How To Grow Through Failure

By Ken Wytsma

One of the toughest things to do is to learn how to grow through failure.

Nobody, no matter how gifted, smart, or fortunate is able to navigate their own personal or professional life without hiccups, setbacks and failures. Put another way, failure is part of life.

When we look back at our past, it’s easy to admit that failure we have overcome is a necessary and even beneficial part of life. The real challenge is to take our current and impending failures and regard them in the same way.

To do this, one of the largest hurdles we must overcome is the connection we make between our identity and our performance. Who we are and who God has called us to be is a very different thing from what we do or how successful it is.

Shortly after I was married, I stepped away from a successful church ministry to devote all my time to finishing graduate school. It was shocking how quickly life moved on without me, how people no longer needed me, and that my name was no longer spoken of with the same energy or excitement in leadership circles. Stepping out of that ministry and those leadership circles made me feel like a failure. How come all of the work I had done didn’t last? How come my successes didn’t accrue to my name–that I was replaceable and forgettable?

It took a long time to work through, but ultimately I realized I had connected my identity to who I was in that leadership role. Once that position was gone, it felt as if my identity had evaporated with it. Over time I came to realize that nothing about my identity had changed, rather I was moving from one season to the next in obedience to God’s call.

Over the years I’ve had many career-related failures ranging from from creative non-profit ventures, do-gooder coffee company ideas to friends who have left my church (which feels like a personal failure). I could list a half-dozen more. Time and again, I’ve had to separate my identity from what I do. If the two are connected, my failure is followed by intense insecurity, a sense of hopelessness, and an inability to pick myself back up and move on. When I separate my identity from performance, it allows me to lament what has failed, learn from it, and dream of what is next—all the while, knowing that who I am is fixed. My identity is defined as one loved by God, redeemed for his purposes, and existing within a myriad of relationships (family, friends, community) who still see me and value me today as they did before my perceived failure.

Secondly, growth through failure can only happen when our sense of optimism remains in tact. I recently heard a study that showed how true optimists bounce back strongly from failures—they turn setbacks and opposition into motivation. We all have the ability to do this with minor setbacks and occasional failures, but it is extremely difficult to remain optimistic with massive failures such as failed marriages and bankrupt businesses, or successive failures, when we keep getting hit with wave after wave of disappointments or suffering.

Job, the Old testament figure, is the archetype for all of us in seasons where setbacks come one after another. We tend to think of his story of one of suffering rather than failure. But if you read Job as he would have experienced it—failed crops, lost family, rejection by friends—he would have experienced it not only as suffering, but also as great personal failure as he lost relationships, status and power. The story of Job illustrates how dealing with failure is a wrestling with suffering and only resolves with a God-focused perspective.

The answer for Job wasn’t in the predetermined ways he believed his suffering should be atoned for. It wasn’t immediately in paybacks or quick fixes. Rather, the answer was grounded in God’s declaration of who He was and His ultimate control over Job’s life and circumstances. We, too, need to learn to ground our optimism not in easy solutions or pre-defined answers to prayer that we demand God must somehow accomplish for us. In order to come through failures as a stronger person, we need to ground our optimism in the character of God as we continue to walk by faith, .

When it comes to catastrophic failure, Samson is a good biblical example. Yet no matter how far Samson fell and how severe the consequences, in the end God still allowed him to regain strength and fulfill his calling to liberate his people. The lesson and encouragement of Samson, is that in God’s book it’s never too late to accomplish what he’s called us to do.

This ties in well with one of my favorite verses about trusting in the Lord, Isaiah 50:10-11:

Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the word of his servant?
Let the one who walks in the dark,
who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on their God.

But now, all you who light fires
and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
go, walk in the light of your fires
and of the torches you have set ablaze.
This is what you shall receive from my hand:
You will lie down in torment.

Trust in the Lord.

Rely on God.

Don’t try to light your own path.

Submit. Don’t strive.

I’m often challenged by how scary faith is. It takes grace and faith to continue forward even in dark days and darker nights, believing that even if we can’t redeem our situation, somehow God can. Who we are is ultimately a question of understanding how we are defined as loved by God. How God answers prayer and moves in our lives is defined by him rather than our own notions—as if God is a genie.

In the end, we grow through failure first by understanding that we are who we are–who God says we are–not what we do. Second, by finding ourselves as those walking by faith not by formula. Circumstances don’t always have to change for us to overcome our sense of failure. Lastly, by those who continue to believe—even when difficult—that all of the challenges we face can and will be redeemed as we continue to follow God.

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Categories: Innovation & Leadership

Ken Wytsma is a teacher, entrepreneur and author. He is the founder of The Justice Conference and president of Kilns College, as well as the author of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things, The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God and the Necessity of Faith, and Create vs. Copy:Embrace Change. Ignite Creativity. Break Through with Imagination.

Theology and Culture