Sermon Illustrations on failure


The Difference Between Heroes and Saints

It turns out the Christian story is a good story in which to learn to fail. As the ethicist Samuel Wells has written, some stories feature heroes and some stories feature saints and the difference between them matters: “Stories . . . told with . . . heroes at the center of them . . . are told to laud the virtues of the heroes—for if the hero failed, all would be lost. 

By contrast, a saint can fail in a way that the hero can’t, because the failure of the saint reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the saint is just a small character in a story that’s always fundamentally about God.”

Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, HarperOne, 2012.

Gardeners and Failure

While this excerpt is specifically on gardening, it could be applied to any area of life in which we experience failure. The question is not, will we fail? But how will we respond when we inevitably do fail. I love how Michael Pollan describes a typical gardeners’ response to failure, that is, with curiosity. There is a resilience and a maturity that sees failure as an opportunity to learn rather than a death sentence:

All the accomplished gardeners I know are surprisingly comfortable with failure. They may not be happy about it, but instead of reacting with anger or frustration, they seem fairly intrigued by the peony that, after years of being taken for granted, suddenly fails to bloom. They understand that, in the garden at least, failure speaks louder than success. 

By that I don’t mean the gardener encounters more failure than success (though in some years he will), only that his failures have more to say to him – about his soil, the weather, the predilections of local pests, the character of his land. The gardener learns nothing when his carrots thrive, unless that success is won against a background of prior disappointment. Outright success is dumb, disaster frequently eloquent. At least to the gardener who learns how to listen. 

Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (New York: Delta, 1991), 143–144.

Haunted by the Birdman

In 2014’s Oscar-winning film Birdman, Michael Keaton plays a washed-out actor trying to start his life again after a series of failed roles. But his efforts are haunted by the voice of the “Birdman,” the superhero role that made him famous in his youth. This voice in his head tells him a story about his life—a story of failure and missed chances.

It taunts him with memories of what he was and could have been, but now isn’t. The continuing question running through the film is simple: Will he listen to that voice of failure, or will he dare to believe that he can flourish again?

Ken Costa, Know Your Why: Finding and Fulfilling Your Calling in Life, Thomas Nelson.

Joining the Human Race

As the darkness began to descend on me in my early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique and terminal case of failure. I did not realize that I had merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race.

Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Jossey-Bass, 1999, 19.

Triumph and Failure in the World of Faith

Triumph and failure always go together in the wait of faith.  They are the head and tail of the same coin.  Show me a person who has had no struggle with waiting, whose faith has known no swings between victory and defeat, and I’ll show you a person who has never really trusted God with his or her life.

To wait on God is to struggle and sometimes to fail.  Sometimes the failures teach us more than the successes.  For the failures teach us that to wait on God is not only to wait for his mercy, but to wait by his mercy. … The success of our waiting lies not in who we are, but in who God is.  It is not our strength that will pull us through to the end, it is God’s amazing grace and mercy.

Taken from Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent by Ben Patterson Copyright (c) 1989 by Ben Patterson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.


A 12 Million Dollar Education

Tom Watson, Sr., is the man who founded IBM. You can imagine the money, the investments, the experiments, this man, and his multi-billion dollar company have made through the years. Once, years ago, when a million dollars was still a million dollars, Watson had a top junior executive who spent $12 million of the company’s money on a venture that failed.

The executive put his resignation on Watson’s desk saying, “I’m sure that you want my resignation.” Watson roared back:, “No I don’t want your resignation. I’ve just spent $12 million educating you. It’s about time you get to work.

Andy Cook

The $20 Million Mistake

In The Last Arrow, Erwin McManus shares the story of Mark Floyd, a businessman who convinced investors to place $20 million dollars in an investment that ultimately failed. Instead of crawling into a cave as many of us would feel compelled to do, Floyd not only faced his investors and gave them the bad news, but he had the audacity to ask them for more money for a different venture he believed as a “can’t miss”. Surprisingly, they said yes. McManus’ account is below:

What caught my attention was his telling the story of when he lost $20 million of his investors’ money…Mark had a business idea. He was sure it was a can’t-miss idea, and he was so compelling and persuasive that he found investors who believed in both his idea and his ability to execute that idea. They trusted him with their money and he lost it all. What would you do in a situation like that? Me?

I might just set myself on fire or play my violin like Nero as I watched Rome burn all around me. Mark did the unexpected. He went back to those investors and faced them. That, by itself, took an immense amount of integrity and courage. He faced them and told them that he had lost all their money, but he had a way forward…This, of course, would require them to give him more money.

He had a different idea—a better idea, an idea that couldn’t miss. All they would need to do is trust him and his idea, and he would not only return to them all the money that was lost, but they would also reap the benefits of this new endeavor…

The second idea was DSL (digital subscriber line), which has something to do with fiber optics, communication systems, techy stuff. I don’t even pretend to fully understand DSL; I just know that the modern world has been revolutionized by it. Not only did those investors regain the millions they lost, but they walked away with unimaginable wealth.

Erwin Raphael McManus, The Last Arrow: Saving Nothing for the Next Life, The Crown Publishing Group.

Behind You 1000%

Young men in his church were expected to pray aloud in Communion Services. So the young Larry Crabb felt pressured to pray, even though he had a problem with stuttering. He remembers offering a terribly confused prayer in which he thanked the Father for hanging on the cross and praised Christ for triumphantly bringing the Spirit from the grave. When he was finished, he vowed he would never again pray out loud in front of a group.

At the end of the Service, Crabb made for the door. Before he could get out, an older man caught him. “Larry, there’s one thing I want you to know,” the man said. “Whatever you do for the Lord, I’m behind you 1,000 percent.”“Even as I write these words, my eyes fill with tears,” says Crabb, who has since become a bestselling book author, psychologist, and speaker. “Those words were life words. They had power. They reached deep into my being.”

From Larry Crabb & Dan Allender, Encouragment: The Unexpected Power of Building Others Up, Harper Collins, 2013.

The Dart-Board

The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister recounts a story she once heard by a communications professor, which she said fundamentally changed the way she thought about success and failure:

A young boy was given a dartboard for Christmas one year and he instantaneously began playing with it. In a complete shock, his first dart hit the bull’s-eye. Surprised and excited, the father yanked the child’s mother from the other room in time to watch the young boy throw a second bull’s eye! At this point, the father gathered the entire family to watch him throw the third dart. Amazingly, he did it again. A third bull’s eye!

At that point, the boy stopped throwing the darts, and promptly shelved the dart board. Over and over again the family pleaded with him to throw another dart, but he refused to do so. As Chittister said in retelling the story, “The child with the dartboard knew what his father did not intuit: A record like his could only be shattered, not enhanced. From now on he could only be known for losing because he could never win so much again.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., source material from Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2015, p.61, The Crown Publishing Group.

Embracing Failure

A common trait of human beings is a fear of failure. Most of us find ways of coping with it, but whenever failure rears its ugly head, it’s difficult not to experience the sting of feeling like we are not good enough. Recently, a Canadian woman has attempted to make failing less private, less shameful, thereby enabling folks to develop more resilience. Ashley Good started her professional career with Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) in Ghana, where I imagine she probably experienced her fair share of “failures.” Her response to the often demoralizing experience of regular failure: start a report called

From this auspicious start in the failure world, she founded Fail Forward, a consultancy with the mission to help organizations develop cultures that encourage the risk taking, creativity, and continuous adaptation required for innovation. In her own words, “Fail Forward was created with the belief that dealing with failure intelligently will be the driver we need to improve the way we learn, innovate, and find the agility to stay relevant and competitive. In many ways, our relationship with failure either unlocks our full potential, or keeps us from ever realizing it.”

As the keynote speaker at FailCon Oslo (Yes, not only is there a FailCon, but there are many different iterations), Good asked the audience what words they associated with the word failure. The words spoken were unsurprising: fear, shame, sadness, desperation, panic, and heartbreak. Next she held up the EWB failure report, which included fourteen failures over the past year.

Then she asked the very same audience which words they would use to describe the report and the people who submitted the stories. On this occasion, very different words were used: generous, helping, brave, knowledgeable and courageous. The point was clear: the words we use to describe our failures are very different from the words others, viewing us from the outside, would describe them. For the individuals and organizations that were strong enough to share their failures, it led to a paradoxical effect: people actually trusted them more.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

A Lifetime of Failure…Until Great Success

When he was 7 years old, his family was forced out of their home because of a legal technicality. He had to work to help support them.

At age 9, while still a backward, shy little boy, his mother died.

At 22, he lost his job as a store clerk. He wanted to go to law school, but his education was not good enough.

At 23, he went into debt to become a partner in a small store. Three years later his business partner died, leaving him a huge debt that took years to repay.

At 28, after developing a romantic relationship with a young lady for four years, he asked her to marry him. She said no. An earlier youthful love he shared with a lovely girl ended in heartache at her death.

At 37, on his third try, he was finally elected to Congress. Two years later he ran again and failed to be reelected. I should add it was about this time he had what some today would call a nervous breakdown.

At 41, adding additional heartache to an already unhappy marriage, his 4-year-old son died.

The next year he was rejected for Land Officer.

At 45, he ran for the Senate again and lost.

Two years later, he was defeated for nomination for Vice President.

At 49, he ran for the Senate again . . . and lost again.

Add to this an endless barrage of criticism, misunderstanding, ugly and false rumors, and deep periods of depression and you realize it’s no wonder he was snubbed by his peers and despised by multitudes, hardly the envy of his day.

At 51, however, he was elected President of the United States . . . but his second term in office was cut short by his assassination. As he lay dying in a little rooming house across from the place where he was shot, a former detractor (Edwin Stanton) spoke the fitting tribute I quoted at the top of this devotional. By now you know it was spoken of the most inspirational and highly regarded president in American history. Abraham Lincoln.

Charles R. Swindoll, Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life, Zondervan, 2007.

“Now You Can Write Your Book”

Had it not been for a confident wife, Sophia, we might not have listed among the great names of literature the great name of Nathaniel Hawthorne. When Nathaniel, a heartbroken man, went home to tell his wife that he was a failure and had been fired from his job in a customhouse, she surprised him with an exclamation of joy. “Now,” she said triumphantly, “you can write your book!”

“Yes,” replied the man, with sagging confidence, “and what shall we live on while I am writing it?”

To his amazement, she opened a drawer and pulled out a substantial amount of money. “Where on earth did you get that?” he exclaimed.

“I have always known you were a man of genius,” she told him. “I knew that someday you would write a masterpiece. So every week, out of the money you gave me for housekeeping I saved a little bit. So here is enough to last us for one whole year.”

From her trust and confidence came one of the greatest novels of American literature, The Scarlet Letter.

David Jeremiah, The Power of Encouragement (Vision House Publishing, 1994)

Sour Grapes

Remember Aesop’s Fox? Having spied some ripening grapes on a lofty branch, he tried with all his might to jump and take them. Once it dawned on him that he would not—could not—succeed, sulked away, saying, I’m sure they’re sour anyway. What about the reaction of the schoolboy whose fame owing a cut finger suddenly waned when Tom Sawyer showed up with a new “talent,” having just endured the trial of having his pulled?

But all trials bring their compensations. As Tom wended to school after breakfast, he was the envy of every boy he met because the gap in his upper row of teeth enabled him to expectorate in a new and admirable way-He gathered quite a following of lads interested in the exhibition; and one that had cut his finger and had been a centre of fascination and homage up to this time, now found himself suddenly without an adherent, and shorn of his glory.

His heart was heavy, and he said with a disdain which he did not feel that it wasn’t anything to spit like Tom Sawyer, but another boy said, “Sour grapes!” and he wandered away a dismantled hero.

Gregg A. Ten Elshof, I told me so: Self  Deception and the Christian Life, Eerdmans, 2009. Source Material: Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1992)

When Failure Launches our Greatest Success

Sometimes God takes our greatest failures and turns them into our greatest successes. Charles “Chuck” Colson had risen the ladder of national political success at breakneck speed. After a tour in the Marines, Colson served in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ran a political campaign, and joined a law firm before becoming special counsel to the President (Richard Nixon) in 1969, at the ripe old age of 38. And then it all came crashing down, as Colson was sent to prison for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. As one pastor put it, Colson’s (former) career was over, but his calling was just beginning.

While in prison, Colson converted to Christianity and began working alongside his fellow prisoners. His passion for his faith and his fellow prisoners birthed Prison Fellowship. Seeing firsthand the injustices in the American prison system, Colson fought for the rights of the incarcerated, including widespread penal justice reform. But that isn’t all. Prison Fellowship has created a number of programs to help inmates, including training to experience healing and wholeness, with the intention of lowering the rate of recidivism (returning to prison). Today, Prison Fellowship serves in all 50 states in the U.S., impacting more than 1,000 prisons and over 365,000 incarcerated men and women each year.

In his 1983 book Loving God, Colson shares the realization that his legacy came not from his successes, but from his failures:

 “The real legacy of my life was my biggest failure – that I was an ex-convict.  My great humiliation – being sent to prison – was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one experience in which I could not glory for His glory.”

Stuart Strachan Jr. Quote from Charles Colson, Loving God, Zondervan, Reprint, 2018.


A 12 Million Dollar Education

Tom Watson, Sr., is the man who founded IBM. You can imagine the money, the investments, the experiments, this man, and his multi-billion dollar company have made through the years. Once, years ago, when a million dollars was still a million dollars, Watson had a top junior executive who spent $12 million of the company’s money on a venture that failed.

The executive put his resignation on Watson’s desk saying, “I’m sure that you want my resignation.” Watson roared back:, “No I don’t want your resignation. I’ve just spent $12 million educating you. It’s about time you get to work.

Andy Cook

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