If one were to conduct a nationwide survey to learn the most common human fears, it is safe to conclude that failure would be near the top of the list. Due in part to the high value that North American society places upon success and achievement, we recognize through the twists and turns of daily life that everyone has – in some shape or form – firsthand experience of the fear of failure. We fret over falling short, we agonize about disappointment, and we even lose sleep from the potential shame of letting others down. What if we, as a Lenten discipline, make a commitment to give up the fear of failure — for such fears are too often personally devastating and publicly debilitating if left ignored or unresolved?
In thinking about the fear of failure, it is helpful to examine its multitude of sources. Those afraid of failure might be perfectionists who see anything less than full flawlessness (on the first attempt) to be humiliating. Or perhaps they are victims of perfectionism peer pressure from obsessive parents, strict teachers, demanding friends, or pessimistic colleagues. Some view unrealized goals as a definitive statement about who they are as individuals, and others have experienced deep embarrassment by an actual or perceived failure at some point in their life, feel insecure about their worth and dignity, or perhaps lack a healthy sense of self-confidence due to the unrealistic images of success that are often portrayed in media. While there are many more sources, we recognize that our various fears surrounding failure can arise from a wide variety of aspects in our lives.
Let us examine the vast consequences of such fears. Those who are afraid to fail often refuse to be pushed to new limits, take risks, or embrace the fullness of their God-given capabilities. In addition, those fearful of failure too often pass up opportunities to thrive, withdraw from uncertainty, and even remove themselves from the path of creativity or leadership. And from a spiritual perspective, those with a fear of failure too often find it difficult to love others, receive love from others, and may even refuse to accept the abundant grace that comes with the belief that God accepts us as we are. And so, perhaps the greatest consequence of the fear of failure is the destructive enslavement of feeling unacceptable to oneself, to others, and even to God.
While the fear of failure has many sources and consequences, during this season of Lent we recognize that Jesus sets us free from the fear of failure and offers the freedom to embrace life in its fullness. While societal pressures can be cruel and unforgiving, in God’s eyes we are received as we are, accepted regardless of our shortcomings, and fully included as members of God’s all-encompassing beloved community. While these realities do not minimize or disregard the pains that moments of failure can bring, the recognition of God’s love provides us with a larger-picture perspective to see that various failures do not make someone a failure. As a result, we are given the wisdom to learn from our mistakes, the guidance to resist repeating them, and the strength to live our lives to the fullest and move forward in a collective search for the common good.
While we make numerous missteps with each passing day, we need not be afraid of failure, for we are loved and accepted by God for who we were created to be. We can take risks, step outside of our comfort zones, freely love others, and openly be loved by others, all while embracing that which God is calling us to be and boldly following where Jesus is leading us to go. While the season of Lent helps to expose our various imperfections and limitations, it is also meant to show us the completeness and fullness of life we receive through our faith journey alongside a loving God.
And so, as we continue our movement through the season of Lent, we can be honest about our various shortcomings, but we can also be set free through the gift of forgiveness, and in response to this unconditional acceptance, we may give up the fear of failure and dare to reflect God’s outpouring of love through service for the sake of others.
Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa.).
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