“Failing upward:” How to succeed in service to God

Have you ever heard the phrase “failing upward?” If you follow sports, you’ve probably seen a lot of it – or at least it feels that way. The coaching ranks are rife with people who failed miserably at their last job, got fired, and were immediately hired by someone. If our team does the hiring, the response we usually give is “What were we thinking? Why would we want that guy??”

Generally speaking, we’re not a culture that appreciates failing up. We look at failure as a dead end – it’s defeat, and it is a reflection on someone’s competence and a good reason not to trust them in similar situations again. They’re going to have to show us something pretty impressive to wash away the taste from that previous disaster. And in our own lives, we tend to live in fear of failure – failing up is what happens to other people, not us! And so we don’t go out on too many limbs, we take on tasks we’re confident we can accomplish, and we set goals that we know we can attain.

Are we afraid of failing?

But the reality is that Bible makes it clear that playing it safe is not an option for a disciple of Christ. The old cliché is that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, but the more Biblical example is probably in Jesus’ parable of the Talents, where a man is given a large sum of money and entrusted with its use for a time. He’s afraid of what his master will do if he fails, and so he hides the money so that he can give it back without losing any. But God didn’t call us out of the world to break even. We are called to be a people for God’s own possession, one created in Christ Jesus for good works.

So how do we view our failures? And how does God view them? Is He really the “harsh taskmaster who reaps where he hasn’t sown?” Does he really see me as just another instrument to do his work, and we’re only a success if we do as much as some other person in the kingdom? I don’t think any of us believe that – so why do we hold ourselves to that standard?

The Bible’s stories of “failing upward”

The reality is that we all fail, whether it’s falling short in our pursuit of godliness, or maybe its the unsuccessful attempts to bring someone to Christ. And the harder we try, the more we fail, it seems! As our goals get bigger, we come up short more often. All of a sudden, “failing upward” is starting to look pretty good!

Fortunately, that’s actually pretty common in the Bible. We see time after time when godly men and women make mistakes – some of them huge in terms of the severity and consequences. If David were running for re-election as King of Israel, with a record of adultery, murder, and cover-up – along with a disastrous policy decision that led to the deaths of 70,000 of his countrymen – how many votes would he get?

God’s view of success is a lot different than ours, because the question in God’s eyes seems not to be whether we’ll fail, but how we respond when we do. When Jesus was in his final hours on earth, he addressed Simon Peter in Luke 22:31-32, this exchange takes place:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Jesus doesn’t even debate whether Peter will succeed, and when Peter tries to correct him, it almost seems as if Jesus expresses frustration and says “not only are you going to fail but you’re going to deny me three times in one night.”

Jesus wasn’t interested in dwelling on Peter’s denial – he was focused on what he needed Peter to do afterward. He needed Peter to understand that the response to failure isn’t to wallow in it, or to feel sorry for yourself, but to get back to the work God has given you. And God had given Peter a vital role in the coming kingdom – a role in which he would succeed not because he was perfect, sinless, skilled or talented, but because God gave him everything he needed in order to succeed, and Peter went out and did the work.

All the tools for success are ready for us

Every time we fail in Christ, we have a chance to grow closer to God. God forgives us of our sins because we have an advocate with the father in Jesus Christ according to 1 John 2:1. God has set the expectation already that he knows we’re not always going to be successful in teaching the gospel — in fact we’ll fail more than we succeed — but as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:6, it is God who gives the increase

We’re given the Holy Spirit, which works in us to help us produce fruits of strong character and godliness, if we’re willing to accept it. We’re given the gift of the word of God, powerful as any two-edged sword, and as Paul describes it, the power of God to salvation. The power isn’t in my skill as a teacher or my depth of knowledge and wisdom. It’s in the word of God.

The key to a successful life in Christ is not in the wins, the conversions, the pure and perfect life. The key is in not giving up, picking ourselves up through God’s grace when we fall, and continuing forward with a trust in God and an unwillingness to be stopped in our goal to achieve a crown of life in the kingdom of Heaven. As Paul writes in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

So keep failing upward. You’ll be surprised how much success it brings in your service to God.

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