Lenten Series – Part 6: Fear of Failure

We are in the season of Lent, a period of 40 days before Easter when Christians traditionally lament over their sins and then, in response, choose something to give up such as chocolate or Facebook or alcohol. The idea is to daily turn away from what distracts us or derails us and turn back to God.  Instead of giving up something for Lent, this year I encourage you to let go and let God.

Until I was in my mid-fifties, I lived in a world of fear.  Most that fear was based on the conviction that failing was not an option. I protected myself from any experience that I thought would make me look foolish, incompetent, or just plain stupid. I wouldn’t go in grocery stores I wasn’t familiar with.  I wouldn’t drive anywhere if I didn’t already know how to get there.  I preferred to not make telephone calls  – period.

My fear of failure derived from a false story demonstrated by my parents and grandparents: In order to have worth and value I needed the approval of others. The counter false story was that if I had the approval of others I  would have a happy life. How confusing to someone like me then to read in the gospels that the first must be last and the last must be first.

Recently I read an interesting discussion of failure by W. Paul Jones. Jones says that “the church has consistently ministered to the unintentional victims of failure. It has found it much harder, however to accept intentional failure as central to the gospel itself. Yet Christianity is for losers—so much so that winners must undergo failure to become Christian. Against a lifetime of socialization, there remains the firm insistence: “Whoever would save [one’s] life will lose it, and whoever loses [one’s] life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25, RSV).

“The central image for failure is the desert. It runs from Adam and Eve’s exile east of Eden through John’s exile on Patmos. It is in the desert that our primary temptations become exposed—those of power, status, and security (Matt. 4:1-11). These temptations are the precise marks which our society identifies as success. Thus for the Christian to be faithful is to fail—intentionally.

“But the process through which we refuse to embrace the driving values of the surrounding society is not a teeth-gritting self-denial. By breaking the craving for these “values,” the desert becomes our honeymoon with God (Jer. 2:2). It is where God forms God’s people. Without this desert honeymoon, Christianity is too easily reduced to a justification of questionable winning, or solace as sour grapes for failing when we really wanted to win.

“In time, the search becomes the goal, the longing becomes sufficient unto itself, and the perseverance transforms the meaning of success. Then some quiet evening, perhaps by full moon, it becomes strangely self-evident that we would not be searching had we not already been found. And the desert blooms when we find ourselves willing to be last—not because the last may become first, but because the game of “firsts” and “lasts” is no longer of interest.”*

In order to really change my “fear of failure” behaviors I have to spend time in the desert. I have to release those values that stand for success in the world and jettison the false narratives I have been taught. I have to accept the narrative Jesus taught and modeled of a loving God who isn’t influenced by my attempts to gain approval but freely gives mercy and grace when I surrender to God’s love. And in each surrender, the desert blooms and the game of “firsts” and “lasts” is no longer of interest.

* (From “Intentional Failure: The Importance of the Desert Experience,” Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Vol. VII, No. 1 (Jan/Feb 1992)(Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1992), 16-21.)

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