Dear Pastor . . . No, You Are Not a Failure

This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.

Dear Pastor,

You have failed, and you will fail, but you are not a failure.

Perfection is impossible and failure is inevitable. In some area of life or ministry, at some point or another, we will fail. We will not live up to God’s expectations, others’ expectations, and even our own expectations. We will fall short and land hard at least once, and usually many times.

“I’ve failed.”

We may fail in our morals, by indulging lust or telling a lie. We may fail in our relationships, by neglecting our families or miscommunicating with others. We may fail in our counseling, by being too hard or too soft, too naive or too cynical. We may fail in our preaching, by over-complicating or over-simplifying. We may fail in our devotions, by shortening prayer and personal Bible study when we get too busy or are too discouraged. We may fail in our decisions, by misjudging people or misunderstanding a situation. We may fail in our administration, by missing an appointment or forgetting to call someone. We may fail in evangelism, by missing an opportunity or by messing one up. We may fail in our finances, by not having enough income to support our families or not having enough funds to be a viable congregation.


David Murray

Although burnout is growing increasingly common among men in ministry, it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Pastor and counselor David Murray offers men gospel-centered hope for avoiding and recovering from burnout, setting a more sustainable pace.

Pastoral ministry is such a minefield of failures that most of us step on a few at different times in our lives. It’s, therefore, not a surprise that many pastors look at all the fail-craters behind them and conclude, I am a failure.

“I’m a failure.”

Even one fail can sometimes be enough to injure us so deeply that we self-identify as a failure. Failure defines us and blinds us to anything and everything else about us.

However, through the gospel, our merciful Savior says to us, Yes, you’ve failed, but you’re not a failure. You’ve stood on many fail IED’s, but you don’t have a failure ID. The perfect Christ was blown up to make the imperfect whole. He took our fail IED’s so that we would never have a failure ID. Christ’s atonement covers our failures from God’s eyes so that he only sees Christ’s perfection when he sees us. Jesus had failure written all over him on the cross so that we can have perfect written all over us through the gospel. God does not deny our failures, but he does deny we are failures. He agrees with us that we have failed but disagrees with us that we are failures. He wants his people to admit their failures, but never to accept the identity of failure. Failure must never define us, but it can teach us.

So, let’s take all our failures to our unfailing Lord for his full and free forgiveness (1 John 1:9). We take our failed evangelism, our failed sermons, our failed pastoral visits, and our failed counseling to the Lord, and pour out our hearts to Him:

Lord, I’ve messed up another sermon . . . I’ve forgotten to visit that needy soul . . . I was too scared to speak about you to my neighbor . . . I’ve misjudged the mood of my elders . . . I’ve unnecessarily offended that family who left . . . I was insensitive in counseling . . . I’m paying for breaking a confidence . . .

and even:

I’ve failed by using worldly metrics of success.

But as we confess our failures, we experience the Lord’s unchanging love and forever forgiveness (Prov. 28:13). We then re-emerge humbler and weaker, but wiser and happier too. In the light of the cross, we realize how right it is to own our failures but also how wrong it is to own the identity of failure. And in that light, we eventually see how God can transform even our ugliest failures into something profitable and even beautiful.

“I’m a failing student.”

Although our failures can be an extremely painful, we can learn much from them, especially if we first have any guilt removed by the cross. Having quietened our accusing consciences, we can look at our failures more closely with a view to learning from them. Students of failure are changed into the likeness of their perfect teacher, Jesus Christ.

Learning to fail well by learning well from our failures is a vital part of Christian ministry. A pastor said to me, “The first ten years of ministry is all about being broken and stripped!” I must have had a crash course because it took me only five years to be broken, stripped, and branded a failure! These were dark, dark days. Yet, I know that those ten months in the school of failure gave me my most valuable degree—a master’s in how to fail well. Sadly, I still keep forgetting what I learned and have to keep going back to that unpopular school for refresher courses. Here are some of the lessons God has taught me in my never-ending classes.

Failure taught me humility. Most of my failures have been the result of over-confidence. I was putting too much trust in myself and not enough in God. Failure humbled me and taught me to put all my confidence in God (2 Cor. 3:4–5).

Failure taught me to pray. “Success” tends to shrink and shallow prayer, whereas failure tends to expand and deepen it.

Failure taught me sympathy. If I’d never failed in my parenting, preaching, teaching, financial decisions, etc., I would have little or no patience, sympathy, or help for others who’ve failed (1 Cor. 10:12).

Failure taught me what I’m called to do (and not called to do). Failures have made me realize that I’m just not gifted for certain things I would love to do, but rather I should focus on the areas God has equipped me for.

As we confess our failures, we experience the Lord’s unchanging love and forever forgiveness.

Failure taught me to admire the gifts of others. When I see people succeed in areas I’ve failed in (especially practical skills like painting, plumbing, carpentry, mechanics, etc.), I can’t help but admire them. Trying and failing in these areas has made me grateful for those who succeed without trying.

Failure has taught me to credit successes to God. When things go well, I recognize that it’s God alone who enabled, helped, and blessed, promoting more thankfulness and humility (1 Cor. 15:10).

Failure has taught me to use God’s metric of success. Instead of focusing on worldly metrics of bigger numbers and finances, I’ve learned to use God’s metrics of holiness of life and faithfulness in little things (Matt. 25:23).

Failure has taught me about God’s protection. The humility and dependence I’ve gained from failure has prevented far worse failure down the road (2 Cor. 12:7).

Failure has taught me the importance of sleep. Many of my failures have been the result of being too tired or too busy. If I pace my life better and get good rest, I seem to make better short and long-term decisions.

Failure has taught me to worship Christ. When I consider how many mini-failures I have in a week and how many major failures in a decade, I’m awestruck to think that Jesus spent thirty-three years on earth and never failed once! (Luke 23:4; Heb. 7:26)

Failure has taught me to long for heaven. Failure keeps us looking toward heaven, the place where failures will never be known again. Will we remember our failures there? Probably, but not with any pain, only as covered by Christ’s pardon, and only to turn up the volume of our praise.

In heaven, we will also see our failures from a whole new perspective, not just our moral and spiritual failures but also our relational and vocational disappointments. We will see God’s wise providence in allowing that relationship breakup, that interview disaster, that lost job, that failed test.

Will we experience any failures there? No, never. We will not fail, and neither will anyone else. The tears of disappointment will be part of the deluge wiped out of our eyes (Rev. 21:4). Heaven will be one great and long success story: moral success, spiritual success, intellectual success, physical success, relational success, vocational success, and many other successes we cannot even dream about here.

Our present failures make us long for future heaven, to hasten the day when the pain of failure and the torture of disappointment will be gone forever and God glorifying success will be all we know.

Your friend,

David Murray is the author of Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture.

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