How God Uses our Failures at Work

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(Note: This article was written for and published on the Nashville Institute for Faith + Work blog.  It was also posted on the Coram Deo blog.  Portions of this article were taken from my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press, 2018.)

Let’s face it.  Fear of failure at work is a struggle for almost all of us, regardless of our gender, race, or economic status.  I know that it has been a struggle for me at times.  The fear of doing or saying something that gets us in enough trouble to be fired makes us anxious.  For those who own their own business, the thought of it failing can be overwhelming at times.  We don’t want to let our families, employees, or customers down.  As Christians, we don’t want to let God down.

The Bible teaches us that failure is one of the main tools that God uses to make us more Christ like.  He transforms us through these experiences, if we allow Him to do so.  In addition, God sometimes opens up new opportunities to serve Him.  Let us explore these concepts further.

Failure is transformational

Gene Veith, in God at Work, provides an astute observation.  “Failures in vocation happen all the time.  Wise statesmen find themselves voted out of office.  Noble generals lose the war.  Workers lose their jobs, maybe because they are not good at what they do, despite what they thought.”

Failures get our attention.  They cause us to reevaluate our spiritual maturity.  God often uses the failures we experience to humble us.  This reminds of us our limitations, makes us more willing to depend on God, submit to His commands, and be open to His leading in our lives.

Peter gives us some hope, reminding us of God’s restoration power after we have been broken: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10).  Perhaps Peter was thinking of that conversation by the Sea of Galilee where Jesus fully restored him after he had denied him three times.  (See John 21:15-19.)

Failures can open new doors of service

One who failed miserably at work was the late Chuck Colson.  He was one of President Nixon’s most trusted staff members.  After the Watergate scandal, Chuck went to prison.  God got hold of him there, and Chuck went on to start Prison Fellowship.  As a direct result of his imprisonment, he became one of the most influential Christian leaders of our modern times.  He was radically transformed through his failure, enabling him to minister to so many because of his deep understanding of God’s grace, forgiveness, and transforming power.

I am reminded of one of my own failures at work.  I was let go from my youth ministry position in July 1985.  During the first few days of a summer vacation, the senior pastor called me at home and asked me to come in for a meeting.  He informed me that the church no longer needed me to be the youth director.  I had been fired!

However, God had a greater purpose in mind.  This providential detour in my career set in motion an unexpected vocational journey that God eventually worked out for my good and for His glory.  God redirected my life’s work by nudging me to consider joining the military, which I did in February 1986.  I spent twenty years on active duty.  Thirty three years later, I still work for the U.S. Army as a Department of the Army civilian.  I was able to serve God in a greater capacity than I would have experienced in full-time vocational Christian ministry.

Stories of failure in the Scriptures

There are many examples of men and women in the Bible who failed.  Let me focus on a few failures that occurred at work to illustrate God’s power to transform and open new doors.

A well-known illustration of how God transformed failure at work is King David.  His moral failures were his own doing.  He committed adultery and murder.  He chose poorly and suffered the consequences of his decisions.  Ultimately, he repented and confessed his sin (see Ps. 51:1-4).  Despite his sins, God used David to pen much of the book of Psalms.

What about someone who was perceived as a failure because they were doing what God had called them to do?  The Scriptures are full of examples of men and women who suffered for their faith.

The one that best illustrates this is Jesus.  The religious establishment of the day treated Him as an enemy.  They misunderstood Him.  They persecuted Him, tried to trap Him, arrested Him, and eventually shouted to the Romans, “Crucify Him!”  Jesus died a criminal’s death, seen by many as a man who was a total failure.  That is, until Easter Sunday confirmed His victory.

The Apostle Peter reminds us how to respond when we experience the kind of undeserved suffering that Jesus went through.  Peter instructs us to live good lives in order to overshadow the false accusations they may make about us (1 Pet. 2:12).  He exhorts us to submit to our employers, even those who give us a hard time (1 Pet. 2:18).  He said it was a good thing when we endure “the pain of unjust suffering” as Jesus did (1 Pet. 2:19-21).  Peter taught that we should not be surprised when we suffer for our faith; we are to rejoice (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

How do we allow God to work through failure?

Let me remind you of some biblical principles on how to handle failures at work:

  • Do not be surprised by failures; we do not know what a new day may bring (Prov. 27:1)
  • If we think that we cannot fail, our pride will inevitably cause us to fall (1 Cor. 10:12)
  • When our failures are due to our own sin, we need to repent and confess it to God (1 John 1:9); be reconciled and confess our sin to others as appropriate (Matt. 5:23-24)
  • When we do fail, we need to rest in God’s promise to work out all things for His children, even failures, for our good and for His glory (Rom. 8:28)
  • God makes us more compassionate as a result of our failures; it opens doors to pass on the comfort we received from God in our situation to those in the same situation (2 Cor. 1:3-4)

In closing, here is a powerful quote from a former seminary professor.

In Balancing Life’s Demands, Grant Howard exhorts those who are struggling at work.  His sage advice is based on a proper understanding of Gen. 1-3 that lays out God’s purposes of work and the thorns and thistles that are a direct result of the curse God put on our work due to Adam’s sin.  “Is your work hard?  God put that challenge into it.  Is your work frustrating, boring, repetitive, even frightening?  It could be a result of the curse.  It could be your attitude.  Maybe you need to change your job.  Maybe you need to change your attitude.  Maybe you need to do both!”

My prayer is that these truths will comfort those who need comfort and empower those who need courage to press on or take that leap of faith into a new chapter in your spiritual career journey.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Working for Shalom Where God Places Us

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(Note: This article was adapted from my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession, published in February 2018 by WestBow Press.  It was also published on the Coram Deo blog.)

How can a Christian make a difference at work?  How can we bring order out of chaos?  How can we bring peace, hope, and truth into an environment of discord, despair, and relativism?

I addressed the topic of bringing righteousness and reformation to the workplace in chapter 13 of my book.  I brought together some great Scriptures and several quotes from a variety of writers and speakers.  God used these truths to challenge me to boldly be Christ’s representative in my own job.  I am hoping they will inspire you to walk in Jesus’ resurrection power to bring His peace to a world that so desperately needs it.

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It all belongs to God

A few years ago, I heard a powerful message on the Focus on the Family radio program given by Grammy award-winning Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae at Liberty University. He spoke on the topic of engaging our culture.  I was moved to tears.  The verse he quoted several times is Psalm 24:1, which says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

Here is a transcript of a portion of this message that can be seen on YouTube:

God gives us this cultural mandate to subdue the earth.  We are called to build this alternative city.  What does it look like when we have healthy families, when we have biblical views on business and economics and law and politics?  We’ve redeemed them instead of letting Satan, the prince of power, just drain the life out of them.  These things belong to God.

Economics belongs to God.  Politics belong to God.  Family belongs to God.  Medical science belongs to God.  God created science!  So we go into culture and say, “This is not yours, Satan.  This is not yours, world, flesh.  This belongs to God.”  And I am a representative of His kingdom here, to demonstrate what it looks like when a redeemed person enters the workplace and says, “This belongs to my God!”

Did you get his point?

Through our faith in Jesus Christ, we have been redeemed so that we can go into all areas of society to bring Jesus’s message into our workplaces through our words and actions.  Satan, the flesh, and the world may have corrupted much of what we see around us, at least temporarily.  But since it all belongs to God, we can be salt and light, do things the way they were meant to be done, God’s way, and turn things around for everyone’s benefit.

Many speakers I have heard over the last few years quote Abraham Kuyper from a speech he gave in the late 1800’s: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!”

God’s charge to the exiles in Babylon

A passage that I kept running into in my research for the book was Jer. 29:4-7.  God gave the exiles a somewhat surprising exhortation, telling them to build houses, plant gardens, get married and have children, and thus increase their numbers.  Yahweh continues His ironic commandment to His people taken to a strange land.  He says that the Israelites should “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (verse 7).

Hugh Whelchel, Executive Director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, in his book, How Then Should We Work?, wisely ties this passage in with the cultural mandate from Genesis 1:28.  He points out the clear connection between the command to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” with the command to the Babylonian exiles to “build houses and settle down” or “marry and have sons and daughters” (Jeremiah 29:5–6).  He also sees that as they “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7), they are also exercising “subduing” and “ruling” functions.  He says that by doing so, they are “reweaving Shalom.”  I absolutely love this insight!

Whelchel continues, “God meant them to be a blessing to the world even while they lived in Babylon.  God intends the same for us.  We are called to work for the shalom of the city, whatever or wherever that city is, where God has put us.  We are to be a blessing in our time and place.  This is possible only because we have found our identity in Christ, the Prince of Shalom.”

Whelchel spurs us on with this statement: “Motivated by the Cultural Mandate and inspired by the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, through our vocational calling we have the opportunity to transform our communities, our nation, and the world. Our effectiveness will provide a catalyst for sustained cultural renewal.”  Amen!

How do we do this?

Sherman and Hendricks, in Your Work Matters to God, offer this challenge to the average worker, which I used to read when I taught on this topic many years ago. It still resonates now.

The key to bringing the culture and the Church back together; to renewing the workplace and reforming the Church; to choosing Christ as the Lord of life, rather than leaving Him out of the system—may well be a movement of people who are known for their hard work, for the excellence of their effort, for their honesty and unswerving integrity, for their concern for the rights and welfare of people, for their compliance with laws, standards, and policies, for the quality of their goods and services, for the quality of their character, for the discipline and sacrifice of their lifestyle, for putting work in its proper perspective, for their leadership among coworkers – in short, for their Christlikeness on and off the job. What could an army of such workers accomplish?

Just like the Israelites that God sent into exile, God sends us exactly where He needs us to go in the power of the Holy Spirit as Christ’s representatives so that we can do what He needs us to do with those who need the work we will provide.

I trust these concepts will encourage you and give you a vision of how God can use you in your ordinary professions, which are indeed sacred if your work is done for God’s glory.  God’s presence in our work will make a difference in the people and the institutions where He sends us.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Reflecting on Career Milestones

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I like milestones, don’t you?

I celebrated two major milestones last year.  In June, I and many others celebrated the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps.  (I invite you to read an article I wrote on how I saw God’s presence at work impacting the planning, preparation, and execution of that special celebration.)  Two months later, I celebrated six decades of life.  One hundred.  Sixty.  Nice round numbers!

Today, on March 14th, I wish to reflect on the fact that 33 years ago I enlisted in the U.S. Army.  After 20 years on active duty, I have continued to work for the U.S. Army as a civilian.  Last week, I celebrated eleven years at my current job at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  One third of my combined military and civilian federal service has been at one position.  This boggles my mind!

I do not need to hear, “Thanks for your service!”, although I usually say it myself whenever I see a Korean or Vietnam War veteran.  My sole purpose in writing this article is to give glory to God as I celebrate a long season of experiencing His presence, seeing His faithfulness, and knowing He worked through me during my 33- year Army career.  It has truly been a spiritual journey.

God’s presence enabled me to do much more than I expected I could do

At my first duty station, I spent the first six months supporting decontamination missions in the field with mechanized infantry and armor units.  Over the next year as the unit armorer, I was responsible to maintain the entire company’s individual and crew-served weapons.  I had never fixed weapons before, but God gave me the opportunity to learn and excel.  Two and a half years later, after I had gone on to my next assignment, the unit took these weapons with them in support of Operation Desert Storm.  “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13).

In my next duty station, I had a chance to represent my unit and compete for Noncommissioned Officer of the Quarter.  This was about the same time as the 1988 Olympics, and I was prayerful the Lord would bless my preparations for this small competition.  My memory was in much better shape half my life ago, so I answered the board members’ questions with lightning speed.  By the grace of God, I was selected as the winner.  I was grateful to receive this honor.

God’s faithfulness provided for the needs of my family

Throughout my entire 20-year active duty Army career and beyond, I saw God provide for our needs.  By His grace, I was promoted quickly.  Our income and military benefits were enough so that my wife could work as a stay-at-home parent and pour herself into our children’s lives.

Not only were our family’s financial needs met, but our physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs always seemed to be met as well.  We literally saw God answer hundreds of prayers as we journeyed through life by faith.  My children (known for the rest of their lives as “Army brats”) thrived as we were stationed in six states and Germany.  They learned to make friends quickly, learned to be resilient, and developed into compassionate responsible young adults.

God worked through me to provide for the needs of those I served

I believe that God works through the work of His children (and oftentimes those who are not saved) to meet the needs of others.  This is one of the main functions of our work as Christians.

As I mentioned earlier, I saw God work through me when I maintained weapons that Soldiers would need to defend themselves and their buddies in combat.  Years later, I saw God meeting the readiness needs of Army Reserve and National Guard units deploying to Iraq as I planned and evaluated fifty lane training exercises and provided chemical defense training and logistical support.

In my current position as a Department of the Army civilian, I know that God works through me to provide timely and accurate information to key leaders in the Chemical Corps as I advise them on future missions.  God meets a variety of needs in the Soldiers that work for me by providing them a boss who is a compassionate leader.  God has placed me in this position as a Christian in a secular government job for such a time as this (Esther 4:14).  God’s presence with me in this work makes a difference every day in the defense of this nation.

Closing thoughts

Let me share something from my book, Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession.

Regarding the church, Tom Nelson in Work Matters states, “The Holy Spirit brings the power and presence of the triune God with the believer to work every day.  The Holy Spirit works in the worker through his or her vocation and permeates the workplace with the fragrance of Christ.” (See 2 Cor. 2:14–15.)  Just like the tabernacle, where God’s presence resided as the Israelites wandered through the wilderness for forty years until they entered the Promised Land, we too can experience the presence of God as we enter into the wilderness of our workplaces over a forty-year career.

When you see God’s presence at work over many years as I have, it is something to celebrate!

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.