(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.
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.