I have heard sermons about the importance of doing our best to serve our God. But, most often, I hear passages like Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things in Him who strengthens me”—more frequently than ones about how we are to face failures and rejections despite our best efforts. Our culture (including Christian culture) often focuses on and celebrates success rather than a faithful and sincere walk with God in the process of doing one’s best. Yet, there are rich and meaningful lessons and encounters with God in our painful experiences of failure and rejection.
I Fail Hard
Failure and rejection have already become companions in my academic journey, particularly as I am an international Ph.D. student. Because English is not my mother tongue and the US is not my home, frequent failure is an inevitable reality. Before coming to Asbury Theological Seminary for my M.Div. program in preparation for doctoral study, I had been rejected twice because my English was not fluent enough to get in the master’s program. As such, I have taken the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) about ten times before I finally received a satisfactory score for admission. Despite spending months and years studying English, I continued to receive low scores on my exam, and it was painful to receive letters and emails of rejection from the Admissions Office.
Even after I finally made it to the US, failures continued. To mention a couple of my hilarious ones, I once failed to distinguish “s” and “sh” when I pronounced the word, “babysitting,” making my friends burst into laughter and shaming myself. Also, despite having driven a car for more than ten years in Japan, I still failed my US driver’s license test because I did not know the answer for “how to treat horses/horse-carriages” in Kentucky.
As a Ph.D. student, I have failed many times and will continue to fail at various things. Recently, two articles that I submitted for journal publications were both rejected. One of the editors/reviewers commented on my article saying, “your study does not contribute to scholarship.” These kinds of comments sometimes hurt my feelings. It’s as if my hours of sacrifice in research and my desire to serve God in it are in vain. Making this all the more painful is my recognition of the bleak future of job prospects for Ph.D. students. Indeed, I know several Ph.D. graduates in biblical studies whose applications for various teaching positions were rejected more than 100 times! In such a circumstance, there is an ongoing doubt and insecurity about my ability to pursue this path when facing such failures and rejections. What is more painful is that I often feel I am failing not only myself but also others who have chosen to sacrifice themselves and support my study, including my wife and family.
So, I often fail (and fail hard) despite my best effort.
Reactions to Failure and Rejection
When I face repeated failure and rejection, I enter an identity crisis. I start asking myself who I am. I look for ways to compensate for my failure and rejection by shoring up my identity in other matters. One time I felt that I would be worthy if I became active in ministry as I was in Japan; another time I felt that I would be worthy if I did well in my classes. Nevertheless, these were not good solutions.
Our Identity in Christ
While failure, rejection, doubt, insecurity, and all sorts of related feelings will never completely disappear, I have found my identity in Christ. When I realized that my identity is neither in academia nor in ministry, but in my status as a child of God, I was freed from seeking to substitute my failures and rejections with other things. In fact, I encounter God in fresh ways in those painful moments when I embrace my failures and rejections. Failures and rejections do not devalue my worth as a child of God.
Lessons Failure and Rejection Teach
One of the most valuable lessons gleaned from my failures and rejections is that they teach me what I can do and what I cannot do. Having gone through various failures and rejections, I am more aware of what I am called to do as well as what I am not gifted to do because my calling has been refined through the experience of failure and rejection. If our shared journey as children of God is to become who God created us to be, failure and rejection are a valuable means of grace enabling us to know who we really are. Our temptation is be the one with five talents when Jesus has only given us one (cf. Matt 25:14-30). Failure and rejection teach us what we have and what we do not have; however, our worth before God never changes regardless of our given ability and talents. We are still children of God who are precious and worthy before the eyes of our Creator.
No one enjoys failure or rejection. But in spite of the pain and hurt they bring us, we have an opportunity for a rich encounter with God. Let us not turn our failure and rejection into bitterness. When we face failure and learn to work through it, it can be a means of God’s grace to help us realize who God is and who we really are. The result of our best effort may not appear to be the same success our culture celebrates, and our failure and rejection may even look like a defeat in this world. Nevertheless, God will be pleased with the process in which we faithfully and sincerely do our best for Him. When we happen to succeed at something in this world, let us boast only about God’s grace, because our success is often the result of our realization of what we are given by our Creator through our experiences of failure and rejection.
Kei Hiramatsu is a first-time contributor to Soul Care Collective. Thanks, Kei!