Overcoming a Fear of Failure

November 25, 2018

Rev. Dr. David Clark

Senior Minister

Joshua 1:1, 5, 9  

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This sermon series we’ve been talking about resources our faith gives us for living courageously and confidently in spite of our fears. Today we talk about one of the most common fears the hold people back–the fear of failure.

On an intellectual level we know that any measure of success implies taking some risks along the way. I’m sure that every one of us could name some time where we let a fear of failure dissuade us from a course of action we really wanted to take. We live in a success oriented culture. We are judged by our successes. We often measure our own sense of self worth by our accomplishments.

None of us want to fall on our faces. We fear disappointing others. We know what humiliation feels like. We do our best to be sensible, take cautious steps, and minimize risk.

Young adults often name this as their #1 fear and it’s something we all let get the best of us from time to time. It’s part of the human condition. Maybe that’s why one of the most often repeated refrains in scripture are the words, “Fear not, for I am with you.”

There are just so many examples. After escaping Egypt and spending 40 years wandering around the desert the Hebrews were finally poised to enter the Promised Land. They sent some scouts into the land and heard reports that the people who lived there were giants. Even after everything God had led them through, the Red Sea, providing food and water in the desert, the people wanted to turn around and go back because they were afraid the whole venture would end in horrible failure.

I think of the whole army that trembled on account of Goliath, or when Mary turned up pregnant and the Spirit told Joseph not to be afraid to go against what he had been taught as proper, and take Mary as his wife–and not to listen to what others would say about it.

The list goes on, it’s about as thick as the Bible itself. So much of it is about people wrestling with their fears and figuring out ways of turning away from what’s been promised to them.

So today we are going to spend a few minutes trying to hear God’s voice for our own lives–the voice that tells us as it did the biblical characters, “Fear not, for I am with you.” When you sense that your fears are holding you back, the first thing to do is remember the assurance God gives is the Divine Presence–no matter what. You get the love, the support, and the guidance of the one who created this whole universe. Not bad.

Fear comes as a natural warning signal to us. We are wired to recognize danger and avert it. But our fears do not have to rule us; they can serve more as a warning. Some questions to help think through our fears rationally are: What if I Fail? How will I recover? What if I do nothing–other than stay in the same pattern, getting the same results, where will I be in 5-10 years? What if I succeed?

Go ahead and play it out and run through the scenarios. Ask what’s the worst thing that could happen? And remember that even if your worst thing happens, you are still accompanied by the Spirit who calls you his beloved, who sees the best that is in you, who wants the best for you. For as long as you are alive, there is One who still has a purpose for you, who can help you through whatever you may face. Not bad!

In the end, it’s not what people try and fail at that is on their list of regrets, it’s the opportunities missed, the times that they didn’t take their best shot, the things they didn’t try.

Fear is our memories kicking in and projecting out into the future. We make up stories, worst-case scenarios. But you can ask if they are rational. What is the probability of it happening? This week we went through forests and Death Valley and noticed all the warning signs. Wavy, dippy roads. Construction. Falling Rock. And even one with a symbol of a falling cow. I kid you not. If you let every warning stop you, you’ll never get the full joy out of life. You are aware, watchful, but a cow probably isn’t going to land on your car.

Remember that failure is just a part of life. Several times in the gospels, Jesus referred to his parable about the sower who liberally broadcast the seeds. Some went in the rocks, some in the thorns, some on ground too wet. Not all of them grew. The point is that not everything is going to work. You keep trying.

We are called to be faithful not successful. Not everything is going to work out. How do you define success, by the world’s views, by someone else’s opinion, by comparing yourself to someone else? Forget about it.

You know it’s a fool’s errand to let others define success for you. You take on things just to prove things to someone else and wind up in a cycle. Work, accomplish, acquire, repeat–until we collapse from joyless exhaustion. It’s up to you to define your success, what’s right for you.

Define your success by asking yourself about whether you kept trying to get better. That you tried to be a decent human being. That you followed the Golden Rule, that you were forgiving and generous and kind.  That you built enough spiritual maturity that you could give up your anxiety and fears and live fully in the present moment.

Sometimes things work out, but not in ways that you could ever foresee. Jesus on the cross crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” helps us see that moment when all looked lost, like his project was a failure. The world didn’t change. His friends ran away when trouble came. He died a horrible death. But he gave his spirit to God and God redeemed it and Jesus is not remembered as a failure but the greatest One to ever live.

The seeds you plant today may take root later. Others may be inspired by your faithfulness in taking risks. The people who really love you are going to respect the fact that you took risks to follow your dreams; they aren’t there to laugh at you.

In the last several years, much has been written about learning to embrace failure. Not that you try to fail, but that you recognize that it’s going to happen and know how to get back up when you fall and learn from the experience.

Thomas Edison told someone that it took a thousand attempts to get a light bulb that would work. Someone asked what it felt like to fail 1,000 times. He said he didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention that took 1,000 steps.

Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Barbara Corcoran, a successful business woman, famous for being on the TV show, Shark Tank, has videos where she talks about how all the keys to every success she and her companies have ever had comes from the ability to learn from failures. She calls failure her lucky charm. If you aren’t failing, you aren’t ever risking anything.

She talks about failure as her lucky charm, and built her business on rewarding effort not success. She had an idea box where everyone gets rewarded. A good idea gets the same reward as a sketchy one. The idea is that true innovation comes from not letting a fear of failure prevent you from thinking outside the box.

She said that the key factor for any successful person is that they don’t take their rejections or failures personally. There is a difference between saying, that idea didn’t work it failed and saying because that didn’t work, I’ma failure.

For those of us who grew up in an environment that shamed people those tapes of being humiliated get triggered. That’s why you need supportive people around you. You need people who can give feedback without tearing into you personally. There are lots of people who will ridicule, criticize from the sidelines where it is safe–folks who never take any risks themselves. But don’t let them inside your head. Refuse to have time for that. It often comes from their problems.

Get people who help you rise. Who reward your effort.  I rose one morning to get the paper and on the front step of my house was this thing, this sculpture sitting beside an empty soda can with a dead flower sticking out of it.  What’s this?  Who could have given me this and why did they leave anonymous art.  I looked at it and thought that if I left something so ugly on someone’s doorstep, I’d run away too.  I admit, I don’t get all art. I discovered there was a note fixed with a rubber band to the can.

The note explained this was a traveling trophy bestowed on me.  It’s called, Shot Down.  It’s an inelegant representation of a bird that has been shot and its broken body is plummeting toward the earth.  The note explains this traveling trophy is awarded to someone who tried to accomplish some noble cause, but got shot down.  It’s a way of saying, “Nice try.  Sorry you didn’t make it, we’ve been there, too. Hang in there, you’ll rise up from this. Keep the trophy as long as you need to and find someone else to share it with later.”

Shot Down has been around.  She’s arrived on the step of folks who have run for public office, but were defeated.  She’s spent time with people who tried to start some cause or program that got blindsided.  Even a guy who hoped to become bishop held it.  She showed up on my doorstep when I tried to hold the extreme fundamentalists in the Methodist Church accountable for cruelly undermining a pastor with whom they disagreed.  When I did they went after me publically.

Is there any one ready to receive something like that? Anyone earned it?  I suppose there are times in our lives when any of us could say, “Yeah, that’s what happened to me.  I tried and someone shot me down along the way.”  Welcome to the shot down community, but trust it, you’ll rise.