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12. What I've learned from failure

My life (put) alongside God's word. Suffering and response section.

For me, the title of this article refers to deriving the most

benefit from the low points in my life. There are very few

things in which I would claim to be an expert, but

because I’ve had so many low points, learning from

failure is certainly one of them!

I am 65 years old. God has used me to pastor four different

churches, three in England and one in Africa. He also used

me to launch an evangelism and Bible training school in

Cornwall, England, where I now live. These activities were

not the successes that anyone would be interested in

writing a book about. However, the enlightening thing is

that as the years pass by, my wife and I can see how God has graciously used for His glory what some might consider being failures.

A definition of success

Here I define “success” as presented by Jesus in His parable of a West Asian sower to illustrate a religious truth. Note His words in Matthew 13:23: “The one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” The

parable speaks of four types of soil and three levels of receiving seed even into the good soil. Only a portion of the total seed sown was as fruitful as could be expected. And this is assuming we only plant good seed, which “is the Word of God”, Mark 4:14; Luke 8:11. Perhaps we set our expectations too high, thereby setting ourselves up for failure of our own making. Christian workers are among the worst people I know for inflicting failure upon themselves. We must remember that God produces worthwhile fruit through His servants. Paul wrote: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow”,

1 Corinthians 3:6.

Those discouraged at the apparent lack of results in their ministry, should read John 6:60-71. Jesus Himself saw some of His followers turn back. But He did not change His message to make it easier to follow. He sadly let them go away and looked elsewhere to find those whom God had chosen. This is another lesson we must learn to prevent despondency from overcoming us. We must keep on doing the work God has given us, even if we seem to be losing.

The rich young ruler of Matthew 19:16-30 is believed by some to be Barnabas of Acts 4:36-37. If this ancient tradition is true, then it is a great example of letting someone go until God Himself matures His Word in their hearts. When this happens people will begin to follow Jesus. It may be years after the seed is sown. We must remember we are merely part of God’s production line, not the whole of it, 1 Corinthians 3:5-9.

My past

In the last few years I’ve been treated by my doctor for depression. The treatment included counselling. During that time I read “Spiritual Depression” by Dr. Martyn

Lloyd Jones. God used a combination of three things – medication, secular counselling and challenging teaching from God’s Word – to help me through my depression. I did not always agree with “the Doctor” (as Lloyd Jones was called) when I studied under his London ministry for three years. But during this illness I have seen that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose”, Romans 8:28.

In 2003, while serving the Lord in Khartoum, Sudan, my good health disappeared. Regular blackouts forced my wife, Brenda, and me to return to England. Then after a brief

period of restored health, cancer was discovered in my voice box. Since my voice box was surgically removed in 2006, I now only speak quietly using an artificial voice

prosthesis – not good for a preacher/teacher of nearly 40years! Cancer reoccurred in my throat in 2009 requiring another operation and seven weeks of radiotherapy. This

left me clear of cancer, but in a lot of pain. God used medication to mellow this and now I am in pain control but using very strong drugs.

I believe God led us to Sudan. I preached in the church, taught in theological colleges, and encouraged language translators, church planters, and various Christians in business. But after four years we were back home in England with our long-range plans in tatters. Was I a failure? What could I tell our prayer-partners, our congregation? And who would fill the gaps in the college course schedules? Our goals in Sudan had not been achieved. In the world’s eyes our four years in Africa ended in a seven-letter word that would make anyone feel very low – “failure!”

After four years away we were again in our home in England. Our family members were delighted to have us nearby, especially as grandchildren were being born. But in my own eyes I was a failure. Had I gotten God’s guidance wrong in the first place? Had I gone to Africa simply following my own desire? Had I subconsciously wanted the “glory” of being an overseas missionary? The third verse of Gary Driskell’s song “Jesus Never Fails”

came to my mind.

“Sometimes this world brings trouble I find so hard to bear.

I know I could not make it without Jesus being there.

It’s so encouraging to know, however deep we’re in despair…

Jesus never fails. Jesus never fails!

Jesus never fails!

You might as well get thee behind me, Satan,

You cannot prevail, because Jesus never fails!”

Some Bible failures

I don’t know about you, but I have no difficulty believing that Jesus never fails. It is my side of the partnership that I worry about! Sometimes it even makes me feel worse reflecting on Scriptures that speak of God’s victory. God doesn’t fail – I do! Jesus never fails – I do! But here is the amazing, life-rebuilding, constructive gospel truth! As I present my failures to Jesus, He turns them into items He can use to extend and build His eternal kingdom.

Examples of this are in His Word.

Think of Moses by the burning bush, Exodus 3:1-4:17. A one-time murderer made wiser while tending sheep in the desert was commissioned by God to shepherd God’s

people through a wilderness.

Think of David listening to the prophet Nathan, 2 Samuel 11-12. An adulterer and a murderer, one who “despised the Lord”, 12:10, was chosen to lead God’s people into one

of their most peaceful eras, and also to write many Psalms revealing everyday life following God.

Think of Jonah in the belly of a great fish, Jonah 1-2. Realising that his disobedience got him into a big-fish mess, Jonah repented and God gave him a second chance. He preached to Nineveh about their godlessness and they repented, staying God’s judgment.

Think of Peter after a beach breakfast with Jesus and the disciples, John 21:1-25. Jesus reinstated him after his disastrous three denials on the eve of the Crucifixion. Jesus tested Peter’s love with three questions, 21:15-18. He knew Peter had failed and would fail again, but He had world-changing plans, which included this fisher of men.

Think of John Mark who was taken by Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, Acts 13:1-5. But he returned home after a brief time. Was he homesick? Didn’t he get along with his older colleagues? Leaving the team was a strong enough failure for Paul not to take Mark on his next trip, Acts 15:36-41. While Barnabas gave his nephew a

second chance, Paul took much longer to find Mark’s talents

useful again, Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11.

What can we learn from these biblical failures who were transformed into useful servants?

To benefit most from the low points in our lives, we must realise that our lives are not our own. Like a piece of wood in the hands of the Master Craftsman, we are being cut, shaped and smoothed into the very piece of life’s mosaic that God is completing by His skill. The low points are where the most painful shaping is done. But the heavenly rewards are well worth waiting for, Isaiah 64:8; Matthew 6:19-21.

My present

In my life after “failure” God has opened doors for me to write, teach and encourage others through writing, small group study and one-on-one encounters, all at a whisper. I

have been writing articles for Grace & Truth, a Christian magazine in USA, for the past nine years. I write a bimonthly encouragement letter to 80 Christian leaders in

both Sudan and South Sudan. The most recent was entitled “Love Your Enemies,” Jesus’ real challenge to the war-torn Sudanese. I have published and distributed two booklets of biblical encouragement based on examples from Sudanese culture: “Hungry To Know God Better” and “God’s Chosen Saviour – Jesus.” God has also provided for Arabic and Dinka translations of these and an earlier book on practical Christian discipleship. When you are reading this you will have in your hands (or on your computer/phone) the fourth book God has enabled me to write or edit and publish for Sudanese and South Sudanese believers. God’s better plan is outworking! He knows what He is doing and it is always the right thing.

Your challenge

Being at a low point in your life is not being a failure. But if you don’t learn the lesson God is teaching you in that low point, you push yourself in the failure direction. So take stock of your life now. Learn from your past experiences. And plan for your future in God’s will,

whatever the personal challenge.

From prison Paul wrote these challenging words: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me ... I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus, Philippians 3:14.

Will you press on toward whatever Jesus Christ has for you?

If you will, you won’t ever be a failure.


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