Failure is the fear of my generation.
A generation who were told, “you can be anything you want to be,” are now evaluating their accomplishments against the lofty goals of their younger selves. I’m turning 30 this year and with every milestone comes that internal gut check: “Am I on track?”
In high school, I assumed I’d meet a girl in college, get married in my mid-twenties, buy a house, and have a couple of kids by 30. Easy. The reality is that I’m living in an apartment with my cousin, not married, and with no kids. Compared to my expectations—how could I feel anything but way off track?
We’re told that life should be easy from a world full of shiny Instagram posts and books like “The Four-Hour Workweek.” If you’re not flying from one exotic vacation to another, funded comfortably by that four-hour work week, then you must be doing it wrong. And even though I pretty much only post vacation pics on my social media, I still look at other people’s pictures and assume I’m the only one hiding the difficulties in my life from public view. I must be the only one not measuring up.
Driving home from the gym one day, this feeling of not measuring up overwhelmed me. I began working out with my friend Danny, and for the first time in my life, I’ve consistently kept to a workout routine. It’s been great, but sometimes I’m tired at 6:30 in the morning when we meet. I might not feel well, or I get frustrated. That morning, I couldn’t finish the last circuit, and we cut the workout short. Danny told me, “We lifted a lot of weight today. You did good.”
I heard what he said. But subconsciously, in my heart, I still felt like I failed. A better man would have finished the workout. It wasn’t until the quiet of the drive home that I heard my heart beating the word “failure.” And then came a dose of shame mixed in with my emotions.
Just like that, my mind started listing all the ways I felt like a failure. How I was too lazy to sell that stock when it was up. How I’ve let my friends and family down. How selfish I am. How I’m weak physically and emotionally. How I’m almost 30 and starting over in a new career, and I’m not really sure it’s going all that well yet. Sometimes I can’t seem to stop myself from making the leap from “life is just difficult” to “I’m just not capable of handling life.”
I’ve dealt with this fear of not measuring up in many ways. I’ve numbed with alcohol or busyness. I’ve filled my time with Netflix, Trivia Nights, Sand Volleyball Leagues, and Bible studies, all to prevent too much time alone to think about it. I’ve wasted time being angry or bitter toward other people who seemed to have what I wanted. All of those methods have one thing in common: they don’t work. It all left me feeling like a failure again when the smoke cleared. No matter how hard I tried to outrun it, I still ended up afraid of the future with regret over the past.
Maybe you can relate. Maybe you’ve dropped out of college or are in the middle of a messy breakup. Maybe you’re afraid of telling your parents that you got fired from a job again. Did you forget to take your friend’s dog out like you promised? Or have you been caught in a lie? Did you plan on “making it” by now but you’re still slinging boxes in the back of a sweaty warehouse?
However you’ve dealt with disappointment in the past, I’ll recommend what I do now. I believe we have a God who wants to speak to us, so whenever I start feeling like a failure I talk to God. “God, what are you trying to teach me right now?” Here’s what God said to me later that morning after my workout:
“I’m not afraid of failure.”
An early follower of Jesus named Paul knew a thing or two about failure. He’d been imprisoned, beaten, hungry, and despised. And he knew that many followers of Jesus are also struggling. So by way of encouragement, he wrote the following to a church in Corinth:
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen…(2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
“Light momentary affliction”? My response to God in my prayer was one of frustration, “God you don’t understand what I’m going through. You don’t know what it feels like to be a failure.”
Then I remembered that He does. Because when His son Jesus, who lived a perfect life, was being tortured to death on that cross, he sure looked like a miserable failure. His followers had left him. His best friends claimed not even to know him. And the leaders at the time who put Him to death assumed that his revolution was over.
Except that’s not where the story ends. This “miserable failure” rose from the dead, appeared to hundreds of His followers, and promised that we would live forever with him in paradise and that his Spirit would come to live inside of us.
Earlier in that same letter to the Corinthians, Paul compares our bodies to jars of clay: weak vessels carrying around the Spirit of God:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)
I’m hard on myself because a “successful life” feels like mine to lose. I beat myself up over every misstep because I feel like I’m falling behind. But if God isn’t afraid of my failure. If he’s bigger than my ability to screw things up, then I don’t have to be scared of failing anymore. If anything good happens in our lives, it’s not through our power but His. I follow a God who is fine when I look weak because then he has an opportunity to be strong.
When the world is telling me it’s all up to me or when other Christians are telling me that I need to try harder to be perfect like Jesus, God is telling me that he’s not afraid of failure. He knows what it’s like to take a seemingly hopeless situation and change the world from it. God looks at us, chipped and broken jars of clay that we are, and sees perfection.
So what do we do with our long lists of failures? We move forward—now confident that failure is not the end of the story. In a world demanding perfection, I hold onto the promise that God has the power to turn death into life and what looks like failure into something good.