Failure Is Not an Option

Your kids will fail. This is both inevitable and also necessary. Apparently not many parents today want to hear this uncomfortable fact. And they certainly don’t want to implement it in how they discipline their children. Writing the cover story for The Atlantic‘s July/August issue, therapist Lori Gottlieb alerts us that the cult of self-esteem is ruining our kids. Convinced they are the center of the universe and capable of anything, our children have become insufferable narcissists. Then, when these kids grow up and fail, as they must, they head for the nearest therapist, worried their lives have gone horribly wrong. Gottlieb writes:

[R]ates of anxiety and depression have also risen in tandem with self-esteem. Why is this? “Narcissists are happy when they’re younger, because they’re the center of the universe,” [psychology professor Jean] Twenge explains. “Their parents act like their servants, shuttling them to any activity they choose and catering to their every desire. Parents are constantly telling their children how special and talented they are. This gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.”

As you might expect, this attitude wreaks havoc in the real world of adulthood. Try giving one of these college students a B, let alone a C. You better be prepared for a visit from the student and maybe even a phone call from a parent. Or try telling young adults in their first job that their work doesn’t cut it. You just might be looking for a new employee when the offended party looks for a workplace where his creativity and brilliance will be “appreciated.”

Whatsoever Does Not Please

It’s not hard to see, then, why “moralistic therapeutic deism” (to borrow Christian Smith’s famous descriptor) plagues our churches. This god wants what’s best for us—chiefly, our happiness in all circumstances. He aims to please. Whatever does not please, then, must not come from god. Consider the latest findings of Smith and his colleagues, revealed in their forthcoming book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. They asked young adults age 18 to 23, “If you were unsure of what was right or wrong in a particular situation, how would you decide what to do?” The most popular answer (39 percent): “doing what would make you feel happy.”

As you can hopefully see, this is a perfect recipe for discipleship disaster. Happiness is neither assured nor even God’s ultimate aim for us. Sometimes, for example, he demonstrates the grace of his fatherly concern by disciplining those he loves (Prov. 3:11-12; Heb: 12:5-11). When we aim primarily for happiness in our parenting and discipleship, we actually set up these young adults for needless failure. They will be surprised and hopelessly discouraged when their faith is eventually challenged, whether by skeptical professors and classmates or the inevitable disappointment of life.

Searching Scripture in Vain

The God of the Bible does not seem so concerned to protect us from all failure. In fact, you’ll search Scripture in vain for anyone but Jesus who avoids failure altogether. Abraham, the man of faith, displays his lack of faith when he lies about his wife to protect himself (Gen. 12:13). Moses, the man of bold and steadfast conviction in God’s power to deliver his people, takes matters into his own hands to control a rebellious people (Num. 20:11-12). David, a man after God’s own heart, indulges the lust of his flesh and takes another man’s wife (2 Sam. 11:2-4). If these men failed, so will we.

Indeed, the whole Gospel of Mark seems to highlight the failure of the disciples. With hardened hearts, the disciples failed to understand the miracle Jesus performed by multiplying the loaves (Mark 6:40, 52). After Jesus explains that he will be delivered up to die, the disciples can think only of themselves (Mark 9:30, 34). And when Jesus needs them most, while preparing to offer himself on the cross, his best friends abandon him and scatter (Mark 14:27). Yet even then, Jesus promises to return to them after his resurrection (Mark 14:28).

In every case Mark juxtaposes the faithless disciples with Jesus, making an essential point: Jesus is Lord, and we are not. Get this wrong and you will not grow spiritually. You will be a sheep who does not recognize his need for a shepherd.

Failure is a vital means employed by God to reveal this spiritual reality. So if we want to help our loved ones grow in Christ, we need to account for failure—forgiving them when necessary, persevering with them through trials, and affording them freedom to learn life’s painful lessons in their own timing.

Truth the Hard Way

This last part strikes me as most difficult for Christian parents. We rightly want to shield our children from the pain of sin, especially the sort we have shamefully and regrettably indulged in. To be clear, this is a good thing. Responsible parents keep pornography out of the home, take interest in education, and warn their children against bad influences.

At the same time, we must avoid leaving the impression that failure can be avoided altogether. How do we make this mistake? We might create false expectations by preventing our children from befriending any unbelievers. Or packing their schedules only with esteem-boosting, organized activities. Or letting them off the hook from doing household chores. Or teaching the moral lessons of Scripture and ignoring the litany of failures pointing toward our need for a Savior who never fails us.

And what if you don’t teach your children how to overcome by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit by patiently enduring their failures? They’ll find out the truth anyway, the hard way. They’ll see failure in church with the backbiting, gossip, power plays, and judgmentalism. They’ll see it in themselves when they struggle with doubts and no one will listen. They’ll see it in you and wonder why you can’t just admit it.

If you don’t teach them that Christians sometimes fail, then they’ll conclude Christianity has failed. But by the grace of God they’ll add to the numbers of bitter adults who grew up in the church and rail against its destructive influence. Yet when they see us fail, repent, and ask God’s forgiveness, they’ll see in action the most glorious truth of all, that God himself took on flesh and walked among us, failures all, so we might walk with him in heaven forevermore. They’ll know that when they fail, too, God’s grace abounds to even the chief of sinners.

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  • Frank Taylor

    Collin, thank you for this… I am currently working through Ephesians with our church, and have been looking for a helpful way to explain Ephesians 6:4 – Don’t provoke your children to wrath. This is it!

  • Women Living Well

    Thank you SO much for this post! I needed this today. One of my children has struggled with their behavior in Sunday School…it has been a very trying experience and this so encouraged me to see the good in these “failures”. Thank you for this encouragement.

  • Dane

    These are wonderfully wise words. Thanks, Collin.

  • Cindy Boyd

    Some of my failures have brought about the most radical growth in my life of faith. Thanks be to God for his unfailing love!

  • Brent Johnson

    AMEN! I work with troubled boy and am astounded by the actions of christian parents. Some of these boys have everything because the parents don’t want their child to do without and feel bad. Stuff without responsibility and discipline is a bad formula.

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  • Julie

    Thanks for sharing this wisdom! It’s amazing how Satan’s lies permeate into our culture without our permission; failure is indeed a “vital means” by which God teaches truth. I posted recently how we need to remember that “failure is not optional” because we are perpetually broken and in need of God’s mercy.

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  • Dan Fichtner

    While somewhat akin to this line of thought, I see self-esteem affecting our young professionally. I had to let go one young professional because he was incredulous when he was corrected. His response was always “I did my best”, regardless of the fact that his best was not correct. I am in an industry where wrong answers are not acceptable, and this young man’s self-esteem issues prevented him from receiving correction or instruction.


  • Patricia Zell

    Do I ever agree with you–when our seven children were growing up there were numerous times when they were faced with failure. We talked them through those times–always emphasizing that God would make good out what had happened and working with them to keep their attitudes right towards any other person who was involved. Our kids had to learn how to handle pushback and disappointment. Now, as adults, all of them are gainfully employed and moderately happy.

    I think one big understanding is missing in Christian thought and that is the baptism of fire. Our God is a consuming fire, and as we seek Him with everything we have, He will begin to deal with us to set us free from deception, loss, death, and destruction (John 10:10). God is not mean–He is actively preparing us to manifest His absolute love to the world. As we cleave to Him, the life that comes (Deuteronomy 30:20) will replace the sin that that use to control us.

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  • DinRL

    This is an excellent article. One of the harder hitting points is how we must avoid merely teaching the moral commands of Scripture (the imperatives), without emphasizing the reality God teachs us about human failures which so clearly demonstrate our need for a Savior (the indicatives)!

    This is such an easy trap to fall into, even when “preaching” to oneself. “Preaching the gospel to myself every day” is in fact far more important than simply viewing and meditating on moral imperatives.

    God’s moral commands are first and foremost indicators of His original design and intent for creation, and by contrast, of our fallen condition and our inexorable fleshly commitment to remain in our sin.

    Only after allowing His truth to work the appropriate response in us, when we willingly see and confess ourselves to be precisely what Scripture indicts us as being (Ps 32.1-5; Rom 4.5-8), do we then receive the grace to begin to live what is truly life. “[I]n our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners … I have been crucified with Christ: I live — yet not I, but rather, Christ lives in me; and what I do live, I live by faith …” (Gal 2.17-21).

    True “life” resides in the risen Christ, not in us (1 John 5.11-12). We share in it only by belonging to Him, and being indwelt by Him, “through faith” (Rom 6.4-14, 23; 8.1-25; Gal 2.15-3.14).

    This article has wonderfully highlighted that Scripture isn’t in the end about, “Here’s how you’re supposed to live in order to be X.” It’s rather about, “Here’s the reality about you as a fallen human being, and the reality about the God you consciously spurn, yet who still offers a free gift of grace in His Son, crucified and risen for the ungodly in order to give them forgiveness and eternal life.”

    By confronting and confessing the reality of our failures and our sin, not by thinking highly of our fleshly selves (this is the root of both legalism and sinful license), we find life and true victory in Christ — vice hollow self-esteem or superficial success in worldly endeavors.

    “The sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass: its flower falls off, and its beauty is destroyed. Similarly the rich man will wither away in the midst of his empty pursuits” (James 2.11).

    “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, then love of the Father is not in them. Because all that is in the world — the cravings of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions — is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its cravings, but whoever does the will of God endures forever” (1 John 2.15-17).

    The cult of self-esteem is indeed a destructive trap. And the grace of God is the only deliverance from it — just like it’s the only deliverance from our failings that intrude on our impudent self-esteem. Whether by teaching a god who exists merely to primp and pander to our pathetic “self-esteem,” or by teaching a god who only instructs us on how to morally behave in order to earn our own salvation, misuse of Scripture can lead to destructive consequences — which in turn often become excuses for heresies like those we now see cropping up under labels like “emergent” or “open theism” or “universalism.”

    I’m very appreciative how this article has highlighted that even a misguided focus on mere portions of Scripture, vice the whole of it, can actually contribute to a cult of self-esteem (teaching a god who serves at our pleasure instead of His own), or can alternately exacerbate the necessary, negative fallout of the cult of self-esteem (teaching Scripture’s imperatives but not its indicatives)!

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  • Stephen

    Hey Collin – thank you for this uplifting view on failure. I suppose we should expect failure – but it is hard to be in the middle of it all.

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  • Olivia K

    My prayer for my children is not that they would be perfect, but that they would get caught. I know that if they truly want to experience Christ, they must first experience failure. Great post.

  • Melanie Talbert

    This is so tough as a parent, but oh so true. Better to learn how to handle failures as a child than be faced with it for the first time when the stakes are much higher as an adult.

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  • Steve Cornell

    Several decades ago, promotion of self-esteem became the prominent concern in education, psychotherapy, counseling and parenting. Perhaps we think the bible gives two commands: Love your neighbor and love yourself.

  • Women Living Well

    This was such a great read! Thank you – I linked to it from my blog here today:

    Keep Walking with the King!

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