Sitting in the sand, I buried my 5-year-old eyes in my knees. I wasn’t hurt, but I was embarrassed that I had fallen. My trainer tried helping me up, but I wanted to wait for my mom to climb through the wooden, split-rail fence. When she got to me, she said, “You have to fall seven times to be a great rider; this is just the first of many.”
My horse, Wafi, could soar over jumps and fences. The freedom to ride him while he flew came from the permission to fall.
As Jesus lovingly invites us to follow him, he gives us the same permission. Throughout the arc of history God has used imperfect people to advance the kingdom. Sally Lolyd-Jones writes in The Jesus Storybook Bible, “The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose)” (p. 15). Failure is a part of God’s story because God works through ordinary people, and people fail.
God’s invitation to follow him is an invitation to his children to be transformed by him. And often he uses our own failures to transform us.
Invitation to Transformation
I fear failure. I have a constant critical voice in my head, reviewing my actions, words, and thoughts and pointing out every mistake. Unfortunately, the fear of that voice often keeps me chained from chasing after Jesus.
When Peter saw Jesus walk on water, he must have had the same fear his friends felt. The wind beat the boat beneath him and yet, he had the courage to call out to Jesus, saying, “Lord if it’s you tell me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28).
As Jesus bade him come, Peter pulled himself out of the boat. His feet touched the water, but rather than sink, he did the impossible; he walked on water toward Jesus. The rest of the disciples sat as Peter did the impossible. Their fear of sinking kept them chained inside the boat.
My fear of failure keeps me from following after Jesus. Jesus doesn’t want to leave us in fear, but wants us to walk with him on water. It is through inviting us into experiences where we might fail that he transforms us.
Gordon McDonald, whose affair caused him to lose his job as InterVarsity president and his reputation as a Christian author and leader, writes about the importance of learning from our failures in his book Rebuilding Your Broken World. He writes, “In pain, failure, and brokenness, God does His finest work in the lives of people” (pg. 10). MacDonald calls pain, sorrow, and failure graduate school for godly character. As we follow Jesus we will stumble, but if we learn to lean into the pain of failure, Jesus can use our failure to transform us.
But it’s not just God’s love that gives us the invitation to fail; it’s our ability to trust him that permits us to follow him out of the boat recklessly. But sometimes, he has to use failure to teach us that painful lesson as well.
Invitation to Trust
My roommate found me in a puddle on the floor, sobbing. She couldn’t get a word out of me. Finally, she called my colleagues to come over and help. As my colleagues listened, I explained the humiliating failure the semester had become. I had moved to Athens, Ga., to plant a Greek Chapter at the University of Georgia in July. It was now November, and rather than hundreds of small groups, our ministry consisted of six students. According to how I interrupted the planting manual, I should have had more students and Bible studies on campus by this point.
One of my colleagues asked, “What about all God has done?” He started listing off the students studying Scripture and sharing the gospel in their fraternities and sororities. But none of that felt good. Instead, it pointed out the reality that I fell short of my definition of success.
My colleague picked up the manual, threatening to throw it away—trying to free me from the impossible standard it had created.
It was then that I realized that my hope was not in the Lord but in the strategies of InterVarsity and my ability. I was twenty-two and had headed to Athens with the optimistic delusion that I could start a thriving Greek InterVarsity chapter on my own.
My trust in strategies and my skill created chains. Through the failure, God loosed those chains, so I could begin to trust the Lord and surrender to his will. And although God is still teaching me through failure to rely on him, it was that day that I saw the loving kindness of the Lord in his willingness to let me fail.
As Peter reached for his sword to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was trusting in his ability. Peter wasn’t trying to be disobedient, but rather he wanted to serve his Rabbi and was relying on his strength. But that strength failed him, as he denied Jesus three times.
But when Jesus finds Peter fishing, he invites Peter to rely on the Lord’s strength and to cast his nets to the other side of the boat. The invitation cuts the chains of self-reliance, and Peter responds by flinging himself into the water to swim to Jesus.
Failure allows us to turn toward God in submission. It often doesn’t feel like kindness. But it practically draws us near to God as we realize our ability and strength fail us.
Invitation to Accept God’s Love
Even after catching the fish, Peter was still broken. Jesus didn’t allow Peter to sit in the pain and memory of his failure. Instead, Jesus confronted Peter.
Three times—mimicking Peter’s three denials—Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him. Jesus wasn’t embarrassing Peter but was addressing Peter’s failure so that Jesus could restore Peter.
Jesus continues to reach out and catch Peter after every failure. Just as Jesus continues to call Peter into a relationship with him, Jesus continues to call us. Paul Louis Metzger writes in his book The Gospel of John: When Loves comes to Town, “[Jesus] keeps calling, even though I still don’t measure up. He keeps throwing the line out into the water. He keeps pulling me to shore, even though I keep floundering like Peter” (pg. 264). No matter how many times we fail or struggle to walk with Jesus, Jesus will continue to offer us the opportunity to follow Him.
As I prayed with a student one day, she kept coming back to her belief that God couldn’t love her. She felt like her failure would always keep her away from God’s love. The shame of her failure kept her from trusting in God’s love and accepting his invitation to follow him.
To accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him we have to be willing to accept the gift of his love. Failure is a tool God can use to transform us if we can choose to accept his love.
As we walk in love with God, he uses failure as a tool to shape us. When we try to avoid failure, we can miss out on the opportunities Jesus has for us. But when we trust that God’s love for us will always pick us up after we fall, God can use failure to transform us into men and women who are following closely in his footsteps.