The death of an idea: dealing with failure

Research is an adventure into the unknown. As such, it’s risky business. What happens when things go wrong? Sometimes a project you’ve been working on for long hours turns out to lead nowhere. You’ve poured your energies into a big plan, only to find it doesn’t work. You may even suffer the blow of being pre-empted in publishing something that was your ‘baby’ – your big idea to show the world. At such times it’s easy for scary questions to enter our minds: Am I a waste of time? Am I not good enough to be an academic?

If such questions are really debilitating, they may indicate that we’ve started to idolise our research.  But, of course, it’s quite natural to be hurt by frustration. How should we think about these ‘failures’ as Christians? How should we cope with the death of an idea? I will suggest a few thoughts.

 1) Love the Lord your God

First, remember that you were not first called to academia to be successful. Jesus primarily calls his creatures to love and serve him as their Lord. What’s the first commandment from which the others flow? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other Gods before me” (Ex. 20). First and foremost, even as academics, we are to be Christians serving God.

 2) Faith in scholarship = faith in God

Second, this means that we can have faith in scholarship. If we find ourselves in the position of undertaking a PhD or working as a post doc or faculty member, we should remember who put us there. If God has put us there, we can trust in him for the furthering of our thought. This means even when we fail, this should direct our attention to God. We should trust that God is still working out His good purposes in scholarship, despite this failure.

3) Free to fail

The Bible tells us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom 8:28). This means that when an idea dies, that’s okay! It may be because of sin that you fail… not reading the text with due care and attention, wanting to dominate in an argument even when you’re wrong. It may be that your line of enquiry is a dead end. But if we remember that we’re first to be serving God, including trusting Him with our work, then when we fail for any reason, we can trust that God is using that failure. Demonstrating a false line of reasoning can be progress; perhaps it will make us better academics; perhaps it will even challenge an idol in our lives. I don’t suggest you try immediately to work out what God was doing through your failure but if He is truly the author of all things then you can trust Him that He will work His good purposes though it.

Contrary to our culture’s attitude, this means that we’re free to fail. Most people in our culture have no assurance that God works though failure; it has no purpose but to hinder their prospects. But Christians should not be thinking ultimately about their own prospects, but about God’s kingdom. 

4) Fail in community

This is hard to remember in our individualistic culture, but failure is not purely a personal matter.  We should, I suggest, be meeting with other Christian academics on a regular basis. This way we can remind each other about the true and ultimate work of God and about failure’s place within his plans.

Comments

I think you are spot on, Thom. Our culture turns failure into a crisis of personal value; for God it is part of our learning. Your starting point in Ex 20 is the right one – He wants to free us from slavery of all kinds, including our addiction to success – He’s a God who loves us!

I’m from the business world, and it’s been interesting to compare the attitude to success in the US and UK: in the UK, we typically like people to have had an “upward” CV, whereas in the US there is far more demand for business folk who have had a major failure! Indeed I know firms who won’t hire you unless there has been at least one failure there. Why? They think we learn alot from our failures, and make better successes if we’ve had some! Sounds Godly, to me.

I daresay Peter might agree. And I guess that the early church shared his story of failure, because there was so much to learn from it. And because he was willing for it to be shared! I don’t hear many UK leaders talking like that.

Hi Cal,

Thanks for your comment. I totally agree with your observation about US/UK distinction. My parents both spent some time in the US and they both commented that failure isn’t viewed as a disability as it is here. I definitely think that this is a more Godly attitude to work so long as “overcoming failure” in and of itself doesn’t morph into yet another idol! Another danger for the sinful human heart.

I see this attitude particularly expressed in TV programs like the Apprentice. Either you’re a master of success and have never failed or you’ve “worked your way from the bottom of the bottom to where you are now.”

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