When You Feel Like A Failure by Steve Bezner

Memory is a cruel mistress.

When I was in seventh grade, I tried to be funny. It failed. I still physically wince when I remember what I said in front of my friends. It was not funny. It was awkward, at best. More honestly, it was terrible. Offensive, even. I still can’t believe I said those words.

Even odder is that I still remember it. I regretted the words the moment they left my mouth, and now, some 34 years later, I still feel foolish for having uttered them.

As someone who tries mightily to avoid mistakes, this memory still somehow assails me, jumping out at the least opportune moment, bludgeoning my dignity.

And this happened in the seventh grade over something dumb I said.

Since then I have made much more consequential mistakes, much more colossal errors.

When I became a pastor, I envisioned teaching the Bible and making hospital visits, leading worship services and sharing the gospel. I never considered that I would become an organizational leader. More frankly, that wasn’t what I wanted. Perhaps intuitively, I knew that being out front meant being the one to absorb criticism.

And, for me, here’s the odd thing: Criticism doesn’t necessarily bother me. Like anyone else, I don’t enjoy unfounded criticism, but I truly enjoy improving, so I enjoy feedback. I’ve worked harder in recent years to created more spaces and systems for personal feedback, because I want to grow as a pastor and a leader.

The thing I hate isn’t criticism. I hate making mistakes. I hate being wrong. And I really hate remember how wrong I was. Over and over and over.

The thing about those careless words in the seventh grade that bother me so deeply isn’t the actual words I said. It’s that I knew I would regret them before I said them, and then I said them, anyway. I hate making mistakes.

I’m generous with grace to those around me. I’m far less gracious with myself.

I can forgive those who wrong me with relative ease. I can punish myself for a boneheaded mistake for years. 34 years and counting, it seems.

I have made more mistakes as a pastor in the last decade—maybe the last five years—than in the rest of my life combined. Just thinking about some of them makes my face turn red, my eyes cast downward. It’s quite pleasant outside as I type these words, yet an involuntary shudder just shook my body. I hate making mistakes. And I hate that I have made so many of them recently.

I think of decisions I made regarding the church in the wake of Harvey, particularly regarding facilities and our finances. I think of staff debacles that were glaringly obvious to those around me while I continued  to believe the best. I think about families who have left our church for other congregations over the years and wonder if I did something to offend them. (They say no, but I wonder, anyway.) I think about the way I led our church through those early days of COVID and wonder what, if anything, I should have done differently. I think about that journalist.

I think about these—and so many more—things, and I wonder, “Am I a failure?”

I recently sat with some older and wiser church members and confessed all of these emotions.

The wife calmly countered, “If you know you did not intentionally disobey the Lord, then you need to let those mistakes go. That’s all they are: mistakes.”

Almost immediately followed by, “And remember that God gives grace for the rest.”

Talk about a one-two punch of gospel-soaked freedom. I didn’t know that I had been carrying those decisions, but I almost immediately felt physically lighter, like the winds of grace swept them straight from my shoulders.

I had secretly been feeling like a failure, and I didn’t realize it. I had been flagellating myself with honest mistakes—things for which I would have forgiven anyone else. And I was holding on to things for which Jesus had died. And I did those things because I held myself to an impossible standard—perfection.

I imagine you, too, might have fallen prey to the Perfect Game—the elusive search for the version of you that will only exist one day in Glory. I also imagine that you, too, have things you have done about which you are ashamed, things that you remember and wish you could forget, things the Enemy dredges up when you are walking closely with the Lord. I also imagine that you have genuine rebellion in your past—things that were not mistakes but were instead your kicking against the goads when you knew you should be walking with the Spirit.

If your feet and hands are bloody from fighting the grace of God and from beating yourself, might I remind you of a Cosmic Truth?

Yes, you were a spectacular failure.

But the blood of Jesus is the only blood you need on you these days.

You don’t need to kick; his feet have already been pierced for your rebellion.

You don’t need to beat yourself; his body has already taken your punishment.

You don’t need to swat away those lies; his hands are scarred with the truth.

On the days when you feel like a failure, remember the grace of God. Let it pull you back to the Body; allow it to make you one again with the One who fashioned you. Remember that mistakes are not the same as disobedience and remember that even the greatest of your disobediences have been covered by grace.

Remember these things instead.

Memory can be a cruel mistress.

But memory can also lead us to bread and cup, pierced hands and feet, an empty tomb, and the Spirit that gives new life.

Image: Unsplash