents of the various church councils and creeds, readings in the early church Fathers, works on contemporary theology, and so forth. By the end of the time, I had a stack of notes about a foot high, which I had virtually memorized, and was prepared to answer questions on any area of systematic theology – be it soteriology, anthropology, Christology, or what have you – from the early Greek Apologists through the Middle Ages, into the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the twentieth century. I was set. But I was scared to death.
When I walked into Pannenberg’s office, everything looked pretty much the same as it was before. But this time, it was different. Pannenberg began with the doctrine of the Trinity and the logos doctrine of the early Greek Apologists. And to my joy (which I could hardly conceal!), I found myself readily responding to each question with full and accurate answers. As the examination continued to unfold, the answers just continued to roll out, easily and fully. In fact, the only question I tripped up on was why Hegel’s doctrine of the incarnation entails the death of God – and I didn’t really feel too bad about missing that one! Pannenberg himself was clearly delighted with my success and awarded me a magna cum laude on the examination. I was dancing on air!
So it was a victory for the Lord in the end. But the victory was not just in passing the examination. For, not to mention the spiritual lessons that God had taught me through my failure, I also discovered a sobering truth. Like most other American students, I had been woefully trained in seminary in the history of Christian doctrine. The training in systematic theology that American evangelical seminaries generally give their students is but a pale shadow of the instruction that German university students in theology receive. Is it therefore any wonder that skeptical German theology leads the world? How can we ever hope that evangelical theology will become a leading model unless we begin to train our students with the same rigor and thoroughness that characterize German theological instruction? I can honestly say without hesitation that I learned more about systematic theology during that intensive year of study than I did during my entire seminary education. So although I would never want to relive my experience, I can honestly say that I’m glad I failed. Because as a result of that failure, I became theologically equipped for the Lord’s work in a way that would never have been possible had I passed.
And I’m so glad that we didn’t quit. Suppose we had just given up. Let’s say that in the humiliation of my failure, I had lost hope and not tried to take that exam the second time. The pangs of defeat would have haunted me every time I opened a book on systematic theology or thought of my failure. The years would have passed, and I would have continually asked myself the question: Should I have tried again? Even if I had tried and failed the second time, I would still have been better off than by quitting. As Roosevelt said, I would have at least failed while daring greatly. I would have at least stayed in the arena.
So when you encounter failure, don’t give up. Ask God for strength to go on. He will give it to you. In fact, there is a biblical name for this quality. It is called endurance. Through failure, if we respond properly to it, God can build the quality of endurance into your life.
Failure in the life of a Christian, then, should not surprise us. God has important things to teach us through failure – and true success, the success that really counts for eternity, consists in learning those lessons. So when you fail, do not despair or think that God has abandoned you; rather, give thanks in the midst of your failure, learn from those failures and, finally, never give up. That is the formula for success.
Let’s pray. As we bow out heads in prayer, there may be people here this morning who have never really forgiven God for allowing them to experience some bitter failure or defeat. There is a root of bitterness in your hearts that needs to be confessed. Will you bring it to the Lord now and say, Lord, I submit to your sovereign plan. I understand now that your will for my life may have included failure. Forgive me for reacting with bitterness or depression or questioning you. And ask God, if it might not still be possible to learn spiritual lessons that he would have for you from that failure. And ask him for strength to endure to go on. Father, you have said that all things work together for good to those who love you, who are called according to your purpose. So, Father, we submit joyfully to your will, mysterious and inscrutable as it may sometimes be. And Father, when you lead us through the valley of the shadow and into the pit of failure, we pray help us that our faith may not fail. Strengthen us during that time and help us to learn the lessons that you would have for us. Thank you, that you are with us even until the end of the age. So, Lord, we pray, strengthen us even for the challenges that we are going to confront this week as we leave this place. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We are going to respond now to the Lord’s Word with a chorus, “Blessed Be The Name of the Lord.” Bryant is going to come and lead us in this. Whatever our circumstances, whatever hardship we go through, we can bless the name of the Lord.
 Erwin Lutzer, Failure: The Back Door to Success (Chicago: Moody, 1975), pp. 41-42.
 Proverbs 3:6
 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973), p. 314.
 Ibid., pp. 110-11.
 Lutzer, Failure, p. 66.
 Total Running Time: 40:33 (Copyright © William Lane Craig 2013)