Stress from Failure

In this session, Mike talks about the type of stress that everyone wants to avoid but all suffer from to a degree or another - stress from failure.
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In our study thus far on stress, we've discussed the problem of stress in general and also the stress caused by worry at work.

I've talked to some people and it seems to me that they think that reading this material is what's going to lessen the stress in their lives. The lessons may be soothing and perhaps you might feel reassured that someone understands your issues with stress.

However, nothing changes the stress or the stress level until there is a real change in your life. For example, if you have begun to live your life one day at a time as Jesus teaches - you may still experience overstress from time to time. Unless you balance your workload and attitude towards your work in the ways previously discussed, you will not achieve the peace of mind you seek in your career. This study won't help unless you internalize and live by the principles taught.

In this chapter we look at the stress that is created by failure and how to properly understand and respond to failure when it happens to us.

The Connection

Our society rewards success and punishes failure. There is great pressure to "make it" to "get it together" and to excel at something or another. To excel is admired and rewarded but to be ordinary is considered a failing of some kind. We love winners and ignore everybody else.

From Little League to college and careers, the message is the same: "making it" is what life is all about. As a result, we grow up with a deep-seated need to succeed. We are not always conscious of this pressure but it becomes visible in the highs and lows we feel as we chase success.

Not surprisingly, therefore, there is great stress associated with the pursuit of success. If we succeed we're stressed in order to keep that success, and if we fail we're stressed to overcome our failings in order to succeed.

Types of Stress Associated with Failure

There are two types of stress associated with failure:

1. Stress caused by the failure itself

It is stressful to fail because failure brings all kinds of negative consequences.

  • loss of health (accidents)
  • loss of wealth
  • loss of reputation (online foolishness, crime, immorality, etc)
  • loss of self-esteem (self-hatred)
  • loss of relationships (divorced people often feel rejected by people in their circle)

Whatever the failure, there is usually pain or loss of some kind experienced and these create the stress. For example, some people are so afraid of admitting they may be failing at marriage that they keep it a secret because they know that there are a lot of negative consequences that come with this type of failure. Unfortunately, keeping these types of difficulties hidden only make them worse, not better.

2. Stress caused by the fear of failure

We worry about failing, not making it, not being good enough, or living up to someone else's expectations. For example, the student who knows the test material front and back, aced every exam so far but is worried sick until the results are in.

Whether we fail or we're afraid of failing, the experience causes stress and this stress can immobilize us and keep us from either enjoying our success or keep us from trying anything that involves any degree of risk.

Dealing with Stress from Failure

There are two main ideas that will help Christians deal with the stress that accompanies failure and the fear of failure.

1. Failure is Normal

The problem with the success-oriented evolutionary mindset that exists in this world is that failure is seen as some form of aberration instead of being the norm. The basic concept of the Christian religion, taught in the very first chapters of the Bible, is that failure (once begun by Adam's sin) is inevitable. We live in a technological bubble and in a social time warp here in North America. Look at history. One war, one disaster and one pandemic after another - never stopping, always increasing - a testimony of God's pronouncement in the Garden of Eden that the earth was cursed and society would be in labor because of sin until the end.

Technically, we are advanced and because of this we have the illusion that the world is actually a better place but in reality:

  • The earth continues to deteriorate
  • Man is as evil, selfish and cruel as he ever was.

However, because of this illusion and godless philosophies that for a century have made our society believe that we are simply evolving to higher and higher life forms - we see failure as something that needs to be eliminated, unnatural and impeding the general progress of humanity.

Because failure is seen as something unnatural, those who fail are considered less than human, less than what they naturally "ought" to be and this creates stress.

The truth of the matter is that there is an inner principle in all people that induces them to fail. Failure is normal, success is the surprise, this is why we honor it. That principle within all human beings is called sin. The Bible tells us that because of sin man fails. He fails to do what he should and fails to avoid doing what he shouldn't do.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
- Romans 3:23

When we understand that failure is normal it helps relieve the stress from failure in several ways.

  1. It allows us to be just a little more charitable with ourselves and others who fail because we all share this characteristic. Criticism of self and others for their failings is the single greatest generator of stress. There is an entire psychological method of therapy that is based on developing positive self-talk to silence the critic within us.
  2. Understanding the normality of failure gives direction and motivation to our actions. We help others out when they fail because we can relate and perhaps we'll be the ones who will need help one day.
  3. This knowledge sends us searching for an answer to failure outside of ourselves (our achievements, our willpower, our success, our philosophies) because if all fail, then no one really has the answer.

Like Paul in Romans 7:25 who recognized the overwhelming failure of his own life (regardless of his superior efforts at success) and cried out, "Oh wretched man that I am, who can save me from this body of sin (failure)?"

When failure brings us to this point we finally learn the ultimate answer to our failings given to us by God in Romans:

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
- Romans 8:1

The ultimate answer to failure is not success but faith in Jesus Christ and with that faith comes peace that eliminates the stress that accompanies the impossible race for perfect achievement at work, at raising children, at understanding the world and ourselves, and the effort to succeed at whatever we try to do. Jesus forgives failure and that forgiveness is the ultimate stress reliever.

Another idea about failure we need to know:

2. Failure is a good teacher

Failure is not pleasant but man's approach to failure should not only be a quest to eliminate it but also an effort to learn from it. A quick look at history will show us that those who saw failure as a teacher didn't succeed in eliminating failure from their lives but they did achieve great things despite failure.

  • Abraham Lincoln, for example, failed at many attempts to gain political office before he became the President of the United States.
  • Thomas Edison did 2,000 failed experiments before he found the correct elements for his first incandescent bulb.
  • Winston Churchill said "Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."
  • In the Bible we have countless examples of men and women who failed in their lives and relationships but were used by God in great ways.

If we choose to, we can learn many things from the failures in our own lives. For example,

1. We can learn about God

There is a great deal we can learn about God, and failure is an effective teacher because when we fail we usually are able to see the difference in righteousness between ourselves and Him. When we try to justify, hide or deny, we lose the opportunity to interact with God which usually brings us great joy and peace.

David rejoiced in his newfound knowledge of God's gracious and forgiving spirit, but only after he acknowledged his failure with Bathsheba.

1How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin (failure) is covered!
2How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit!

3When I kept silent about my sin (failure), my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
4For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah.
5I acknowledged my sin (failure) to You,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord";
And You forgave the guilt of my sin (failure). Selah.
6Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found;
Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him.
7You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble;
You surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah.

8I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go;
I will counsel you with My eye upon you.
9Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding,
Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check,
Otherwise they will not come near to you.
10Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
But he who trusts in the Lord, lovingkindness shall surround him.
11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones;
And shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart.
- Psalm 32

2. We can learn about ourselves

Failure is the way that God draws a kind of a chalk outline around our physical abilities, our spiritual maturity or our emotional strength. Without failure we rarely are able to get an objective view of ourselves.

3. We can learn what is important

Failure brings loss and loss helps us to reevaluate what is truly valuable to us in our lives. I knew a Christian man who suffered a heart attack and realized that his truck, his guns and his buddies were not going to be missed as much as his little children. He learned that it was his family that was truly important to him. Even though he'd been "preached at" for 30 years, the threat of losing them finally brought the lesson home. Failure, even if it's the failure of our health, acts like a pair of glasses that bring into perspective what really counts, who is really important and what we really need in this life.

A lot of the stress caused by failure is due not only to the loss that we encounter but also the fact that we failed to learn the lessons of failure and we continue to produce the stressful things in our lives caused by the ignorance of God, ourselves and our lives. We don't let failure teach us and so we continue to repeat the mistakes that cause failure and we gain the accompanying stress that comes with it.


So what have I said so far? Stress can be caused by failure itself and the fear of failure. We live in a world that is unkind to failure and so we are stressed even more at the mere thought of it.

Dealing with the stress caused by failure is possible. We have to understand that failure is normal. We're going to fail and sometimes fail spectacularly so we better get used to the idea. We must not be afraid of trying because of the risk of failure. As forgiven people, we have a right to start over again and learn from failure so that we can avoid repeating our mistakes and in so doing enrich our lives.

Let's apply the lesson to Christians and have a spiritual exercise:

  1. Think of your worst failure. (money, family, crime)
  2. Ask God to forgive you. (If God forgives you, then you can forgive yourself.)
  3. Write down two things you've learned from that failure.
  4. Move on with your life.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you generally react when you experience failure?
  2. What important lesson would you want to pass on to your children about the failures in your life?
  3. Read Luke 22:54-62 and discuss the following questions based on this text.
    1. Why do you think Peter denied Jesus?
    2. If you were in Peter's shoes what might you have done?
    3. What was significant in Peter denying Jesus 3 times?
    4. Why did Peter weep?
  4. All of us have experienced failure in life, share a particular failure and how it has affected you.
  5. In what way has your faith helped you in times of disappointment and failure?
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