Hope in Failure

Christian hope turns failure into a profound mystery waiting for revelation.

With the “eyes of hope” I see the problem with failure lies in my fallen plans which were doomed from the outset, so brain-dead they were. Yet despite my fallen folly, hope says, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). When I see with the hope of Christ, it produces spiritual maturity:

But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. Romans 8:25

This happened to me once…

The Tar-Pit

In 1994 I plunged into a black, sticky tar-pit and dragged my family and the poor Yoergers along. Greg and his buddies had the brilliant idea that somehow we might stop the bleeding while his little Cleveland Bible study (about 30 shell-shocked bodies) remained alive.

It was a mess, I knew that, but I didn’t notice the tar-pit or the bleached bones scattered everywhere. I plunged ahead.

The meeting was held in an old, run-down, dumpy house which was soon condemned (as pictured below).

This was ministry in Cleveland: growth that doesn’t grow.

It was mysterious. The work was fruitful and we doubled in size, but suddenly everything got stuck. We were excited by high conversion-growth, but the group stopped growing. We fluctuated around 50 to 60, stuck in a tar-pit, and we continued to see salvations. Why is this?

Fearful or Faithful?

Jim Leffel described two reactions to failure at the STR. The “fearful” reaction gropes desperately for “the silver bullet of church growth methods,” and thrashes until burnout leads to dropout. Then the blame-game begins, which always degrades into self-condemnation (Rom. 2:3).

But “faithful failure” weathers the storm:

“This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil” (Hebrews 6:19).

With eyes of hope, failure becomes more mystical and even marvelous in its paradoxical nature. Christ says, “I will build my church!” (Matt.16). Instead, I saw “growth without growth”.

Failure means paradox, which is not unusual in the spiritual realm, as Paul said:

“By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness!”
1 Timothy 3:16

The Liability of ‘Conversion-Growth’

Which leads me back to the Cleveland tar-pit. We saw “growth without growth” because a spiritual phenomenon was at work. “Conversion-growth” is a huge liability for Christian fellowship. It fills a fellowship with baby Christians from non-Christian backgrounds who haven’t a clue what “sanctification” or love means.

Church growth observers say conversion-growth shouldn’t get too high, else sanctification dies. This is why churches with 1 in 10 or less converts don’t consider it a problem.

In time I understood the growth-without-growth mystery: without discipleship, converts don’t grow.

We were missing a consensus about how to grow a church. Some felt it was this way, others felt it was that way, but we must grow the Great Commission way: “Go make disciples!

Without discipleship, baby Christians are likely to degrade into the “thorns and thistles” syndrome of Hebrews 6:8. Their lives don’t produce “vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is tilled” (Heb. 6:7). It’s also called a “revolving door syndrome”, but I called it “The Cleveland Tar Pit Syndrome”.

Only through long-term failure could we build a consensus of Great Commission church growth. Through failure, the direction “that way” or “this way” gave way to “the Great Commission way”.

The Big Q: Why would it take failure to  understand hope?

18 thoughts on “Hope in Failure

  1. b

    i hate to be the first to comment this because my opinion is probably not even close to the opinion Joe will post soon that will blow me away, but to tell u the truth im having troubles getting you here, but what i think i understand is from what I had thought i may have learned at the STR

    And that is basically with like our home church – word – clearly we have seen growth over the years, and growing should be something we should want, but should not be everything we worry about. Because of this fact – we got new people coming every week, some jsut got saved, and some close, and some that are already christians just not walking at all, and with these people, are hearts should be with. We need to get them (the ones not saved – saved) sanctified, edified, and ready to kick butt for more outreach.

  2. J Small Z

    B, you had a great comment! You certainly have much more mature things to say then most people our age, (me included). Joe’s a deacon and a truly spiritual man of God, and I know he’d say that was something cool.

    Well anyways, I think it’s tight you got this whole Hebrews rap underway Keith. It’s really been spiritually uplifting for me. For the first time ever in my life, I am learning to rely on the Lord to aid me in my war with my emotions (specifically my negative ones). The STR was such an amazing trip! It gets tougher and tougher each retreat to come back home these days! This connection between faith, hope, and love is really helping me with being grateful to God and the Body of Christ. This brings a sense of hope that no matter how things look, I know the lord’s will shall be done! It’s taught me how I have so much to be thankful for and that my brooding will never in any circumstance benefit others or myself. It’s a joy seeing this insight you’re having Keith… The Lord is truly blessing you and through you, the rest of us!

  3. kyle.m

    This is a problem I see with having a church composed mostly of non-xians, or new baby xians. Discipleship becomes hard to maintain with a small handful of saints willing to do Christ’s work. Word is moving this direction I fear. We need more serious workers like B and Jeff above. I am grateful for the excellent workers we do have though.

  4. jim-james

    I would say that one reason that it takes failure to understand hope is that without failure, we tend to stay more in a comfort zone and blindly going in auto pilot mode. We would be focused on other points and fall into traps like the super-spiritual and legalism. Hope is what gets us to really understand God’s love and how to love and sometimes it takes failure to see this more clearly.

  5. Charlotte Plahuta

    I think the biggest reason that it took failure to really understand hope is because as with any lesson learned in life it takes a failure first. Without failure we would all be roaming this Earth thinking we could handle anything OURSELVES. We would be even more egotistical than we already are. Failure is the best way we will learn to trust in the Lord. Think about your life… when have you been the most humbled and at the Lord’s feet? I know my answer. It takes failure to bring us to that point of true humility. Failure is one way we grow. I think a lot of spiritual growth is learning to fear God more. Hope is what we find when we are trusting Him. So failure leads to humility. Humility leads to trusting in Him. And trusting in Him leads to hope.

  6. Brian Tomko

    Failure allows us to rely not on ourselves for spiritual growth but rather the Lord. God knows us much more than we know ourselves. Therefore, God desires us to be humble and follow his leadership and place our hope in him. As humans, we will by default follow our own will and power, especially in doing ministry, and therefore God allows us to fail so that we will learn to rely fully on him. It is then that God can act as the potter and slowly break off the bad pieces in order to rebuild us toward sanctification.

  7. Donna Urban

    I recognize failure by the deep damage on my heart after I have made every attempt to control a situation and/or people. When my attempts to control fail (as they always do), when others fail me (or my perception of failing me – which usually involves trust), I have choice. I can live in angry despair or I can turn to hope.

    I can surrender to win and place my broken dreams in the hands of the Lord for him to use as he will. He can use my failures and, when I am bruised enough to be teachable, he can bless me with hope that is steadfast and true.

  8. justind

    It takes failure to understand hope because if we succeeded all of the time, we would have no reason to hope. For instance, if everything we did in life was successful, we never sinned, and things always went our way, there would be no need for hope. Failure, however, creates a desire to learn of something better, hope.

  9. mike.h

    suffering is a part of spiritual growth . With failure it teaches us to be more faithful and learn to trust the Lord more. We learn from our mistakes and learn to Hope for brighter days. But we shouldnt look at suffering as a bad thing. Of course at the time your going to be like oh crap im suffering then later your like.. “look how i have grown since then, and now the Lord is using my failures to help other people.” Our failures arent allways bad because we can then use those expeirences to build up others on what not to do, or avoid. We can only HOPE that God will use our times of suffering and turn it around to become something that will build his kingdom.

  10. Nick.s

    Failure is the greatest way in which God shapes us and breaks us down until there is nothing left to do but rely on Him. Depending on ourselves will always result in failure, which is designed to lead us away from self-dependency and self-sufficiency and more toward dependence upon the Lord for sanctification. As Stoney puts it, “The true value of anything is known only when it is wanted.” When we fail, we want to know why. What went wrong? Why does it hurt? How can the problem be fixed? We search for solid ground to stand on. Something we can be confident in, that won’t let us down. Something that keeps us motivated and gives us reason to push on. Something that gives us HOPE! Failure is the mechanism by which God gives us the desire for truth and hope.

  11. Jacqueline León

    I was struggling with the kind of self-condemning failure up until very recently. It was because of an ever-present power struggle between the Lord and me; I prayed for His guidance and strength in my weakness, but I nonetheless caved whenever it came to confronting people on serious issues. I relied too heavily on my performance and not enough on God’s power to work through me. And when I failed in my performance, I condemned myself in my performance. And how foolish! As God works in grace, we benefit in following and either folly or flourish under the wings of His grace.
    Persistent prayer shows a consistent dependence on the Lord. If necessary, repent of a sour perspective or power struggle; if confused on what it is that you’re not comprehending, ask; and pray for the energy, endurance, and guidance to have victory in failure, etc.. And we must view our failure with a sense of gratitude, because it is a blessing in that it reveals a spiritual/character weakness that God can change while being glorified in it.

    To sum, Paul says in Romans 5:3-5:
    We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. 5 And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

  12. Yana.r

    Failure helps Christians to grow into spiritual maturity. Through failure we learn something about our character and also about the character of God. We realize that we are fallen beings, we are limited and are in need of God. God on the other hand is all powerful and that only through Him we can do His work, go out there and love others. It helps us learn how to depend on God and set aside our pride and humbly ask for His help.

  13. Elli

    failure… failurefailurefailure. For me, failure has come in all shapes in sizes, kicking my ass all around. Finally it clicked in my brain why i keep failing! Well why did i? its because i cant do anything on my own, my own way, my own PLAN. God wants us to depend on him. HE has a plan for people that we should follow and now realizing it, from my own little episode, i rejoice!, like Jackie said. God put me through some trials, and now i am finally achieving a goal, growing in my relationship with God. It was basically an awesomely humbling experience and i feel so excited.

  14. Angie

    It’s odd to think about hope being a product of failure. There have been times in my life when I’ve felt pretty hopeless as a result of personal failure, or failures of other people to meet my expectations, failures of jobs and other things to fill my “needs.” The thing is, I had been placing my faith and trust in people and things, myself included, that were bound to fail. I had bestowed God-like qualities on other things and people (myself included, again), thinking they and I could be ever-constant, ever-faithful, always good, always loving. It was finally seeing myself as the big, fat failure/loser that I am that led me to understand how desperately I need God in my life. Only through those failures could I experience the hope that comes from knowing God is in control, that He does love me, that he will not forsake me, and I can believe that and be filled with hope through that faith. The smack-down was hard, but the raising up has been so gentle and loving.

  15. becky

    Yeah, this is me, the procrastinator, posting the day of basic docrtine. sorry!

    This was a totally cool post, by the way. I can totally relate with a “fearful” reaction to outreach. But i think that failure teaches us to rely on God. You can have somebody tell you to trust in God rather than yourself, but until you’ve failed on your own, you won’t really understand.

  16. Leah.Z

    Failure helps us appreciate what we do have. It can also give us the motivation to start over and work harder this time around to be succesful at something we have made mistakes with in the past. If we make a decision to follow christ and every plan and effort rolls out very nicely and works out, we don’t have to work hard for god. We think we make very little mistakes, we don’t grow, we can even get prideful. We might even think we did all the work and god did nothing. There is no need for hope in this situation because we don’t need god’s help and we would expect every step of faith in the future to work out. Without failure we would have expectations, not hope. We need a reference point to look at. we need to see what it looks like when we have hope that god can help us.

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