When I Don’t Feel Successful
by J.R. Vassar
Since Adam and Eve bit on the first temptation, failure has been a part of our human experience. As God’s image bearers, we are capable of remarkable things. But as fallen image bearers, we are simultaneously capable of terrible things. From small mistakes to colossal meltdowns, we are all too familiar with the pain and shame of failure. But, in His grace, God redeems the failures of His people, and He will use them to shape and form our lives.
The Beauty of the Gospel
The human heart craves justification. This is why we make excuses, shift blame, or look for a scapegoat when we have failed. Our natural tendency is to seek personal validation in our successes, securing legitimacy by our accomplishments. So every failed venture—whether a poor grade, a bankruptcy filing, a broken marriage, or simply an embarrassing moment—points out our weakness, foolishness, and imperfection—our lack of righteousness. This ache for justification, for approval in the eyes of others, is the surface rumbling of a deeper ache we have to be approved in the eyes of God. What we really need is the approval, validation, and acceptance of the One who ultimately matters. We need to be justified before God. This is a gift that is ours in the gospel.
“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). The good news of the gospel is that we can be declared righteous before God through faith in Jesus, apart from our accomplishments and in the face of our ongoing failures. The gospel is a great exchange: Jesus bears all our failures and is condemned so that by faith we might bear His righteousness and be accepted by God. Through faith in Jesus, we are pardoned and adopted as God’s dear children, loved by the Father as much as Jesus is loved by the Father. No success could bestow this status upon us. So when we fail, we need not be shaken at the core. The gospel says more about us than our failures do. The verdict God speaks over us trumps every other verdict spoken over us by our voices or the voices of others. God uses our failures to wean us off self-righteousness and point us to Jesus, in whom we find a righteousness that is sufficient for our confidence, value, and unshakable joy. In Christ, the power of God’s saving and justifying love can wash away the shame and self-loathing of our sin and failure.
The Idols of Our Hearts
In a 2016 article in The Atlantic titled “The Dark Side of Going for Gold,” authors John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro detail the depression that many athletes experience after competing in the Olympics. Many Olympians wrap up their identity in the pursuit of the gold medal. The authors cite an interview with swimmer Mark Spitz during the 1972 Games as he was going for seven gold medals. Spitz said, “If I swim six and win six, I’ll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I’ll be a failure.” His meaning and significance were dependent upon attaining a perfect record. He was in bondage to his performance. How we define failure, and the failures we most fear, reveal what we are building our identity on. They show that we are looking to something other than God’s love and acceptance in Christ to give legitimacy and purpose to our lives.
Our fears also reveal what we prize in our hearts. The Apostle Paul testified in Philippians 3:8, “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” The Lord Jesus was Paul’s ultimate prize. Jesus was the one thing worth losing all things to have. This is why Paul could lose everything and still rejoice. Paul had ordered his loves rightly, valuing supremely what was supremely valuable. His great aim was to know, love, serve, and become like Jesus. This is the greatest endeavor of the human heart. In this way, the ultimate success is to know, love, serve and become like Him; not doing so is the ultimate failure. So when the business folds, the relationship falls apart, or your parenting blueprints don’t work, you can grieve the failure but not be undone by it. Loss is painful, but the things we lose are not our ultimate prize and aim. We have Christ, the surpassing value, the pearl of great price, and He is enough.
The Hunger for Final Redemption
If we are in Christ, a glorious future awaits us. Our sins, suffering, and ultimately death are glaring reminders of the reality of our failure. But in the end, in the twinkling of an eye, we will be raised to indestructible life and be rid of shame forever (1 Cor. 15:42–56). One day, we will be glorified, finally free from sin, suffering, failure, and frailty (Rom. 8:18–23). We will shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father (Matt. 13:43), and we will rule and reign with Christ in the new heavens and new earth (Rom. 8:17). Unending joy, beauty, and perfection await us. But this is not that day. We still fail and fall and do ugly things, all of which remind us that we are not what we one day will become. If we steward the pain of our failure, a holy longing for glory will be awakened in our hearts that will fuel greater faithfulness and passion for the kingdom of God to come. In the end, failure will fail, and we will reign. So, we say with the Apostle John, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”