There are a lot of ways to be humiliated as a volunteer youth leader.
Over the years, I’ve been dragged into all manor of activities that full-grown women should never have to endure: Paintball. Middle-of-the-night pranks. Loud concerts where so-called “Christian artists” assault my ears with their “music.”
Of course, the stereotypical youth leader loves to do all these things. He is also a twenty-something snowboarder who has a cupboard full of hair gel and says things like “that’s lit.” I wear ballet flats and embroidered tops, friends. My idea of adventure is trying some cinnamon in my coffee.
But I do love teenagers. And in the midst of those crazy shenanigans are priceless moments when I get to listen to their hearts. So I endure the “adventures” for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
One such adventure found me in the mountains of Colorado, attending a summer retreat camp with our youth group featuring activities like rock climbing and rappelling.
I’d been rappelling a couple of times by this point in my youth leader career. So this day, as I stood at the top of the rappel cliff waiting my turn to go down, I actually felt fairly confident.
The rapelling guide managing the ropes must’ve noticed my nonchalant demeanor as we chatted during the wait. He made a little suggestion: Let’s reduce the tension on your rope so you can go down a little faster and bounce a little farther off the wall. “You can handle it,” he encouraged. “I can tell.”
Well who was I to argue with an expert’s assessment? And the whole idea of these adventure camps is to “push yourself out of your comfort zone.” What kind of leader would I be if I backed away from the challenge when I’d been spurring students to try new things all week?
“I guess,” I responded, unenthusiastically, as my heart rate added a little hippity-hop of anxiety. Surely God will let this all work out, I thought. After all, I’m doing youth ministry here. Trying to be a good example!
A few minutes later, I took those first nerve-wracking steps backward over the edge and started my descent. And oh glory! I was moving! I was pushing farther off the wall than ever before. No twenty-something-hipster leader had anything on me in that glorious moment! I was cool. I was descending in style. I was . . .
Suddenly in a whole lot of pain.
In all my rappeling zeal, I’d made a glaring technical mistake: My hand got too close to the gear, and now a piece of skin was stuck between the metal and the rope.
You know how to instantly kill your cool factor? Shout down to the guides at the bottom that “I just got my hand pinched in my gear.” Yeah, that’ll do it.
Your coolness also fades as the seconds tick by and you consider what feats of courage it might require for you to pull your hand out and get off the side of the mountain. The movie about a rock climber who’d had to cut off his own arm started playing through my mind.
Thankfully, the rope handlers adjusted something at the top, relieving just enough tension so that I could painfully wriggle my hand loose. I finished my descent and was greeted by excited teenagers at the bottom, full of exclamations as I wiped the blood away and covered my hand with a bag full of icy river water.
I should know better, people. I just can’t pull off “adventure” cool. I’m more of a “look at her gory, torn-up hand” kind of cool. And I had a nice, throbbing reminder for the rest of the week that sometimes, most certainly, God lets you take a fall.
Bigger, Harder Falls
It’s easy to remember and laugh about that physical mishap, but it’s far harder to relive more painful and personal failures. But I’ve endured those as well. A job that I tried and turned out to be terribly ill-suited for. A well-intentioned effort in my marriage that turned into a mess. A leap of faith in ministry that got me dinged up along the way.
Have you been there, friends?
Some spiritual teachers suggest that God is like a fairy Godmother, just waiting to wave a wand of infinite blessing over us if we submit to his plans. All we have to do is follow the right religious formula, and our pathway will be happily ever after full of success.
But that’s not how faith has ever worked for me—and it’s not a picture supported by the Bible either. The truth is, God doesn’t always guarantee success—at least not by our standards. And sometimes, God lets us stumble, maybe even fall.
It’s how we choose to view the failure that makes all the difference.
If we’re waiting for a guarantee of success before we begin, we might end up hanging out at the starting line of faith for the rest of our lives. Instead, we need to come to terms with failure. We need to accept the odds: With sin and our own human frailty in the mix, the odds might be 50/50 at best.
No. We will not always achieve success. But God will use our failures, if we let him, to help us grow closer to His heart.
What failure are you facing today? Maybe it’s a relationship that’s gone south or a regret from the past. Maybe it’s been a spectacular, public fall, and you are still reeling from the pain. Or maybe it’s just a fear of failure—the glaring uncertainty holding you back from listening to that quiet push within?
As you look at that failure, I hope you know that God will not waste it. Because right there in our painful falls, God often plants the seeds for something new. Consider these four ways God can shape you through your stumbling. And let him wrap a redeeming blanket of grace around your wounded heart:
1. Failure Is a Teacher of Humility.
If we’re honest about our failure, we will often see that it wasn’t God who let us fall at all. Our failure actually followed when we let go of him and stretched beyond what he called us to do. “Pride goes before the fall” is a cliche for a reason—it holds a deep truth.
I know from painful, personal experience that sometimes we can start with a genuine step of faith in God, and then somewhere along the way, we start to rely on our own self-sufficiency. Initial success pulls our ego out and leads us to start seeking a little less glory for God and little more glory for ourselves. And when our eyes flitter toward the crowd, we lose sight of Him.
Failure can be a hard teacher in this regard, but it points to a truth we desperately need: We are utterly dependent on God. Consider what your failure might reveal about your pride: Could God be using this experience to set you free from that drive to impress others? Maybe he’s teaching you draw closer to him—or accept help from others—instead of relying on yourself?
2. Failure is a Teacher of Wisdom
A certain phrase has been repeated in our home many times over the years: “Everyone makes mistakes. Smart people learn from them.” When we experience failure, our impulse may be to sweep it under the rug and hide our shame from everyone, including ourselves. But failures can actually become great ingredients for future success, if we’re willing to truly learn from them.
At the very least, you have learned what not to do again! But God often reveals so much more. We can notice where things went wrong—and how to do better next time. We can learn about ourselves—what we love, what we hate, what we do well, or not so well. We can learn something about others too, and how we can do a better job loving them.
Above all, God grants the wisdom of grace—the knowing in our heart (not just our head) that he still loves us in our failures. There’s a softening that happens with this wisdom, a compassion for the weaknesses of others, too. And when we start to count ourselves among the failures, instead of living above them, we find ourselves in a beautiful, authentic community.
3. Failure is a Teacher of Courage
You survived, didn’t you? That’s about the best “positive” I could muster after my painful experience on the rappel hill. But you know what? That’s an important lesson to learn in the midst of failure.
God doesn’t promise that we’ll never get hurt. He doesn’t promise we’ll always be safe or the road will be easy. Anyone who’s experienced failure knows this to be true. But God does remain faithful through the fall. Sometimes it takes a long while to work through the fall-out of failure, but God is patient with us. And when we experience just how steady God’s presence remains—even through our anger, panic, or pain—it gives us a new kind of confidence. A confidence rooted in God’s faithfulness rather than our pride.
Sure, we know we may fail again. We may even fear getting hurt. But once we’ve seen how God can redeem our mistakes, the fear of failure loses a bit of it’s power. We’re just a little more courageous to take the next step of faith.
4. Failure is a Teacher of Success
Failure might be a painful way to learn, but it’s far better than sitting on the sidelines of life and never learning anything at all. When we’re willing to try new things, and accept the stumbles and falls that often accompany them, God starts to redefine our whole idea of “success.”
Instead of looking for perfect outcomes and prosperity, we start to realize there’s a greater prize: A deeper relationship with God.
Failure, when we let it, will pull us closer to God’s heart. It will teach us how to look at the world through his eyes instead of our own. And in the process, we see ourselves through his eyes too. We are set free from trying to perform for others and given freedom to accept ourselves—beautiful giftings and painful failings all.
Failure isn’t final. And success isn’t just getting what we want. Sometimes, when we miss the mark of achievement we were aiming for, we might notice that God had a different target in mind all along. And in a wonderful, upside-down surprise, we might just realize that our failure led us to the greatest success of all: To abide in Jesus and be shaped by God’s beautiful hands.