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On Failure

Acts  15:35 - 16:5

Do you know why people put on masks when they come to church? It's because we fear failure. We don't want to fail; we don't want others to think that we have failed. But consider: dealing with failure - especially the failure we all have called sin - is one of God's principal concerns. We see the beginning of it here:

(Acts 15:35-41 NIV) But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord. {36} Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." {37} Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, {38} but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. {39} They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, {40} but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. {41} He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

(Acts 16:1-5 NIV) He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. {2} The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. {3} Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. {4} As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. {5} So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

Preliminary: the definition of failure

What is failure? Many of us define it in an emotional sense - we did not get what we wanted. But I submit that the real definition is more complex:

·         First, we must have a goal, and it must be a good one. It must be something which we "should" do or have. For the Christian, we are given goals - we are told to preach the Gospel and to make disciples, to attain personal holiness. But sometimes the goal is the problem, for we do not have a good one.

·         Sometimes the goal we set is a wrong goal. We set our eyes on things of this world, material things. We set our eyes on personal goals, such as marrying a good looking woman regardless of her character. We decide that we should be arrogant. These things, when achieved, fail to satisfy because they are the wrong goals.

·         Sometimes we fail to accept the good and righteous goals God gives us. We will not present our bodies as living sacrifice, for example.

·         Next, we must know what that goal truly is.

·         It should not be too fuzzy ("I want to be happy.") Rather, it should be something that we can recognize clearly.

·         It should not be too crisp, either. Things like "I'm going to marry that woman on thus and such a date" may cause failure simply because we did not give God the room to work his plan in our lives.

·         Sometimes, however, God does not reveal his goals for our lives. In such an instance, the goal is simplified: we must trust him.

·         Finally, failure consists then in not meeting such a goal. We fail in many ways in meeting such a goal, and it is convenient to be able to classify the causes of our failures. Consider, for example, a convoy of ships trying to deliver goods from New York to London:

·         If something is wrong with an individual ship, it may sink. It may collide with other ships. So it is with us; if one of us is out of control or hurting, all of us may be damaged by it, and be prevented from reaching our goal.

·         Even if the ships are operating correctly, failure to keep order in the convoy will cause collisions and sinkings. So, to avoid failure, we need to keep not only ourselves in right order, but also our relations with others.

·         And finally, if the convoy is not pointed in the right direction, the convoy fails. If the goal we have is not one God wants for us, the failure is inevitable.

All this is preliminary. The real question is not, "what is failure?" The real question is, "what are we going to do about it?"

Failure in Others

It so often comes as a surprise that other people fail us. We expect so much; we see how easily the failure in others comes about; so we feel completely let down and disappointed. The Scripture provides us warning about this, however:

·         Even Christ was betrayed, by Judas. He was denied by his disciples. And he knew it would happen.

·         The church is warned to expect failure in its midst. Remember the parable of the wheat and the tares?

We deal differently with failure in others

Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, says "the gifts are diverse." God in his wisdom saw fit to make Barnabas a man with the gift of encouragement but Paul without. The wisdom of this differing gift is easily seen.

·         Paul, the man with the driving energy, sees the work to be done. So God has raised up one for whom the work is paramount, and nothing will get in its way.

·         Barnabas, the son of encouragement, considers the person to be paramount.

So it is that both the work and the person are provided for. Paul still holds a high opinion of Barnabas; the argument is sharp but the parting is friendly.

There is a lesson in this for the church. Some of us cannot deal well with failure. But God will raise up those who can, and they will deal with it. So when we fail, we should expect some Christians to dispense with us; others to uphold us.

We are not consistent in dealing with failure

Circumstances change; people change; time passes. Paul does not consistently throw away people like this:

·         Onesimus was a runaway slave - a criminal in his time. Yet Paul sends him back to Philemon, begging Philemon to forgive and restore.[1]

·         Later, Paul will specifically ask for Mark to join him, because he is so useful.[2]

So we see that today's failure maybe tomorrow's success. It is not too much of a stretch of imagination to think that Mark was redeemed because of the care of Barnabas and the lessons learned in failure.

We should deal with failure in God's way

So how does God teach us to deal with the failures of others?

·         We are commanded to withhold judgment.[3]

·         In our forgiveness, we are to be unlimited (as God is).[4]

·         We are to think of ourselves as Christ's ambassadors, the ambassadors of reconciliation.[5]

Failure in Ourselves

Many of us have much greater difficulty in dealing with our own failures than in dealing with the failures of others. This is good. It means that our own failures have at least had the beneficial effect of making us more forgiving, less judgmental and more inclined to reconciliation than otherwise would be the case. So we need, therefore, to deal with our own failures.

Failure is inevitable with human beings

Paul tells us of the struggle of the two natures.[6] We see that our sinful nature and our spiritual, God-filled nature are in conflict, and that it is inevitable that we will fail - even the greatest of us.

We fail in different ways. Some through the flesh; some through the temptations of the world; some - the most deadly way of all - through pride. My failures are not the same as yours - but they are real none the less. The question is not, "Will I fail?" The question is, "What should I do about it?"

Wrong Ways

We have a number of human ways to deal with failure. Here are just a few:

·         Anger. Jonah was angry because - after having predicted doom for Ninevah - the Ninevites repented. Just like he thought! Just like God to do a thing like that![7] So he reacted with anger, and wanted to die.

·         Sometimes we react with panic - and stop everything. We see a leak in the side of the ship, and running panicking to the bridge. A good captain will then send someone down below to plug the leak - and sail on.

·         Sometimes we give up. We just quit. But listen to a little story - a true one:

Imagine, how easy it would have been for this young man to have bowed his head and given up. He failed in business in '31, he was defeated for the legislature in '32, he was elected to the legislature in '34. His sweetheart died in '35, he had a nervous breakdown in '36, he was defeated for speaker in '38, he was defeated for election in '40, he was defeated for Congress in '43, he was elected to Congress in '46, defeated for Congress in '48, defeated for Senate in '50, defeated for vice president in '56 and for Senate in '58. But fortunately he was elected president in 1860. His name was Abraham Lincoln. He proves that failure need not be permanent.

The Right Way

Psalm 51 gives us the eternal model to deal with failure:

·         Confession - admitting that we have failed, and asking God's help.

·         Repentance - turning from the things that caused our failure

·         Restoration - going back to the task

·         Service - doing what God wants us to do.

Peter is the great example of this. He denied his Lord - but led the church. In all these things, the Christian has one great weapon: prayer. Our greatest cause of failure is that we will not commit our ways to the Lord, and lean on him for strength.

How God Deals with Failure

God's righteousness demands perfection; his love redeems failure. Let us therefore examine the methods of God in dealing with human frailty.


God first attempts to prevent failure;

·         He warns us to "count the cost" before undertaking anything.[8] By doing this, he lets us know what we should expect in his service.

·         We are directed to pray, "lead us not into temptation." There's a reason for that!

·         Our greatest resource for prevention is the Scripture, for in it we find God's warnings and his guidance, all for our profit.


If the prevention fails, correction must follow. We see again how God works:

·         We see the patience of God in that he corrects his people repeatedly. It is not just "once only" but over and over again.[9]

·         We, the imitators of Christ, must do likewise.[10] In other words, God has provided the church as a source of correction so that we might be turned from our sins to our successes.

·         Indeed, God has empowered the church with church discipline, so that the correction may have teeth in it.

God turns evil to good

We see this clearly here. From one team of evangelists he now has two! Indeed, we know from church history that these two teams both worked well, each suited to its own mission field. God has given us other examples, as well:

·         In the parable of the Prodigal Son,[11] we see that the Father (God) runs to greet his lost son. From the depravity of feeding pigs to the feast at the Father's house, failure turns to success - with God.

·         Paul himself is an example of just such a redemption.[12]

Ultimately, God deals with our failures by his sacrifice

Does it seem that God is unfair? Indeed, He is! Remember that Christ went to the Cross not to redeem the righteous (the successful) but the unrighteous (the failures). Recall the parable of the vineyard.[13] Not everyone worked a full day, but all were paid for it. God takes the late and the lazy and rewards them in the kingdom. It is his generosity, not our failure, that counts.

We have not yet seen the fulfillment of all his redemption. But the time is coming:

(Rev 12:10-11 NIV) Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. {11} They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.

His part - the blood. Our part - the testimony of what He has done for us. So shall we overcome.


I can think of no better way to put it than this story. It happened in the days when twenty-five cents would buy you a decent meal, but it is still timely today:

A beggar stopped a lawyer on the street in a large southern city and asked him for a quarter. Taking a long, hard look into the man's unshaven face, the attorney asked, "Don't I know you from somewhere?" "You should," came the reply. "I'm your former classmate. Remember, second floor, old Main Hall?" "Why Sam, of course I know you!" Without further question the lawyer wrote a check for $100. "Here, take this and get a new start. I don't care what's happened in the past, it's the future that counts." And with that he hurried on. Tears welled up in the man's eyes as he walked to a bank nearby. Stopping at the door, he saw through the glass well‑dressed tellers and the spotlessly clean interior. Then he looked at his filthy rags. "They won't take this from me. They'll swear that I forged it," he muttered as he turned away.

The next day the two men met again. "Why Sam, what did you do with my check? Gamble it away? Drink it up?" "No," said the beggar as he pulled it out of his dirty shirt pocket and told why he hadn't cashed it. "Listen, friend," said the lawyer. "What makes that check good is not your clothes or appearance, but my signature. Go on, cash it!"

The promises of the Lord do not depend upon our righteousness, nor our lack of trouble. They depend upon the name of the Lord, which cannot fail. It may be that we do not cash the check - but the check is good nonetheless. Bring your failures to the Lord; he will redeem.

[1] Philemon 10-19

[2] 2 Timothy 4:11

[3] Matthew 7:1

[4] Matthew 18:21-22

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:13-21

[6] Romans 7:18-25

[7] Jonah 4:1-11

[8] Luke 14:28-35

[9] 2 Chronicles 36:15

[10] James 5:20

[11] Luke 15:12-24

[12] 1 Timothy 1:12-17

[13] Matthew 20:1-16

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