Failure can give us understanding
Before becoming a missionary, I worked in the hearing loss industry. I once helped develop an app for deaf people to check their own hearing. The app plays three numbers, then asks the customer to type in what they heard, it adds noise to the sound and keep repeating, until they only get it right half the time.
We heard that lots of people disliked the app. I couldn’t understand why, until one of the audiologists explained: “Our customers are already embarrassed about not hearing well, and we give them a test that is so hard that they feel like they are failing all the time. Of course, they are going to hate it.” Well, then it’s obvious isn’t it—like all of us they hate failing, even though they know they have hearing loss, they still dread being reminded how bad it is.
I fear failure too. Though I know all too well I am a limited, dependent being, I dread the reminder of my own inadequacy. However, I have found failure, painful as it is, an exceptional teacher. When I was working in industry we had a motto: “fail fast”. It means that when you develop something new you should start by trying to make it fail—if it is a theory, try to disprove it; if it is an idea try to find its weak points; if it is a product, try to break it. Because (a) if you don’t do it your customer will and (b) you learn a lot through failing. We realised back then that we were knowledge workers, and knowledge, whether obtained from success or failure, was valuable.
A Christian’s job is to know God
Christians too are “knowledge workers” even though our definition of knowledge may differ markedly from that of our secular friends. J.I. Packer famously wrote: “Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord” (Knowing God, 1973).
I have come to know God, especially his power, mercy, and grace much more in my failures— whether moral, relational, or work—than in my successes. Not only that, but failure has helped me know myself better. As I regularly fail in the Japanese language and fail to use opportunities to share the gospel, I discover my areas of weakness and my need for grace. And I am guarded from seeking my identity in my performance. I also grow closer to other followers of Jesus, as we share our experience of God in our failures and encourage each other to never let our identity be rooted in anything other than who we are Christ.
Kingdom work always looks impossible on our own
Followers of Jesus are called to engage in kingdom work, whether it is raising a child to follow Jesus, living out our faith in our neighbourhood and workplace, or evangelising an unreached people group. Work that we cannot succeed in on our own. Sometimes God enables us to succeed, and sometimes he allows us to fail, but in both instances he works everything together for our good.
I love Post-it notes—just ask anyone who ever was in one of my Bible study groups. This product was created by a scientist at the 3M company who was trying to invent a stronger adhesive, but he ended up with this weak sticky stuff that he could not find a use for. It took more than 10 years for the “failed” invention to become the success of Post-it notes. Maybe it is the same for us. As we remember failure does not define us, but rather teaches us, and as we take courage to face our fears, some of our most dreaded failures may in time become the start of a great work of God.
By Riaan, an OMF missionary