“Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” – Francis Chan
Every February, parents email me about an article I once wrote about a disappointment I had in college. Each time, their college child has just tried out to be a university ambassador, and – like me – failed to make the cut. They hope my article will encourage them and meet them in their heartache.
It thrills me to share this link and imagine it possibly helping an 18-year-old feel better about themselves and their future. Little did I know, as disappointment crushed me, God would use this event thirty years later to help the next generation. God never wastes pain, and had I been aware of this then, I would have moved on quickly and not let this setback affect me so much.
Failure isn’t fatal, yet our world treats it as such. Our world expects perfection, and even in Christian schools one common complaint I hear is the pressure to act perfect that many students feel. Somehow, we’ve become a superficial society ashamed of any chink in the armor. Rather than see our chinks as reminders of our humanity and desperate need for a Savior, we worry about what people will think. We cover up by trying harder, adding more armor, or falling into despair because our best is never enough.
Here is the most heartbreaking consequence: Our children are suffering. They are casualties of a mindset that leads them to live in fear. Both a fear of failure and a sense of failure have fed into epidemic levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. Our children want to please us, they want to belong and find purpose, yet when all they see around them is success and perfection, they will inevitably feel inadequate or defective.
My daughter’s ninth grade history teacher once told his class that we can’t give students high expectations without sharing examples of how we’ve failed. While it’s never too late to start these conversations, I believe it’s best to begin when they’re young – before the world teaches our children that “failure” is a scary word.
One young family I know has everyone answer three questions each night at the dinner table: What did you do kind today? What did you do brave today? How did you fail today? They make failure a normal part of conversation, bringing it down to scale and redefining what it means. As parents, we can answer like this – “I failed to stick up for a friend today…I failed to be a good daughter…I failed to stay calm when I got angry…I failed to reach a goal that I had my heart set on” – to create a culture of honesty that leads to deeper sharing and healthy self-reflection.
People often avoid talk about failure because it tends to make us feel bad. It triggers deep-rooted insecurities and fears of rejection. But as we dwell on fears of what people may think, it prevents us from forming deep relationships and community. It keeps us at war with ourselves as we set unrealistically high expectations.
God created us for more. He came to save us as sinners, not saints, and to make us new creations through Christ. Through this lens, we gain the courage to see our failures clearly and even boast about them at times because God’s power is made perfect in weakness. He works all things together for good for those who love Him, and rather than take pride in a perfect track record, we can take comfort in His grace – a grace that catches us when we fall so we may live bravely and boldly for Him.
Philippians 1:6 says, “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” What this means is that we are all a work-in-progress. Who we are becoming matters more than who we have been in the past. God loves us exactly as we are today, yet He loves us too much to keep us here, and if our hearts are willing, He will use every event – even painful ones – to cultivate Christlike character.
Failure is not fatal, so talk about it with your kids. Share examples from your life, times when you fell short or felt disappointed, humiliated, or discouraged. Encourage your kids to aim high, take obedient steps of faith, and leave their outcomes to God. Make sure they understand that real peace comes from God, and even if they fail, they can still enjoy the peace of trusting God with their future, knowing that they are secure in Jesus.
I never thought I’d say this, but I’m thankful for the failures I can now share with my daughters. I’m glad they got to witness the seven years of rejection that preceded my life as an author. Our children are being shaped by an image-driven world, and if we want to save them from false illusions, it is up to us as parents to offer a peek behind the curtain and tell the real story, that our failures can never separate us from Jesus. (Romans 8:38)
Failure is tough, yet it gets our attention. It can be used to humble us, strengthen us, enlighten us, redirect us, and prepare for the next season. Your child is likely to hear that failure is the end of their story, and your gift is to assure them that failure is just part of their story. God never wastes pain, and even if their biggest takeaway from a failure is a more compassionate heart, then that is a huge win. After all, it’s the hands we extend as we admit our humanity that give purpose to our lives and build the kind of relationships we deeply and passionately crave.