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4 Flexible Approaches to Failure

Failure

By Rick Lawrence
Vibrant Faith Executive Director

Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor who researches the foundations of perseverance, says, “People who don’t give up have a habit of interpreting setbacks as temporary, local, and changeable. It’s going away quickly; it’s just this one situation, and I can do something about it.” He’s describing the way gritty people adopt a flexible approach to processing their own failures. When we give failure permission to mark our identities, we make it hard to persevere through its consequences.

The day after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump, her pastor sent her a note that read, in part: “For the disciples and Christ’s followers in the first century, Good Friday represented the day that everything fell apart. All was lost…For us, Friday is the phone call from the doctor that the cancer is back. It’s the news that you have lost your job. It’s the betrayal of a friend, the loss of someone dear. Friday is the day that it all falls apart and all hope is lost. We all have Fridays… Today, you are experiencing a Friday… But Sunday is coming!… When [Jesus] said, ‘It is finished,’ it wasn’t meant to be a statement of concession. It was a declaration that a new day was on the way… One of my favorite sayings is ‘God doesn’t close one door without opening another, but it can be hell in the hallway.’”

“Hell in the hallway” is another way to describe the “liminal space,” or no man’s land, of our journey through the aftermath of failure, disappointment, and discouragement. “Liminal” is Latin for “threshold”—the time between what was and what’s next. When we move through our liminal spaces with a Friday-to-Sunday mentality, we treat setbacks and failures as temporary, not permanent. But that’s not what failure screams at us, is it?

On a men’s retreat in my church several years ago, my friend Bob Krulish kicked off the weekend with an eye-opening question: “What’s one lie you are right now believing about yourself?” He asked us to write our answer on a slip of paper so he could collect all of them. The next morning he read what this group of 60 Christian men had scrawled on those notes, including these self-assessments:

  • I don’t belong here.
  • I’m not significant and have nothing to contribute.
  • I’m not a good person.
  • I’m not good enough as I am.
  • I can’t do anything well.
  • I don’t have what it takes.
  • I’m just a big disappointment.
  • I’m not enough.

If we have any hope of treating our great disappointments as temporary setbacks rather than permanent judgments against our intrinsic value, we’ll need to change the way we respond to them…

• Guard against using apocalyptic descriptions of our predicaments. Don’t say things like “This is the worst possible thing that could happen” or “I can’t imagine recovering from this” or “I guess that’s the end of that dream.” The brick wall has ends on either side, and we can walk around it.

• Respond with curiosity when we experience failure. Several years ago I volunteered to help a friend create a publishing proposal for his first book. I’ve written dozens of books, so I have experience doing this sort of thing. My friend found a New York publishing agent who saw promise in his basic concept, and together we created one of the most meticulous, well-conceived proposals I’ve ever done. It generated interest but no takers. Four versions and many months later, the idea died a painful death. If I treated this failure as permanent and unchangeable, I’d embrace the What a waste of time! voice in my head. But if I look at this experience through a learning lens, I can point to all of the ways I’ve grown in both knowledge and relationship with my friend.

• Think creatively about the disappointment or blockage you’re facing. Treat the roadblock as a forced reroute that has the potential to take you somewhere you didn’t know you needed to go.

• Depersonalize your setbacks by defining them as something you did, not something you are. The lies listed by the men on my retreat are all assaults on their identities, not merely their performance as men. When we translate our disappointments into guilty verdicts about our identities, we collude with the enemy of God in his mission to “steal and kill and destroy” us. Fight back by asserting the authority of Jesus over the lies you’re hearing, then simply repeat: That’s something I did, not something I am.

(Adapted from my 2018 book Spiritual Grit: A Journey Into Endurance. Character. Confidence. Hope.)

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily. His new book, The Suicide Solution, was just released.

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