A Successful Failure is a Lesson in Faith

Matthew 14.29b-31

So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt?

Dear Travelers,

Until I saw the film Apollo 13 I had never heard the phrase a successful failure. NASA considered the mission of Apollo 13 a successful failure because although the mission failed in its main objective: to land on the moon; the mission succeeded in that all three men returned to earth safely despite spending several days in a damaged spacecraft.

Sometimes failure in the past can be the prelude to success in the future. In an article that appeared in the August 2002 issue of the Harvard Business Review IBM exec Thomas Watson, Sr. said, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”

For most people in the competitive corporate world this is naive advice. It is almost certain not to be their personal experience. But the article went on to say that failure-tolerant leaders know that while success is good, failure is not necessarily all that bad. Failure-tolerant leaders view success and failure as complements rather than polar opposites.

Failure is seen as a necessary prerequisite of invention since it requires risk taking. Failure also provides insights that cannot normally be gained from success. Failure also encourages creativity and innovation.

Some of the greatest people in the Bible have been successful failures. Abraham listened to Sarah and slept with Hagar, when he should have trusted God’s promise that Sarah would give birth to a son. Moses was a murderer. David was an adulterer. Jeremiah faithfully proclaimed the word of the Lord for 40 years with little to show for his effort. All these experienced extraordinary failures, but because God is a failure-tolerant leader His grace helped them become successful failures.

In the New Testament Jesus emerges as the perfect failure-tolerant leader. And the New Testament is filled with stories of people who experienced extraordinary failure. However, by the grace of Jesus they moved beyond them to achieve great things for the kingdom of God. One of my favorite stories about a successful failure is Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water to Jesus in Matthew 14.22-33.

There is no doubt Peter was passionate in his desire to follow Jesus. However, when he failed Peter learned that passion for Jesus may get you out of the boat, but it is faith in Jesus that gets you all the way to where He is.

When Jesus called Peter out of the boat He gave the fishermen permission not only to try the impossible, but to do the impossible. When Jesus called Peter out of the boat He gave him permission to succeed. He also gave him permission to fail. The good news is that Peter’s failure, as embarrassing and terrifying as it was is, in retrospect, a successful failure.

 A successful failure teaches us to put more faith in Christ than in our passion for following Him.

At what point did Peter’s fear override his faith in Jesus?

I believe it was when Peter reached what he believed was the point of no return (PNR) or at least the point at which he determined to be the PNR.

Once Peter reached the PNR he cannot turn back. That would be embarrassing. You don’t want to fail in front of your peers.

Once Peter reached the PNR he did not want to disappoint Jesus especially when the whole “walk on water” thing was his idea.

What would success look like in this passage?

Success would be Peter walking all the way out to Jesus then joining in as they both stroll across to the other side.

What would it have meant if Peter succeeded?

But he didn’t succeed. He failed.

Passion for Jesus may get you out of the boat, but it is faith in Jesus that gets you all the way to Him. When Jesus called Peter out of the boat He gave the fishermen permission to do more than try the impossible. Jesus gave Peter the permission to do the impossible by trusting in the word of Jesus not his zeal for following Jesus.

When Jesus called Peter out of the boat He gave him permission to succeed. He also gave him permission to fail. The good news is that Peter’s failure, as embarrassing and humiliating as it was, in retrospect, a successful failure.

A successful failure teaches us to put more confidence in Christ than in our eagerness to obey His word.  

Was Peter’s faith in Christ or in his passion for Christ?

Sometimes Jesus will call me into places I don’t want to go. Peter chose this moment. Jesus taught him that zeal is good, but zeal without wisdom is folly.

Still, at least Peter took the risk. There were twelve men in that boat, but only one was brave enough to step out on to the stormy sea.

It is also worth noting that we read this text differently depending on our age.

As a young man, I was right there with Peter. As an older man, and a parent, I would say, “Peter, you may want to think about this decision.”

Successful failures teach us the importance of balancing zeal and wisdom. It’s better to try to do the impossible than play it safe. You cannot fail if you do not try. And if you may fail, at least you will have failed in making an attempt to glorify Jesus.

And if you succeed, well that’s a story for another day….

You think about that.

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