During the past few decades, our culture has become increasingly invested in avoiding the reality of losing. You get a trophy just because you’re on the team; you get a passing grade just because you’re breathing. With this mindset, there aren’t any losers and nobody ever fails.
You’ve probably heard phrases like these:
“You get a medal for participating.”
“There aren’t any losers; we’re all winners!”
The problem with this mindset is that it approaches failure as if it is something bad—something to be avoided at all costs. It implies that failing is so horrible that we can’t even mention it—because we’re all “winners”!
The Necessity of Failure
But the truth is that failure is an important and necessary part of life, and without regularly experiencing the feeling of failing, fear can start to dominate our emotional state. We may fear failure more than we crave courage—and that’s a real problem for us as individuals and for our culture at large.
If we live in the fear of failure, we will necessarily live small and controlled lives—lives that need to be measured with strict boundaries and safe—so that we don’t have to face that fear of failing. This will keep us from trying new things, stretching outside of our comfort zones and taking risks.
But when we miss out on trying new things and taking risks, we’re missing out on what it looks like to live fully alive as humans made in the image of God. That’s because when we’re more worried about being failure avoiders than we are about trying new things, we don’t only miss out on discovering new opportunities, we miss out on the important character formation that failure alone can offer.
Practically, failure teaches us to not expect perfection from ourselves or others, and it helps us gain compassion for others who are struggling, because we remember how hard things have been for us, too. Additionally, when we’re never given the opportunity to lose or fail, we also never learn how to dust ourselves off, take a deep breath and try again. We don’t learn that wonderful characteristic called resilience.
Ultimately, failure avoidance isn’t success. Ironically, it’s actually one of the worst types of failure because it’s embedded in the failure to fully trust God.
The Source of Self-Worth
One researcher noted that failure-avoidance is borne out of the intention to “minimize risk to self worth in the event of failure, thereby avoiding the negative impact of poor performance in terms of damage to self-worth.” Here, we see that failure-avoidance is rooted in the desire to protect our self-image and our view of ourselves as “winners” so that we won’t have to deal with the difficult feelings of disappointment or rejection.
But the love and truth of Christ sets us free from the need to protect our self-worth. In Christ, we don’t have to do anything to make ourselves lovable or accepted—he has already done everything necessary, through his life, death and resurrection, to secure our eternal love and acceptance in God. Our self-worth isn’t based in our failure or in our success; it’s based in who we are in Christ.
We don’t have to avoid failure because Christ has already paid for all of our failures on the cross. Now, we can live out of our identity in Christ as people who are free—free to try new things and fail, free to win or lose, and free to know that who we are is completely secure, no matter what.