Our Fear of Failure

" We live in this culture in which we do our best to put on our masks of achievement and success to hide the scars of failure all across our lives. "
" Rather than running away or hiding them, Christ is clearly calling all of us to live with our failures. " 

I like to think that I’m someone who lives by his convictions - my belief that I am called to be a minister of collegians, a loving husband, and a recipient of endless love from God in the Gospel.

Yet I’ve realized through my ministry, my marriage, and my everyday life that it’s not my convictions that often shape my life, but my fears. I’m not living out of my beliefs about who I am, but instead I’m compromised by the fears of who I’m not. The daunting image of a failed life is what navigates my actions.

How Did We Get Here?

Most of us likely find that same tension in our lives after some digging into our own motivations. So how did our fear of failure hijack our lives?

As someone who was raised in an Asian-American home, I’ve realized how much being formed in that environment has affected us in such subtle ways. I never blame my parents for how they raised me because they did it with the knowledge and traditions they had from their own Korean culture. But realizing it was rare for my father to ever say, “I’m proud of you…It’s okay, try again,” it was hard for me to see affirmation in light of my failures. I made myself believe at an early age that failure had no space in my life. Regardless of how well I was doing, I could always be doing better and failure was just around the corner.

Because of this, I could never come to grips with the times of failure in my life. Rather I tried my best to cover it all up, and I still do. We live in this culture in which we do our best to put on our masks of achievement and success to hide the scars of failure all across our lives.

Yet unlike scars, often our failures are still open wounds that suck our souls dry. And I see two main patterns of how our fears bleed out our lives.

Paralyzed by Failure

When I was younger, I was deemed the kid with potential. The kid who if he just practiced a little bit more violin could make 1st chair or the kid who if he just turned in his homework at time could get straight A’s. My parents would always tell me it was my laziness causing me to falter. But deep down inside I knew it wasn’t laziness, but rather my fear of failure paralyzing my life.

If you’re paralyzed by failure, you use apathy as a safety net. You protect yourself with a lack of effort because then the possibility of failure never becomes a reality for you never tried hard in the first place. You set low expectations for your life: grades, career, relationships - everything. People are hard to love because the relationships are just potential failures. God becomes a distant figure who we cannot reach because we see too many potholes of our own failures on the way.

Driven by Failure

But some have a very different problem. Rather than letting failure paralyze them, they let failure drive their lives every single day. This group of people is very aware of the reality of failure and will not rest until they can erase it from their lives. They choose to protect themselves by their own efforts unlike the paralyzed, who try to inoculate themselves from its effects.

If you’re driven by failure you live your life as if you’re building an endless resume to hide your failures. And if you do fail, you bury it deep into the shadows of your soul and hunger for more achievements like an addict that needs a greater high to cover up from withdrawal. That addiction never ends. People and co-workers become objects, stepping stones, and even competition. God becomes a tool just to add to your collection in the shed, you only bring Him out of your shed when you life needs a fix.

Living with Failures

Whether you’re paralyzed or driven by failure, both of these patterns distort your view of God in your life. Christ’s calls for repentance (Matthew 4:17) or Paul’s exhortations to boast in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 11:30) sound ludicrous when failure controls us. You can’t hear when He calls you into difficult paths because you’re too scared of the failures to get there. Or you reduce following Christ to using Christ for your benefit.

Our ability to follow and hear God depends immensely on how much we learn to live with our failures. Rather than running away or hiding them, Christ is clearly calling all of us to live with them. Not in some boastful way of showing off how much we have fallen, but so that we can experience something that if we come to grips with our failures will completely drive us to - a need for love. You never realize how much you need love, affirmation, and care from God unless you learn to live with failures. It’s only when you come to grips with your own failures can you see the real cost of Christ on the cross, and only them will you fully comprehend the scandalous, endless love in that act.

In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul is pushing us to live with our failures so that “Christ’s power may rest” on you and me. When you learn that our sinful lives will never be free of failures we no longer have to fear what it will feel like, because we will feel loved like no other in Christ.

Eugene Park is a College Pastor at Gospel Life Mission Church in Anaheim, CA. He is a graduate of UC Riverside and is currently pursuing his M. Div. from Talbot School of Theology. He also serves as a Steering Core member of KCM and a campus pastor at UC Riverside KCM.