Feeling Like a Failure

August 22, 2013

When I left ministry, I left for various reasons. The day after my last day on the job, my son was born- a child we had fought hard to have. And it only seemed right that he have a parent with him for his first couple years of life. That was perhaps the biggest motivation. But I also left because I was tired, wounded, and depleted.

The previous two years had taken its toll. We had lost a child, dealt with cancer, struggled through pancreatitis, was left with thyroid disease, lost 25% of pay, followed by a lay off, and the stress of sudden unexpected infertility. Add to that we were working in a church revitalization project that wasn’t working. And that we had been isolated from any genuine community- a necessary ingredient for our souls- since we had moved to pastor this church.

It had not been the plan to leave but with all that had happened and some new developments in the ministry we had struggled to get off the ground, it seemed best for us. Of course, it plunged me into a new season of life that left me whirling and lost for quite some time, while also figuring out how to be a parent to a wonderful miracle who demanded more from me than anyone else ever had.

I struggled those first several months- isolated from friends, isolated in my own struggle to heal, and isolated simply because newborns seem to be good at isolating their parents all to themselves and what little time we had to ourselves was spent sleeping. The dark voices that had spoken so much to me over the period of dark tragedy were loud in my life. And they unmercifully shouted at me morning, noon, and night.

One message I heard in my head over and over again was that I was somehow, for some reason that I couldn’t quite figure out, a failure. Here I was in the prime of my vocation- a seminary graduate with honors, a published writer, a skilled preacher, a leadership coach, a popular pastor, fully ordained and credentialed- and for the first time in my adult life, I had no ministry. I had no vocational identity at all. No one called from my denomination. If I got preaching dates, they came from friends who were pastors, not from my own colleagues. We had no friends where we lived and no church community. I was at a loss. And all the time there was that voice- that evil voice saying, over and over again, “Failure! Failure!”

I believed that voice for awhile, even though I could never quite figure out what I had done that would qualify me for that label. But, I thought, since I was in this deserted place, I must have done something to qualify for it. It wasn’t until my son was around 9 months old that I began to feel strong enough to push back a bit. To say, “No, I don’t think I’m a failure at all.” While this wasn’t where I imagined I would be at this time in my life, I began to see that God had allowed me to be here for a reason… perhaps for several reasons.

Finally, with the help of a few very good friends, my response to that voice was a forceful and strong, “NO!”

So often, we  struggle with that voice, regardless of our circumstances. We lose a job, we don’t pass an exam, we drop out of a program, we yell at our children, we experience constant criticism from a parent or sibling or spouse. An experience we planned goes bad halfway through and you are left wondering what happened and that voice is there. A falling out with a friend and the voice accompanies you. For me, in my vocation, someone may complain (again) that the service-went-too-long-and-you’re-never-around-enough-and-when-will-we-get-new-paper-towel-dispensers-in-the-bathrooms-anyway, and you hear that voice in your head. For you, it may just be a daily mantra drummed into your soul by years of wondering about your worth. So often, we are simply trying to keep our heads above water and not drown in the demands, and that voice comes along like a cement block around the feet.

And sometimes, yes, we fail. Because we are human. Because we are imperfect. Because we try and don’t quite make it. Because life hits us hard and we decide to stay down for a bit instead of being able to get back up again (which is sometimes very OK to do).

But that does not make us a failure.

I recently watched an inspiring video about a man who had been a skyjumper. The multiple landings to the ground had damaged his legs and back so badly that he could barely move and when he did walk, he had a back brace, leg braces and crutches. 47 years old and significantly overweight, he sought help everywhere but no one could help. Finally, he turned to a particular fitness instructor. As he started doing this sort of fitness, he realized that he could barely do it. His balance was horrible, his strength minimal, and his weight got in the way. But he kept trying, day by day by day. And he says on the video, “Just because I can’t do it today doesn’t mean I won’t do it someday.”

In the end, he lost more than half his weight, and even more importantly, is able to walk and run without any support for the first time in years.

I loved the video because here was a man who by many accounts was a failure. And yet the voice of failure didn’t stop him. He would fall down trying to exercise or even walk, and he would get up and try again. I don’t know if this man was a Christian at all- the video does not say- but I wonder if there is a message for those of us who follow Jesus in that.

Just because you can’t do it today, doesn’t mean you won’t someday. God is still at work. He is still involved. And he still loves you like crazy. You are not a failure. Sure you may fail today- but that does not define you. Only God gets to define that… and as I’ve searched the scriptures, I haven’t seen him define his child a failure yet. So I don’t think he’s going to start now.

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