Fear of Failure – Compass Series Post #3

You might remember that in the first installment of The Compass Series, we showed the picture of the compass on our website and asked: why is it not pointing north? We talked about the need to make sure that we are calibrated to true north and to be absolutely certain that we stay correctly oriented. Only God’s word and a true relationship with Jesus can result in this kind of true north orientation. These next several blog posts will examine some of the ways that we can get disoriented, off course, and, sometimes, truly lost – not only in ministry and missions, but in most of life – and we’ll also examine strategies on how to reorient ourselves.  The second installment in this series focused on conflict and how it is one of the most common reasons that we lose our direction in ministry.

“It is fear that causes us to grope around in the dark for something that might result in, well, results.”

The fear of failure is another very significant reason that we veer off course in ministry, and I’m not talking about moral failure.  I’m referring to the fear of failure in ministry accomplishments or goals.  It is fear that causes us to wander farther and farther away from true north – away from our original callings and into uncertain initiatives.  It is fear that causes us to grope around in the dark for something that might result in, well, results.  We fear that whatever the thing is that God has called us to do, we’ve blown it.  Our ministry isn’t succeeding and we are the reason why. 

Disorientation by the fear of ministry failure often boils down to a definition of success that is not informed by the gospel and looks way too much like a secular definition of success.  We measure forward progress with secular tools, instead of a mind renewed by Christ.  It is no wonder really, that we would measure success in ministry in this way.  Quantitative success seems like “the water we swim in” in ministry today.  Stay with me here:  I think that there is really even one more layer to this.  Henri Nouwen puts it this way “Against my own best intentions, I find myself continually striving to acquire power.” (source) When we feel that we are failing in ministry, isn’t it often the case that we are really failing to acquire desired power and influence?  Numbers?  Money? Platform? This feels like the real root of most of what we think of as “failure” in ministry and what it really relates to is the failure to gain what we want while losing sight of what God wants in ministry.  Is God interested in power? Influence? Money? Platform?

Take a look at the graphic below and see if this rings true for you:

Fear of ministry failure……….                          is really

         Incorrect definition of success………             which is often tied to

                   Desire for power, influence, etc……….      which really leads to

                              Failure in Ministry!                                    so we must

                                         Set our minds on the things of God!

To be sure, we can become disoriented at any of the levels in the diagram above.  Indeed, these points might serve to define the circular nature of our wandering around in the desert as we grapple with a feeling that we are failing in our ministry.  Let’s take a look at an example of waywardness from our beloved brother, Peter: 

Mark 8:30-33 ESV
[31] And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. [32] And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. [33] But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Peter is afraid of failure……….                        if Jesus follows through with his crazy plan

          Peter’s mind is not set on the things of God……….               he has the wrong definition of success

                    Peter’s mind is set on the things of man………                            power, influence, control, etc.

Peter has lost his bearings.  If he had a compass, and he bothered to look at it, he would have seen that he was not oriented northward, towards the things of God. Many times, in ministry, we get lost and we don’t think to stop and consult our compass.  Peter needed to do two things:  1) realize he was lost and 2) reorient himself to the “things of God.”  In the next few verses in Mark chapter 8, Jesus proceeds to give us a Master’s level course in God’s definition of success – and it has a lot of loss in it:

Mark 8:34-37 ESV
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. [35] For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. [36] For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? [37] For what can a man give in return for his soul?

“Perhaps, friend, that ministry failure that you fear so strongly is exactly what God has ordained in this moment for you.  Perhaps it is not a failure at all, but rather it is a cross and a loss for you, but a win for the kingdom.”

Jesus turns our worldly definitions of success and failure upside down.  Perhaps, friend, that ministry failure that you fear so strongly is exactly what God has ordained in this moment for you.  Perhaps it is not a failure at all, but rather it is a cross and a loss for you, but a win for the kingdom.  Of course, we can’t see the scoreboard of heaven, but we must have faith that he who controls the entire universe also controls our final outcome in ministry.  With Christ all is never lost.  Ministries will fail, and it will be tragic if you are involved in a ministry failure.  But God does not fail; he simply permits failure as part of the ongoing work of redemption and sanctification in his church and in your life.  We must, then, have the mind of Paul that both simultaneously forgets the failures of the past and presses on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14, ESV).  This act of pressing onward reorients us to “true north” and keeps us straining forward in the right direction.  The only true failure in missions or ministry is to lose sight of this upward calling of God in Christ, and even then, the grace of our Lord Jesus is there to point you back to true north. 

Here are some resources (calibration points, if you will) for times when we feel like we are a failure in ministry:

 Here are two articles that deal well with ministries that have failed and how these servants of God processed the failure and continued moving forward:

An excellent article on combating the world’s standard of success in Ministry.  Read the quotes by Shaeffer and Packer over and over and over again to yourself:

The Lord’s Work the Lord’s Way – Francis Shaeffer, from the book No Little People
From Solitude to Community to Ministry – Henri Nouwen

https://immanuelnashville.libsyn.com/ray-ortlund-missional-living-1-john-663mp3  Ray Ortlund, Jr. on John 6:63 and missional living.  This is a “top-ten” sermon for me in terms of how the Lord has used it in my life. 

https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=10180222445 – Ten Shekels and a Shirt – sermon by Paris Reidhead that did the most to formulate my thoughts on having the right standard of success in the Kingdom.  God has probably used this sermon in my life more mightily than any other. 

https://immanuelnashville.libsyn.com/tj-tims-mark-mark-822-38 – Excellent sermon on the verse in Mark above, with plenty of spirit led exegetical help working through this most difficult section of scripture on loss from TJ Tims at Immanuel Nashville.