Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 11, 2014

Stumbling Block Or Stepping Stone?: Reframing our perspective on failure

This past weekend I read through a collection of writings and prayers by Mother Theresa. In one of her writings she had this to say about the practice of confessing our sins and shortcomings:

If we undertake this task with greater faithfulness, perhaps we will realize that what we sometimes consider a stumbling block is rather a rock we can step on.

I underlined numerous insights in her book, but for some reason this quote stuck with me the most. I suspect that this insight resonates with me because I am in a season of life where I am coming face to face with my limitations. The idealism and invincibility of my youth has past, and the wisdom and experience that comes with age has not yet arrived. In the past three years I have become a new parent, a new homeowner, and a relatively new pastor. With new ventures in life come new challenges to face. This inevitably involves a lot of trial and error. In recent months I have failed to fix a leaky pipe, almost electrocuted myself twice while re-wiring our kitchen, unsuccessfully attempted to quell the temper tantrum of a toddler on numerous occasions, and have claimed defeat on a couple of ministry ideas at the church that weren’t quite the right fit for our congregation.

Of course, thirty year olds do not hold a corner on the failure market. Every season of life comes with new challenges. Failure is an inevitable part of the human experience. The variable that we can control, however, is how we respond to these failures!

Sometimes we approach our failures as stumbling blocks. Our mistakes can fuel the fire of negative self-talk. They can reinforce our insecurity and make us feel as if there is no hope of moving forward. I rarely survive an encounter with power tools without belittling myself with rather colorful comments about my uselessness and idiocy. I have learned to save these projects for after James goes down for bed, so that I do not model this kind of behavior!

Sometimes, though, there is more at stake than the success of a home repair project. When we fail at our job we might start to question our vocational decisions. When we make mistakes in our relationships we might become fearful that we will end up alone. When we fail morally we might feel hopeless about our ability to overcome unhealthy behavior.

However, there is another way to respond to failure. As Mother Theresa suggests, our failures can often act as stepping stones. This image suggests that our mistakes can lead us on an upward trajectory. They provide a context for us to grow and move forward in life.

Failure is formative on a lot of levels. On a practical level failure helps us develop knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work. When a particular approach to disciplining our kids does not work we can file that away and look for other ideas, or when a project at work doesn’t succeed as expected we can avoid it in the future. On a deeper level, though, failure can shape our character. Most of the virtues that are promoted in scripture cannot be achieved without a certain degree of failure. It is impossible to be humble if we have never come to terms with our brokenness and limitations. It is hard to have empathy for others if we cannot relate to their struggles and shortcomings. It is not necessary to trust in God if we feel like we are self-sufficient.

This perspective on failure leads Thomas Merton to make this audacious claim:

“At all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”

What I think this means is that we need to create a culture in our homes, workplaces, churches, and communities where there is freedom to fail. Without the grace and freedom to make mistakes we will not be able to develop character, take creative risks, and grow.

Jesus models this for us in the gospels. When you think about it, his disciples failed a lot. They lacked faith, they overlooked the needy, they disobeyed his teaching, and they abandoned him in his time of need. Yet, Jesus continues to work with them and use them to build his kingdom. He even reinstates his most impulsive and unreliable disciple at the end of the gospel and calls Peter his rock. I believe the failures in Peter’s past were necessary prerequisites for his ability to lead the church in the future. These failures did not disqualify him; rather, they shaped him to be formative leader.

Our ability to be honest about our limitations and grow from our mistakes is made possible in a culture of grace. This type of grace is found in Christ. I love how we begin our prayer of confession each week during our worship service with the words, “thank you God that we can by faith approach you with freedom and confidence in your goodness.” My prayer is that you might experience freedom and confidence as you come to terms with your shortcomings this week. As you undertake this task, perhaps you might see how the things you consider stumbling blocks might actually be stepping stones!


  1. I appreciate your humility in sharing some of your failures, which most of us can identify with (except being electrocuted twice). You always bring us around to Hope. Thank you for that.

  2. Louella kindly reminded me that electrocution usually means that you die – so this article has been updated to say “almost electrocuted.” Twice I touched a live wire that sent me jumping across the room!

  3. Thank you Phil for an excellent article! Maybe we, the congregation, are failing by not giving you positive feedback and encouragement – whether the idea or program is a success or not a success (I don’t like the word failure). I do believe that as we get older (more experienced) we are better at accepting less then perfection and we learn not to be so hard on ourselves. There probably could be another blog about not defining ourselves by our work or our accomplishments. One final word: Hire an electrician!

    • Thanks Louella. We have a lot of people who have the gift of encouragement here at the church, so do know that I feel very supported by you and many others! I agree that naming things correctly is important. A lot of times we are our own worst enemies and sometimes our perspective is filtered through unnecessary negative self-talk that is rooted in things like perfectionism and so on! Maybe another follow-up blog would be about not taking ourselves so seriously! I know I need to learn that. Take care!

  4. When one is able to receive much needed Grace, then one is also able to give it away.It is a beautiful balance and you are allowing that balance to more and more permeate your walkabout with YAHSHUA.

  5. Age has no corner on failure, my list is much longer than yours. God just wants us, not our puny human sucess. Be encouraged…………..

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Phil. I’ve reread it several times to ponder how it applies in my life.

      • Thanks for engaging with the blog Stan. Take care!

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