Here’s how I’m going to try to help: By clarifying. Nothing can be done when you have a merely vague, depressing sense of not measuring up, just a shapeless fog of hopeless inadequacy or shame or self-loathing.
So, permit me to put “failure” into four categories:
- Actual Moral Failure. This is the simplest type, in my opinion, to define. This sort of failure is the failure to do what is good and/or to actively do that which is evil. It is, simply put, sin against God and/or others.
- Imagined Moral Failure. This would be something you feel shame or guilt over, but which has not actually been revealed by God as sin in His Word.
- Actual “Earthly” Failure. Here I mean a failure that is not directly sinful; it is a mistake or a shortcoming, but not an ethical violation against man or God. This would simply be having truly failed at a task/endeavor at which you were trying to succeed.
- Imagined “Earthly” Failure. This is (a) thinking you blew it, failed, or were inadequate concenring some task when in reality you were not the root cause of the breakdown, or (b) fretting about about something that is not truly a failure at all (like distressing about your looks or your lack of charisma). These are mistakenly labeled failures, and they may be (wrongly) thought to be failures due to pride, misplaced priorities, insecurity, vanity, fear of man, or some other problem in the heart of the person mischaracterizing them as failures.
Let me give an example of each:
Actual Moral Failure: Gossiping about a co-worker.
Imagined Moral Failure: Having a normal, healthy sexual desire for your spouse, but believing it is strange or sinful..
Actual “Earthly” Failure: Having lost track of an assignment at work due to not prioritizing your time well.
Imagined “Earthly” Failure: Despairing about a relative not liking you when the reason is something truly outside of your control.
Now, I believe that the only one of these four types of failure we should feel healthy guilt (or conviction), over is the first category. 1 John 1:9 tells us to confess our sins to God, and that He can cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We are not told to confess our inability to close a sale or our weight. A little remorse or regret for a legitimate screwup at a vocation or for having forgotten something due to carelessness is one thing, but shame is for sin, and shame and sin are what Jesus resolves for all who trust in Him at the Cross.
That is the consistent testimony of Scripture: We are, in our own selves, wicked and morally rebellious, morally damaged, and spiritually impotent creatures. And that, our actual moral failure, is what Jesus eternally rectifies in His perfect life, sacrificial death, and powerful resurrection. He has overcome the evil of everyone who believes in Him so that they can have peace with God.
But while that first category is what we should be convicted about and seek forgiveness for (and is the type of failure that should generally attract most of our attention), what I find in myself is that I’m often drowning in shame or anxiety over things that fall into the latter three categories. To my own detriment, I might waste time and spiritual attention being:
- Ashamed of things I’d heard or imagined were sinful (or less-than-holy), but which God never calls wicked (to which Paul would tell me, “for everything created by God is good, and and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the Word of God and prayer”).
- Despairing over not being as qualified or as talented as someone else I know.
- Allowing myself to become depressed or angry that I couldn’t provide something for my family which I’m not even called to provide (such as a perfect, magazine-spread house).
- Hating myself for a dream not coming true that God never intended to come true.
So instead of repenting over (turning from) real sins, I’m often dwelling on things that aren’t sins at all.
Instead of resting in the forgiveness of my sins and letting the joyful, hopeful energy from that help me kill the remaining sin in my life, I can spend hours in anxiety over career missteps or things I don’t like about my personality or being angry that I’m not as captivating as another pastor.
All right, a few words before exiting the stage:
Obviously these categories can overlap. And I don’t mean to give an exhaustive description or explanation of failure and shame, here. But this has helped me a bit as I’ve thought about failure from the inside of shame, guilt, and fear, recently.
I’ll come back to these categories of failure in the coming weeks and expand on them, but I’ll leave this now by saying: I hope God’s grace in Christ nourishes all His redeemed failures.