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How To Succeed In Failure By Really Trying

Matthew 10:5-20

We have before us today one of the most touching scenes in all of Scripture…

Jesus is sending out the twelve disciples. He loves them so much, cares for them so deeply, is so concerned about them that He gives them parting instructions—instructions which are gentle and caring and superbly practical. He is rather like a mother sending her child to the first day of first grade. He says, “Don’t go too far—you’re not ready to take on the Gentiles and Samaritans yet. Keep the message brief and to the point—the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Be helpful—and make no charge for your services. Travel light, no extra baggage, and don’t take a lot of cash. When you come to a town, find some nice folks and stay with them. A person is known by the company he keeps. Mind your manners and bless those whom you encounter. Always be on your guard, for you will be like innocent sheep in the midst of a world of wolves. And keep your wits about you. If you get into a situation where you do not know what to say, think of the things we have shared together and God will give you the words to speak. Then this one other word: when you fail, shake the dust of the place where you have failed off your feet and then go on.”

Now all of those instructions are worthy of our study. But the one I would focus on today is the last one and this wise and wonderful word about failure. Jesus says: “When you fail, shake the dust off your feet and go on.” Tucked away in those words is the secret of “how to succeed in failure by really trying.” For here…

Jesus frees us to fail.

He is saying to the disciples then and to us now: “Everybody blows it once in a while. No one is a winner all the time. I expect you to fail and I accept that failure. But when you fail—not if you fail, but when you fail, shake the dust off your feet and go on.” In other words, “Not to win is not a sin.”

Whenever I think of those words, I think of the experience of Peter. You remember how at the Last Supper, he promised Jesus that he would not deny Him and yet within just a few hours, he had done it three times. He was then so overwhelmed with a sense of his own failure that the Scriptures say, “he went out into the night and wept bitterly.” But then remember how Jesus and Peter met after our Lord’s resurrection. Jesus then said to Peter: “Peter, feed my sheep.” With that single word of encouragement and acceptance, Jesus was helping Peter to turn his back on his failures and He was sending Peter off into a glorious new future. He was saying to Peter: “You have failed—so what else is new? Forward march!”

You see, failing to Jesus doesn’t mean that you are a failure, but rather that you have experienced a failure. It doesn’t mean that you’ve accomplished nothing—it means that you’ve learned something. To Christ, your failing means not that you don’t have it, but that you will have to go by another way—not that you are inferior, but that you aren’t perfect—not that you’ve wasted your life, but that you now have a reason for starting again—not that you will never make it, but that it will take just a little longer—not that you should give up, but that you should try harder.

Lou Holtz is the head football coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks. He is not only a fine coach, but I know him to be a splendid Christian, one who takes his faith seriously. And with his marvelous wit, he manages to put the teachings of Jesus in easily understood terms. Referring to this particular word of Jesus, Holtz says: “Don’t let failure get you down—remember that Babe Ruth struck out more than 1300 times!” Think of that, for all of Babe Ruth’s astonishing hitting records, 1330 times he went down swinging. I had never been aware of that fact until Lou Holtz said it, but I was delighted to learn it. Because of the failures I have encountered in life, I somehow find it heartening to realize that Babe Ruth failed at the plate many more times than he succeeded.

I find it even more heartening to read the words of Jesus. He frees us to fail. He says, “When you fail…” Christ expects us to fail and He accepts us in our failure. Now even if Jesus had left it there, that in itself would be Good News for us, would it not? Ah, but He did not leave it there.

Jesus also frees us to rise above failure.

He says, “When you find yourself caught in a failing situation, don’t carry it with you. Shake off the dust of that failure.”

Most of us don’t do that. We have a tendency to chew on our failures, to masticate our mistakes, to gum them over and over again. But it does no good whatever for us to replay the details of our failures. Jesus says: “It’s done. Don’t worry yourself sick over it. Don’t let it get you down. Shake off the dust.”

Now there are some students of Scripture who doubt that Jesus actually spoke these
words. They say that it encourages a most impolite and insulting gesture, and therefore is contrary to the spirit and example of Jesus. But I disagree with that. In the first place, the manuscript support for the saying is rather good. But more to the point, there is good evidence that the gesture of shaking off the dust was employed in Jesus’ day as a figure of speech, roughly equivalent to “Let bygones be bygones.” So what Jesus was doing was protecting His disciples in advance from worrying about their failures. He knew that they would be filled with anxiety when they did not meet with success. So He said to them in advance, “You’re going to have failures, but don’t fret over them. You can rise above them. When you fail, fail forward.”

Now that phrase “to fail forward” actually came from a man named Charles Kettering. He was research chief for many years at General Motors. He invented things like the self-starter, the duco paint finish, high octane gasoline, and dozens of other things. In fact, many regard him as our greatest inventor after Thomas Edison. He said that in the course of all of his research and experimentation, he had failed countless numbers of times, but he tried always to fail forward. He said, “I never surrender leadership in my life to my failures.” That’s what Jesus says. “Shake off the dust of your failures. Don’t let them control you.”

To know that my Lord anticipates my failures, that He expects them and accepts them, and that He has issued instructions to cover what to do when they occur is Good News to my ears and to my heart. You see, I am 40 years old and I am presently engaged in reviewing my past 15 years in the ministry. There has been more joy in those years than you could ever imagine. But there’s also the realization that there have been some failures. And I could get downright discouraged when I recall that Galileo was but 18 when he discovered the principle of the pendulum, that Lafayette was made general of the whole French Army at age 20, that Gladstone was a leader of Parliament before he was 22, that Martin Luther was just 29 when he nailed “the Ninety-Five Theses” to the cathedral door, that Alexander the Great had conquered the known world by age 33, and that Shakespeare wrote his masterpieces prior to age 36. Yes, that could be discouraging to me were it not for the fact that Jesus said that His disciples would fail many times, and that in such circumstances they were not to give in or give up.

Do you remember the scene in the Old Testament when the children of Israel were escaping from Egypt and the Egyptian armies were pursuing them? The children of Israel were being led by a great cloud’ during the day. There was one point when the Egyptians had almost caught up with the Israelites, and just at that moment, the cloud which had been leading them went from in front of them to a position behind them, to protect them. Later on, the prophet Isaiah quoted God referring to that incident in the wilderness and saying: “I, the Lord thy God, shall be thy rearguard.” We often think of God going ahead of us. We need also to remember that God is behind us, protecting us from our past, keeping the failures of yesterday from intruding into our lives today.

I believe I am far within the mark when I say that if some of those now hearing my voice would learn to trust the Lord as their rearguard, as the One who will close the door on yesterday—if they could only learn that, they would be able to move into tomorrow with the kind of dynamic power which now they only dream about. But there is yet one thing more:

Jesus frees us to move beyond failure.

He says, “When you encounter failure, shake the dust off your feet and move on.” In other words, He says, “You are going to fail sometimes. When you do, rise above the failure and move on to something else.”

It was T. E. Lawrence who said that ultimately you can divide people into two groups—the daydreamers and the night dreamers. The night dreamers are those who dream in the dusty recesses of their minds, but with the coming of the dawn, the dream is gone. However, daydreamers, Lawrence said, are those who dream with their eyes wide open, those who see the great possibilities in what they are dreaming. Those are the ones who accomplish the most in life—the ones who dream great dreams about tomorrow, and then, unhindered by their past, work to make the dreams come true.

Benjamin Franklin expressed it this way. “Those people who try many things make many mistakes. But they do not make the biggest mistake of all, which is try nothing.” James B. Conant, once President of Howard University, said; “Behold the turtle: he only makes progress when he sticks his neck out!” Those are variations on the theme of Jesus—”When you fail, shake off the dust and move on to something else.” The way to overcome failure is to keep trying to move beyond it. One illustration of that, please…

I think here of a young man who grew up out west and wanted to be an artist, a painter. So together with a friend, he went to New York City to study art. He and his friend lived in a one-room, cold-water apartment, and they had grave difficulty making enough money to keep body and soul together. The art lessons were not going too well and money was in short supply. One night they were talking about their problems and the friend said to this fellow, “Look, you’re a handsome guy and you’ve got a good voice. Why don’t you go to the theatres and see if you can pick up a bit part in a play and earn enough money to continue the art classes?” “Oh,” this fellow said, “I couldn’t do that. I’ve never even been in a play.” His friend said, “What difference does it make? All you can do is fail.” He thought about that and realized it was true. So he went to a number of theatres and the response was always the same. “We’ll give you a part if you get some training at the Institute of Dramatic Art.” He decided that was worth a try, so he enrolled. In his first class, he was given an assignment by the professor: “Act out some poem that you know.” He only knew one poem—Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” So very tentatively he started to act out the poem. “No,” said the professor. “Let yourself go. All you can do is fail.” Now that was the second time someone had said that to him. So why not let loose? He did. He began to swoop around the room with arms spread wide, lunging at the audience and sounding out the words, “Nevermore! Nevermore!” He said later that it was the most magnificently free feeling he had ever known. It was such a thrill, in fact, that he put away his paints and as far as I know never took them up again. What he discovered was that being free to fail and being willing to move beyond that failure opened up to him a glorious new opportunity. His subsequent career in drama is well-known to us. His name is Robert Redford.


I come to this pulpit to say that the Gospel, the Good News for today is that God speaks to us through the lips of His Son, “I know that sometimes in life you will fail. I expect that and I accept that and you ought to accept it, too. But when you do fail, shake the dust off your feet, close the door on your past mistakes and march on. Keep trying, keep marching on, because out there ahead of you are new worlds for you to conquer.”

It’s important for you to learn that. You see, for several weeks now, I have been trying to help you see just how important you are to God and to this world. So believe it! You are of infinite value to God. You are a joy to our Lord’s heart. You are special. You are a jewel, unique, priceless. You are God’s masterpiece. He has written His name across your life. I don’t care how you feel this morning, believe it! I don’t care how many times you feel that you have failed in the past, believe it! It’s like the bumper sticker says, “God don’t make no junk!” And God, my friends—God made you.

Never forget that.

No matter what happens…

Never forget that.

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