Proverbs 21:31: The horse is made ready for the day of battle,
but the victory belongs to the LORD. (ESV)

"What if I fail?" This possibility is so frightening for some of us that it is nearly unthinkable. The shade of a notion of the possibility of failure can induce panic or something close to it. Failure is not unique in this regard. The same could be said of many other "what-if's".

And that is the purpose of this series. We will examine various "what-if" statements that often plague us by creating a vague anxiety which can haunt even our dreams.

In fact, I recently had just such a dream. I woke up this morning thinking I had, in fact, failed at something. I dreamed that half of a project I had turned in to be evaluated had received a failing grade and would have to be re-done. I remember doing damage control in my dream, trying to rationalize, trying to excuse myself, trying to re-read and read again the results to see if I could re-interpret them as something other than failure. What did failure mean? Does this mean I don't belong in my job? Does this mean I'm not capable of what I thought I was? Have I been kidding myself about who I am? When I awoke, I felt sad and stressed. 15 minutes later, I realized it had been a dream... or a nightmare.

But so often it's not a dream, and we never actually arrive at a clear point of failure. This post is not about the experience of failure per se but the fear of it.

Defining Failure

What is success? And what is failure? Success may be defined as the fulfillment of a purpose or desire. We make a plan, the plan works, and we call that success. Failure as an experience is the opposite of success. We make a plan, the plan doesn't work. We try something and it doesn't work.

The proverb head at the head of this post can be very encouraging. It encourages us that God is the one in control over our successes, and that he receives all the glory for all our success. This is great news for those of us who believe that our success depends entirely on our own hard work. It doesn't. There are far more factors at work in the outcomes of our investments and preparation than the dynamics we bring.

On the other hand, this proverb can be considered from a different angle. We do not control when we succeed and when we fail. And for those of us who demand control over our successes because the prospect of failure induces anxiety, this is a problem. It means there is no way to guarantee what we demand, and fearful anxiety, though not the only reaction, is a common one.

So this proverb may be considered a blessing or a curse depending on the perspective. In fact, we may even find both in the same person. Pride and the desire for personal glory are prevalent in many of us. For those things which we believe might bring us that glory we need to be able to take credit for our success in order to feel justified in glorifying ourselves. At the same time, for those things which we do not believe will bring us glory or we don't care about, we are only too happy to slough off the blame for our failure.

Why is failure so intimidating to us, so scary, so unacceptable? Perhaps the most likely explanation seems to be that we tend to define ourselves according to our success or failure. We make the categorical error of thinking that to succeed is the same as being a success and that to fail is the same as being a failure. This is our big mistake that makes the question, "What if I fail?" terrifying. Suddenly, our whole sense of self is invested in plans or intentions over which we have only partial control.

I believe part of what we need to understand is this: at the root of much or our fear of failure is the demand to be able to identify as a certain kind of person or as having certain traits. We tend to believe that a certain success counts as evidence for a certain kind of person we desire to be. But if we fail, we do not have the evidence we desire. Even worse, we have positive evidence to the contrary. And as many of us can attest from our personal experience, success tends to be much less convincing evidence than failure.

Those who experience the fear of failure are a bit like surfers riding a huge wave. The main goal is to not fall and be swallowed by the wave. But wave after wave comes, and no matter how many waves we successfully ride there is always the fear that the next one will take us down. And if this is the case, how can this person be helped by the proverb quoted above?

Rethinking Success

This verse teaches us that no amount of preparation, however meticulous or prudent, can guarantee the fruition of our plans. How do we live without control over our circumstances? So much of our fear of failure is summed up in the demand for control. Indeed, this is true for most fears, if not all of them. We want control, and when we see that control is threatened we are frightened by the implications for us.

And this is where the proverb corrects our thinking. We may prepare, we ought to prepare, and we should do so excellently. But the best, most excellent preparation does not guarantee success. Whether we succeed or fail ultimately is decided by Yahweh. This proverb explodes the idea that we can determine our identity according to our successes or failures.

Instead of investing our identity in achieving what we cannot guarantee, the gospel provides a better way. Everywhere in Scripture we are not called to success so much as to faithfulness. Will we trust in and depend on God? Will we cede our demand for personal glory to his demand for all glory? Will we define ourselves by Christ's success and our union with him by faith or will we vainly strive to chart some other path?

This proverb humbles us by reminding us that the glory for our success does not belong to us but to God. When we do succeed in some endeavor in life, we can thank God rather than ourselves. And when we fail, rather than having an identity crisis, we can humbly submit to God in worship rather than chafing at the limits of our control.

How to Live for God Through the Fear of Failure