I’ve written about quarterback Nick Foles on my blog. He’s a Christ-loving young man who millions of people across the country celebrated when the Eagles won the Super Bowl earlier this month, and Nick was named the MVP.
Nick was an early success in the NFL, followed by injury and being traded and becoming a backup. Most of us aren’t professional athletes, but career disappointments and personal failures in family relationships and whatever we do are just some of the many ways we become disillusioned.
Listen to Nick answer a question at a press conference, where he shares about how past failures have shaped him as a person. Notice how he speaks of his faith and family, and affirms Carson Wentz, the Eagles starting quarterback, who Nick replaced when Carson was injured. Nick talks about failure but in the process models how to handle success with humility and perspective.
Nick says, “Failure’s a part of life. It’s a part of building character and growing. Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn’t be up here if I hadn’t fallen thousands of times and made mistakes. …If something is going on in your life and you’re struggling, embrace it. Because you’re growing.”
It may seem ironic to be talking about failure in the life of an NFL player. To even make it to the NFL is success beyond the dreams of most college players, who themselves are in a small minority to have made it that far. So you may think, “You’re still an elite and highly paid athlete, so you can’t be a failure. Now my life has been full of failures you can’t relate to.”
But this neglects to recognize that as human beings, and Christ-followers, we are all far more alike than different. Athletes and celebrities are people with dreams and disappointments, successes and failures, just like the rest of us. One of the ironies of life is the relationship of expectations to our contentment. One person can be thrilled at finishing in the middle of the pack in a local 10K. Another can be devastated at “only” getting the silver medal at the Olympics.
All of us want to succeed more than we do at any level, and our experience of a sense of failure is equally real regardless of that level. You can make it to the NFL, a dream that very few realize. But if your dream is to be a starter, being a backup seems a failure. If you are a starter and your goal is the playoffs, and it’s everyone’s goal, not going there seems a failure. If the only definition of success is to win the Super Bowl, then every year every member of 31 or the 32 NFL teams will be a failure. And the winners’ success will be short-lived, because another Super Bowl is coming, and relatively few will enjoy the win.
Isn’t that true of all of us in our own lives? One person’s success is another person’s failure. If your dream is to be a nurse and you become one, you’re a success. But if your dream is to be a physician and you are a nurse, you may think yourself a failure. You may want to be the best mom in the world but you know Super-Moms and you look at them and think you’re a failure. It’s all relative, and it’s all relevant to the way we all think.
We need to recognize our limits and live our lives out in front of God, the Audience of One, seeking to honor Him and not trying to please people and live up to their expectations. And we need to adjust our own expectations as well. There is always a better athlete, a better writer, a better student, a better pastor, husband, mom, teacher, carpenter, artist or musician. Always. And if you really are the best in the world, it won’t be for long. So if that’s the source of your identity and contentment, you’ll be a miserable person.
The type of failure we’re discussing here isn’t moral failure, but the kind we experience when we don’t succeed in what we’re trying to accomplish. Of course, God can and does work through our sinful failures, when we repent and entrust ourselves to Him. In his article Being a Loser and the Freedom to Fail, Ed Welch includes a helpful differentiation between moral failure and failure-because-we-are-human.
G.V. Wigram wrote, “When people fail, we are inclined to find fault with them, but if you look more closely, you will find that God had some particular truth for them to learn, which the trouble they are in is to teach them.”
I too have experienced the refining power of failure. When I was sued by abortion clinics I had to give up my job as a pastor, and that was kind of a career failure. When I became insulin-dependent, I experienced a health failure. And a few years ago, I had some big challenges with a writing project, and God taught me a lot through it, though it was very difficult. When we succeed all the time, we don’t trust. But when we fail, we draw our strength more from God, because we sense our deeper need for Him. Regardless of our success or failure, He most values our heart of dependence on Him.
Ed Welch writes, “The freedom we have in Christ has a few different facets. One is that we are not judged by the world’s standards of success and failure. Instead, we have the freedom to be human, which means that when we fail, and we will every day, we know that Jesus is the head of this new world order, not us, and we hope to one day realize that there are more important matters, such as boasting in what Jesus has done.”
As believers, we don’t have to live under the tyranny of self-doubt. Our fear of rejection can diminish, and our fear of failure can dissipate, because even when we fail, we know we are still loved. Furthermore, we know that even our failure is a character-building tool in the hands of the Master Craftsman, who is not yet finished with us.
“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart, my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4).