Several years ago I was driving out of a city on a major highway feeling deeply disappointed and hurt - why that was the case doesn’t really matter. I don’t usually listen to music in the car, but that day I put on a CD I happened to have with me. Immediately I heard the words, “His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.” And God met me.
Paul experienced disappointment in a way I will thankfully never know. It runs throughout the first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians. He poured his life into people, and received nothing but rejection in return. Things were so tense he postponed a personal visit, fearing more trouble. And in the midst of this, he suffered a personal disaster so great he describes the effect of it as a sentence of death passed on him. He felt a failure.
Suffering often comes in the form of failure. Nothing is more debilitating than facing the fact we have failed. I know this is true for men, and I am sure it is true for women also, though it may come in a different shape. But Paul had a plan for facing failure and disappointment.
First, he focussed on God. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). He knew God is a Father who will never abandon his purposes for us. No apparent human failure will stop the purposes of God. He brings strength in the darkest hour. Failure is the time to run toward God, not away from him.
Second, he understood that God is in the trouble: He “comforts us in all our affliction” (verse 4a). God takes us out of our troubles, but first he meets us in the midst of them. He is not afraid of crisis. He does not promise us that we will be shielded from it. But his plan is to bring good out of it. Ninety per cent of our growth comes in times of trouble. That’s when we are driven to go deeper into him.
Third, he knew that this comfort is not just for us. It overflows into the lives of others (2 Corinthians 1:4b-7). We can help someone in trouble only because we have been through it ourselves. It is a powerful thing to be in the presence of someone who has passed through severe trials and emerged victorious.
Out of all this come an unshaken hope (verse 7). “Unshaken” is a Greek word referring to a gilt-edged security. It’s always worth going through it because there’s gold at the end of it. Suffering and failure drive us into God. If that’s all our suffering accomplished, it would be worth it.
Paul was able to survive because the experience of failure and suffering did not for him detract from his understanding of a sovereign and loving God. Because he knew God was loving, he was confident of an inner peace in the midst of the turmoil. Because he knew God was sovereign, he was confident that God was working a purpose through it all that in the end would be worth the pain.
Failure is the route to deeper fellowship with God. Failure is the means of knowing and understanding God more deeply. Failure draws us closer to God. If failure is all we see, it is only because we have defined success incorrectly. We think of success as achieving a particular goal (as defined by us), but often God has an entirely different goal in mind. Failure is often the door to finding the real purpose of God for our lives. This is just another way of saying that failure is the doorway to success. The experience of failure enables us to redefine and understand the meaning of success.
And when we redefine success, we redefine failure. We need to start to look at failure through the lens of God’s purposes. Who would have considered Jesus a success at Calvary? Even his closest friends had deserted him. His life’s work had come to nothing. Jesus understood things differently. For him, the only success was to remain obedient to the Father, all the way to the cross. For three years, Jesus had viewed success and failure by that standard, even while his disciples were viewing things entirely differently. That’s why they never understood his warnings about his death, and why they deserted him at the cross. They wanted to make Jesus the political leader of Israel and get themselves places at his right and left. If Jesus had succeeded at that, he would have failed in his mission from God.
If failure was part of God’s plan for Jesus, failure is part of God’s plan for you and me. Failure is just as important as success, and it is usually through failure that we understand success. Embracing failure will lead you deeper into God and his plan for your life. And that is success!