“Yea, more with His own Hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed
Cast out my feelings, laid me low…”
–John Newton, “I Asked the Lord”
I clearly remember my first anxiety attack. I was sitting at work, a few days removed from the fateful meeting with my academic advisor. As I thought about the meeting and realized that my decade-long dream of a Ph.D. would not come to fruition, my chest constricted and my breathing grew shallow. This wasn’t just disappointment—I was staring failure, major failure, in the face for the first time.
Struggles with Failure
As it turned out, I didn’t faint right there in the library. Even though I was able to breathe and pray through that anxious spell, it took much longer to navigate failure’s fallout—to come to terms with the sense that the Lord had indeed “crossed all [my] fair designs.” Our culture lauds the pursuit of one’s dreams as an end in itself. As Christians, we also strive to persevere in the work to which we believe ourselves called, even if it doesn’t feel constantly rewarding. Though the Lord honors such faithfulness, it can be difficult to discern when we’re right to walk away from an apparent dead end.
It’s not hard to name the struggles that accompany failure. No matter what the combination of factors at play, or the degree to which we are directly at fault, our pride takes a hit. There can be an overwhelming sense of shame that, in the pursuit to which we’ve dedicated a substantial season of life, we weren’t equal to the challenge.
Grief tags along with shame. When my decision to leave graduate school became irrevocable, it wasn’t the loss of a title (“Dr.”) or professional status that brought tears. For my husband and I, it meant surrendering the picture of our future life we’d cherished since before our marriage. I no longer knew how to answer the kind inquiries of fellow church members who’d greeted me for years with, “How’s school going?” What was my purpose now?
Opportunities in Failure
Rather than dwell on the burdens of failure, I’d like to name a few opportunities that failure brings. These opportunities are, in fact, privileges of those who experience failure in union with Christ.
- Renewed Faith. Where repentance is needed, there is always a chance to turn to the Lord with renewed faith. Where we might have intended our own glory—or at least been captive to our own vision of the journey—we now see that God intended something very different. We’re reminded that our role is smaller than we thought. It’s humbling to learn that ways aren’t ours. Yet we can trust that He doesn’t waste the seemingly barren years, that He is bringing about a harvest—even if the fruit isn’t the type we had imagined, or it doesn’t ripen according to our calendar.
- Service to Others. When we’ve known deep disappointment, we may find we’ve been prepared to serve others in a deeper way than before. Others who have endured failure and loss might be drawn to us, even if their stories differ from ours. When these encounters happen, we may find ourselves slower to assume, quicker to listen, and better equipped to speak truth. As Betsy Childs Howard writes in Seasons of Waiting, “Someone who lives with unmet desires is uniquely able to identify with and comfort others who live with unmet desires, even if their longings are of a different sort.” We may also find that unexpected avenues are opened to us. While my studies did not pave the way to a professorship, I have been able to use my historical training to serve the church, including many who will never open an academic journal or attend a university lecture.
- Finding Rest. We find rest when we recall our place among God’s covenant people, whose story is one of God’s faithfulness, not our own. When we can’t finish what we started, we are held fast in the knowledge that Christ will never fail to complete the good work He began in us. As much as we quail at this, it’s okay to find ourselves without a plan. Not only does the Lord have one, it’s better than any we could devise, because it won’t fail to glorify Him and build up His church. Right now, it may not be our business to know how He chooses to accomplish this—only to trust His character. When we rest accordingly, Christ alone is exalted.
“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me.”
Our Father wants us to find fullness of joy in Him, and sometimes that means falling short in good and worthy pursuits. When we face failure, we discover the paradoxical triumph of Christ’s covering righteousness. This doesn’t mean we won’t have tears and questions, but it does mean we haven’t come to the end of the story. And this is a freeing place to rest.
Sarah White holds an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School and an M.A. in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University. She loves writing about church history in ways that encourage contemporary women and deepen their curiosity about the past. She has been married to her husband, Kevin, for nine years and enjoys coaxing her lazy Basset Hound, Basil, to explore the outdoors with her. She is a member of The Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.