Unafraid: Fear of Failure

Matthew 14: 22-33

We’ve looked at all sorts of fears over the past few weeks- anxieties and loneliness, people of different backgrounds and persuasions, and the fear that everything we know is falling apart. Today as we continue to build a faith that can face the future unafraid, we’re going to tackle another common fear- the fear of failure. Let’s read. 

Fixer Upper star Joanna Gaines recently revealed her battle with perfection in a convicting article posted by numerous sites. (https://www.countryliving.com/life/entertainment/a26112404/joanna-gaines-instagram-kids/) As a skilled house flipper, Grimes knows a thing or two about taking imperfect houses and turning them into somebody’s dream home. But lately, Grimes has started to notice that the pressure to appear perfect had taken an unhealthy turn. She began to critique every every post on her Instagram. She would change the lighting just so, make her kids put on nicer clothes, or alter the position of flower vases. The reason? She didn’t want to fall short of anyone’s expectations.

Although Joanna Grimes didn’t admit this in her article, what she experienced is common for most of us: the fear of failing. Although there aren’t any hard and fast facts about failure that I could easily find, I believe it’s true to say we all wrestle with the thought failure from time to time. Whether it’s wanting to impress a person, achieve our self-imposed goals or establish a new habit, the common denominator that often lurks in the background is the possibility of failure. And the truth is? We need it. Failure is a powerful tool God uses to shape, form and teach us. And we aren’t getting out of this world without some type of failure. I don’t know whether that surprises you or makes you cringe, but failure is very much a normal part of our human experience. 

One of the first steps we can take to conquer fear of failure is to talk about it. Sometimes the best solution is just to announce the elephant in the room, but failure is one elephant our culture would rather keep ignoring. Somehow, over time, the American Dream has devolved from life, liberty and pursuit of happiness to the unreasonable pursuit of perfection. And since perfection is such a passion in our world,  I picked a few big names to see how they stack up. My first choice was Lebron James, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, who is inching closer is to setting the all time points scored record. Most prognosticators suggest that he’ll claim that title around the year 2022, when he’ll be 38. So far, Lebron James has successfully made about 11,600 of his shot attempts. That’s phenomenal! But do you know how many he’s missed? About 11,400. On his quest to become arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, Lebron James has failed to make almost half of his shots, but no one sees Lebron James as a failure. The same could be said for practically every great leader of all time. 

Martin Luther King Jr. was my second choice, and King is widely regarded as a champion and pioneer of Civil Rights. But it almost didn’t happen. His first attempt to cultivate desegregation in Albany ,Georgia was met with a loud thud and failed. Yet we recently celebrated King’s legacy- not as a failure, but as leader. And how many fans of Harry Potter would be so disappointed if author J.K. Rowling had allowed discouragement to undo her passion and perseverance? Her first book was rejected 12 times- 12 times!!!- before she finally caught a small break. None of these success stories happen without failure. None of these lives and legacies were forged outside of disappointment and letdowns and imperfections. And that’s because failure isn’t an option for us. If you are human, (or a groundhog that lives up north) you will fail at something and probably many times over. And that’s ok, because Jesus is in the business of redeeming failure!

I’ve never noticed this before, but I’m super grateful for the way Matthew records this amazing story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water. That’s why reading Scripture is so important. When we read Scripture, God meets us in new and unexpected ways that we can use to challenge our fears and misconceptions! There’s a word that begins this passage that invites us to dig a little deeper, and that word is immediately. Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat. I don’t want to miss this opportunity to point this out, because I think it’s important. What’s just happened has probably been one of the most exciting things the disciples have ever seen- the feeding of the 5,000. You might remember that story, where Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two small fish and miraculously multiplies them? I can’t even begin to think how our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages would blow up if this happened today. It was an absolutely smashing success. But immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat. Doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd? There are no trophy presentations or awards banquets, no celebration, no post-feeding press conferences, no championship parades. Just get in the boat. And then Jesus leaves them. 

I won’t pretend to know Jesus’ motivations, but I have a few guesses. My first guess is that Jesus didn’t want his disciples to grow comfortable. It would’ve been very easy to say, “You know what? That was hard work. Let’s just stay right here and enjoy what is.” That’s not the way Jesus builds His kingdom. My second guess is that he didn’t want the disciples to believe that feeding large crowds of people was the norm. And it wasn’t. Most of Jesus’ ministry happened with very small groups of people, so this story, as successful as it was, was an outlier. There’s even a moment in the Gospel of John when most of the crowd goes away from Jesus, disgruntled with his teachings. And its important for the disciples, and for us, to understand this other side. 

This teaching moment is set on stormy sea. Isn’t that a great way to define what life often feels like, stuck in a mess with Jesus no where to be found? The disciples are alone, with visions of multiplied food stuck in their head, thinking this is the way it will always be. And then they see him- Jesus- doing another remarkable deed, doing what nobody thought could be done. He was walking on water! They could get used to this. Leave it to Jesus and he’ll feed 5,000. Leave it to Jesus and he’ll walk on water. Leave it to Jesus to do all the risky things required to make this world more like heaven. And then he changes the narrative once and for all, “Come.” With that one word, the disciples are invited to do the miracle instead of observe. And Peter takes a step out of the boat.

Have you ever been asked to step out of the boat? Maybe talk to a co-worker about salvation or start a new ministry? Maybe offer forgiveness to one who has hurt you or give up some of your time to help others? Those Holy Spirit nudges can feel threatening. Watching Jesus take risks is one thing, but stepping up to the plate to take your own swing at it is a different story. But that’s what Peter chooses to do. I love that moment when Peter throws off his “right mind” and jumps overboard. He’s the only  one, by the way. That’s one of the challenges with a fear of failure. It often prevents us from taking risks. But success in anything doesn’t happen because of luck; it happens when we take risks. Think about your life for a second. Where would you be if you hadn’t applied to your college? Or said yes to your spouse? Or took the new joy?Risk is a natural part of life! Maybe if he had taken the time to think about it, he wouldn’t have done it. Maybe he would’ve thought, “I’m not Jesus; I can’t do that.” Or “I don’t have the right training or education.” Or “I’m not called.” All of which are skilled risk-avoidance techniques. But Peter jumps in. You can’t be a disciple without taking risk. 

At first, Peter experiences a glimpse of success, a few positive steps on the water…but ultimately, Peter’s moment of glory ends in a big, wet, embarrassing failure. He sinks. There’s really no other way to write the story. When the winds whip up and the waves get stronger and the challenges get bigger, Peter’s world begins to cave in. Had that been me, I would’ve been thinking, “I should’ve just stayed on the boat with the others! What was I thinking? I shouldn’t even have made the attempt.” And that’s the type of thinking that plagues us, isn’t it? Those are the thoughts that keep us from taking risks. But just as Peter’s vision of becoming a water-walker begins to sink, Jesus plunges his hand into the water, pulls up his friend, and asks, “Why did you doubt?

Overcoming our failure is not about sizing up our risks or abilities, it’s about sizing up the One who call us. You see, that’s why Peter initially stepped out of the boat. The wind and the waves had always been there, but so had Jesus. And Peter believed that Jesus was stronger than the storm. But when Peter found himself personally impacted by the storm, doubt began to creep in. Talking about the storm and viewing the storm from a distance are not the same as leading in the midst of it. Peter began to transfer his focus away from the power and presence of Jesus…and that always leads to failure. But Peter also learned something else that day. Even when he’s sinking, Jesus is there. This is an important moment for Peter. It’s a moment when he learns that Jesus isn’t about to give up on him and a moment when he learns to trust in the power and presence of Christ, even when it’s tough. And this story of failure and trust will serve him well, because just two chapters later, Jesus will look into the eye of this risk-taking failure and utter words that have gone down in history, “And I tell you, that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail.”

The biggest non-profit, world-changing, history-altering group of people was built on an epic failure and 11 friends who stayed in the boat. I wonder what that means for us? Well, I think it means at least three things: First, God isn’t nearly as scared as failure as we are. We must learn to trust God and refuse to define our worth by our “wins.” Secondly, God works in the area of miracles and expects us to play a part. There are times we have to get out of the boat and join the party. If you haven’t experienced God’s thrilling ability to do the miraculous, you haven’t stepped out far enough. Thirdly, God’s expertise lies in the area of redemption. Our rock bottoms, our failures, are God’s new beginnings for us. So the next time you feel like you’re slipping, you probably are. But that’s nothing to fear. Look up for a hand reaching down…and let God write the next chapter of your story. Amen.   

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