Fear and Failure

Exodus 3:7-10, 4:13
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At Grace, we are in a series of sermons looking at some of the most common fears that we all live with. One of the most repeated phrases in the Bible is do not be afraid and the repetition of do not be afraid tells us two things. First, it tells us that God’s dream for our lives is not found in fear. Our anxieties, worries, and fears are not supposed to be the defining feature of our lives. The second thing the repetition of do not be afraid in the Bible tells us that we need this reminder, often. There are a lot of fears and worries that we live with and because of that we need God to tell us do not be afraid.

The fear that we are going to be looking at this weekend is extremely common, in fact it’s one of the most common sources of anxiety that we have, which is odd because even with how common this fear is, we rarely talk about our fear of failure. 

A few weeks ago as this series of sermons got started, you might remember that we talked a little bit about the fight or flight response. We have this early warning system, kind of like an internal fire alarm that helps to keep us safe. Through evolution, our fight or flight response helps to keep us protected and it really is a good gift from God that our bodies can respond to stressful and dangerous situations before we are even consciously aware of how our heart rate and blood pressure are changing. 

What gets tricky with our fight or flight response is that the same physiological response that protected our ancient ancestors from lions and tigers and bears can also be triggered by our imagination. This early warning system can be set off by lion crouching in the distance just like it can be set off by standing behind someone in the 10 items or less isle when they have 19 things but you only have 3. The levels of stress aren’t even comparable because if you’re being hunted by a lion, you are lunch, but if you’re at the store you shopping for lunch, and yet, our psychological response to anxiety and fear, real or imagined, is the same.

Perhaps our biggest struggle with failure is that it’s easy to imagine but difficult to define. The easiest way to define failure is to say that it’s a lack of success, but what does that lack look like for you? I’ll just speak for myself, but before I go any further, trust me when I say I’m not fishing for compliments. At the very least, I know I’m not terrible at what I do and at the very least I’m tolerable because people keep showing up. When it comes to speaking in public, I know I do a decent job, and yet, I can always think of something that I could have done better. I can’t help but wonder if someone caught that in the second sentence I stumbled through my words and because of that I’ll never succeed.

That’s a failure that I made up in my mind and every week I think of something that I didn’t quite say right, or something that I could have explained with better clarity,  and because I don’t feel like I got things completely right, I feel like I am utterly wrong and that I should end most sermons by saying I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better next week. I will fully admit to my own neurotic obsession with sermons because I never wrestle with the fear of failure more than right now.

I don’t remember this as much as I should, but it’s wroth reminding ourselves that sometimes our idea of failure might not be all that different than someone else’s idea of success.

There are over 7.5 billion people in the world and with that scale it’s hard to imagine how our lives compare to one another’s. But if we shrink that down to a world of  100 people, 18 people wouldn’t have any access to electricity and 14 would not be able to read or write. Only 7 people would have a college degree and 60 people would not have internet access. If the world was 100 people, 78 of us would have a home but 22 would not with 91 of us would have access to safe drinking water but 9 of us would not have clean, safe water to drink. (https://www.100people.org/statistics-100-people/)

If we think of success in terms of health, education, and safety, how many of us are the pinnacle of success? I might stumble through my words and every week I can only imagine how many of you see the sweat stains of my shirt grow throughout the sermon because I can’t help but think about how many of you might be noticing that I sweat under these lights, which only makes me sweat more. I can get stuck in that thought trap of failure, without remembering that I have a home, I can read and write, I have a masters degree, and I’ve never had to worry about not having access clean water or a place to live. 

Perhaps it’s not that we’re afraid of failure as much as we are afraid of feeling like we’ve been a disappointment, maybe it’s that we’re afraid of shame.

The psychologist Guy Winch writes, “Shame is a psychologically toxic emotion because instead of feeling bad about our actions (guilt) or our efforts (regret), shame makes us feel bad who we are. Shame gets to the core of our egos, our identities, our self-esteem, and our feelings of emotional well-being.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201306/10-signs-you-might-have-fear-failure)

Guilt is the reminder that we made a mistake while shame is the feeling that we are a mistake.

After writing eleven books and winning numerous award, Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Shortly before his death in 1955, Albert Einstein said, “I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler”.

It is difficult to imagine a more inspiring poet or successful scientist, and yet both Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou felt like frauds, like their lives and talents were a mistake. What they are both expressing isn’t just the fear of failure, it’s the other shoe that drops with our fear of failure, what’s commonly known as imposter syndrome. 

When we are afraid of failing it is easy for us to assume that our accomplishments are an accident. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70% of us, myself included, live with what is academically known as impostorism or the imposter phenomenon. The psychologist Pauline Rose Clance was the first to study this imposter phenomenon in the late 70s. She noticed that several of her students shared the same concern, even though they all had good grades, mostly A’s, many of her students didn’t believe they deserved their spots at the university, some even believed that their admission had been an error and it was only a matter of time until their scholarships were revoked. Pauline Rose Clance knew these students well and she also knew that their fears of failure and fraud were unfounded, but she could also remember feeling the same way when she was in graduate school.

Academically, this feeling of being a fraud or imposter is known as impostorism or the impostor phenomenon because psychologists have recognized that to call it imposter syndrome is to downplay how universal this feeling is. Feeling like an imposter isn’t a disease or abnormality, and it isn’t even, necessarily, linked to feelings of anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem. The examples of Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein remind us that there is no threshold of accomplishment that puts our fears to rest. They are two of the most successful people I can think of, but they still thought they lacked true success and only stumbled into their lives by accident. Those intrusive thoughts of, I just got lucky, other people could do this better, I’m faking my way through this, can’t someone else do it, just keep creeping into our minds. Which is what we see in our reading today. 

At the beginning of Exodus 3, Moses is taking care of the flock for his father-in-law, Jethro. When the Bible gives a detail that, it’s usually a good idea to ask why is Moses is doing this now, what was Moses doing before? Let’s back up a little bit to Exodus – Moses is an Israelite, but the Pharaoh in Egypt is afraid of the Israelites rising up against the slavery that has been forced upon them. The Pharaoh’s fears reach a terrible conclusion, which often happens when we abuse one another because we’re afraid of one another, and the Pharaoh commands that every Egyptian baby boy be put to death. A couple of midwifes, Shiphrah and Puah, practice civil disobedience, they break the law to do the right thing, and protect the Israelites in Egypt. While Moses is a baby, his mother puts him in a basket and sends him down the river, conveniently floating by the Pharaoh’s daughter while she’s taking a bath. Moses is adopted into the Pharaoh’s family, raised with wealth, prestige, and power, never knowing the injustice that made the opulence of the Pharaoh’s family possible. But one day, when Moses was around 40, he goes for a walk and leaves his neighborhood to see what life is like on the other side of the tracks. On that day, Moses sees an Egyptian slave master beating a Hebrew slave and Moses fights on behalf of the slave, killing the slave master. Moses, at the very least, commits manslaughter, and flees Egypt because he’s afraid of what will happen to him.

This is what eventually leads Moses to be a shepherd, taking care of sheep on behalf of his father-in-law, Jethro. 

One day, while tending to the flock, Moses is walking with the sheep through the wilderness, Moses notices a bush that’s burning, which ins’t all that odd in the deserts of the near east, after all, it’s a desert, the grasses and bushes in the desert are dry and it only takes a spark to get the fire going. But Moses lingers for a bit and notices that while the bush is burning, it’s not being burned up.

This is a pretty big grilling weekend, so let’s imagine that you are spending some time around a grill, how long would you have to watch that the flames to notice how the charcoal was being consumed? It’s one thing to notice a flame, it’s another to pay attention. It’s as if this passage is reminding us that there is potential and possibility all around us, as some have said, bushes are burning everywhere, we just have to notice them.

Moses pays attention and because of that there is this holy moment where God cries out and invites Moses to lead the people into freedom. God says beginning Exodus 3:7, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to tale them out of the land and bring them to a good and pray land, a land that is full of milk and honey…So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

For the rest of Exodus 3 and into chapter 4, Moses comes up with excuses as to why he can’t do what God has told Moses he must do until Moses finally says, “Please, my Lord, just send someone else.”

In her book, How to Fail Elizabeth Day writes, “Adventures do by definition involve risk, but not having an adventure means missing out on life, a far greater risk.”

Moses would rather miss out on his life than trust that God will be with him through the risk. Moses would rather listen to his own imagined fears of failure that listen to the voice of God that says don’t be afraid.

Moses, it seems, is so afraid of failure that he’s afraid to take a risk. Even though it is the right thing to do, even though God says to Moses I will be with you, God says to Moses I’ll make sure Aaron is with you every step of the way, Moses is still afraid to take that step forward, Moses is afraid of the risk.

Maybe it’s not just that Moses is afraid of failure, Moses might even be afraid of success. The status quo can be easy. When life is only the way life is, even when it’s disappointing you can prepare yourself for the let down. When you think you’re not going to do well in an interview it’s easier to overthink what kind of handshake you’re going to have or to dwell on what you’re going to wear than it is to actually prepare for the interview.

Moses knows exactly what they need to do, he’s been told don’t be afraid, Moses has been told that Aaron is going to help him along the way, all Moses has to do is try, and it’s the one thing that he keeps trying to not do. 

Some of you know that I like to ride my bike and that I’ve been on RAGBRAI a few times. The first time I went on RAGBRAI, members of my team kept telling me about rookie mistakes and all the ways that new riders cause accidents and I told myself that’s not going to happen to me. If you’ve never been on RABGRAI, here’s two mistakes that my team told me most first time rider makes – slipping their chain and not getting to the side of the road to fix it. I thought to myself, I might be a rookie on RAGBRAI, but I’m an old soul so everything will be fine. On the first day, with the first hill we rode up, I slipped my chain and got stuck in the middle of the road.

Compared to Moses leading the Israelites into freedom, that’s a minuscule failure, but it was more than enough to make me want to quit. Moses had a burning bush, the voice of God, the promise that he didn’t have to be afraid because God would be with him and Aaron would be too, and Moses still tried to say no – all I had was a little embarrassment. Clearly I’m still not stuck in the middle of the road, I got back on my bike and life went on, but I can remember that failure more than any of the other hills we rode on because that time I failed and I made it up the hill every other time without any problems. We seem to remember our failures more than our successes, in part, so we can learn from them, so when a similar situations arises we can learn to fail better, but we also remember our failures more than our successes because how often do we let ourselves savor a success? When something goes right, do you think about how it could have been better or do you let yourself appreciate and cherish the moment? Gratitude, being mindful and thoughtful of what we are thankful for is both a therapeutic and a faithful way that we can confront our fears of failure. So take the time to be grateful this week. 

Just like Moses, we can all come up with excuses as to why we’re not the one to do what God is asking us to do. We can act like our schedule isn’t flexible enough, maybe like Moses we can tell ourselves that we’re too old, we can think we don’t have the right skills or talents and we don’t have the ability to learn the ones we need.

You can try to come up with whatever excuse you need to, but what’s true of Moses is true of you – you are called to make a difference, to witness to and share the liberation and love of God, and you are not alone, so don’t be afraid.

But you know what? Moses still had moments of failure. Not too longer after Moses lead the people into freedom they wanted to turn around. Moses tried to convince the people to keep going, and he could for a bit, but because Moses was trying to be a Lone Ranger, forgetting that even the Lone Ranger had Tonto, Moses failed again and again and again. Moses failed, but Moses also learned from each failure and kept taking another step further to find their way closer to the promised land. 

You will fail, and if it hasn’t happened yet there will come a time where I fail you. Sometimes a failure might be a misunderstanding, other times failure could be not living up to whatever you idea of success is, and there will also be times where you fail and fall on your face. It’s going to happen, you can’t stop it, but you can learn from it.

The failures that you are going through now could be the fuel that finally gets you to where you are going. 

Failure, just like our fear of it, is universal and unavoidable. It’s going to happen and we are going to be afraid, but God is still with us, the bush is still burning, and you don’t have deal with your failures alone.

And it’s with all of this in mind that I want to talk about a current failure I’m trying to work my way through. I don’t know what might come to mind for you when you think about a pastor failing, but I can’t imagine that it’s anything good because whatever failures we imagine are always worst case scenarios. Whatever failure you might be thinking about, the failure that I’m going to tell you about probably isn’t as bad – so here it is – with our staff and a small group of folks that represent some of the cross sections of Grace, we’re recognizing that our church can be very segmented so if you find yourself connected in one part of the church you might have no idea what’s going on in another part of the church. We’re also seeing how we’ve struggled to connect people to the groups and missions that we have in the church and it’s been even more of a struggle to empower you to dream and try new things.

If you are new to Grace right now, you might not have the whole history, but before I became the pastor here are Grace, the congregation took a survey that pointed towards these conclusions, after that we worked with a consultant to see what first time guests thought of Grace, which only amplified these issues, and since then we had a pandemic that we stayed connected through, but with everything that was going on we didn’t have the capacity to deal with this.

Now, if you have been around Grace for awhile, there’s a chance that you might not think this is an issue or a failure at all, and if that’s the kind of place you find yourself in, I’d simply ask that you talk to someone that’s newer to Grace and see how many names other than our staff they know. Hopefully that’s a not so subtle hint that I’m asking you to talk to someone you don’t know today and ask them about your favorite aspect of the church that isn’t a worship service and see if they know how to get involved.

We’ve started to recognized a failure, even calling it a failure makes it sound more harsh than it is, but it’s a reality and it’s something that we need to deal with and grow through by learning from it. But to learn from this, I need your help. I have to believe that there are Moses moments in all of our lives. The bush is always burning, we just have to notice those places where God is leading us. So what is God leading you toward? In your Moses moment, how can we help you take the next step? We can try, we can fail, and we can try again because God is with us and we’re with one another.

What are you interested in, what are you passionate about, how would you like to get connected, what would you like to see Grace get involved with? Last week we talked about the fear of loneliness and I kept thinking to myself, we can’t talk about loneliness without having some sort of social event to help folks get past their loneliness. I thought about picnics, and games, even having a movie on the lawn, we could have organized a bike ride or put on a mission activity to get people working together, but I didn’t know what anyone might be interested in, so I made excuses to myself that it was easier not to try any of those things than to try one of them and be disappointed.

And if we were going to try one of those things, I’d have to ask for help, which isn’t always my strong suit. I can ask for help and I know I need to get better at it, but as a pastor, I know that I can be really good at guilting people into doing something, because, even thought it’s not true, if you say no to me, you’re saying no to the church, which means you are saying no to God and, of course, that means you’re going to get a zit on the tip of your nose because God is angry at you. That’s not true, you can say no to me, but I often find myself stuck thinking through the power dynamics of a pastor and not wanting anyone to feel guilty for being busy and having other priorities. 

Over the summer at Grace, a lot of our regular programming outside of worship is put on pause, and coming out of the pandemic, we’re just not sure what, if anything, you all are interested in right now. So we really need to know, what would you be interested in the rest of the summer, how would you like to get involved, and what do we need to do to help get things started?

I know there are ways that we need to get connected, I know there is more that we can do as a church, I just don’t know what your passions and dreams are, so I need you to let me and our staff know. I need you to listen to that voice of God that reminds you to not be afraid, that inspires you to take the next step because you don’t have to take that step alone.

This Sunday we are sharing communion with one another. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus shares his last supper with the disciples he also takes the time to wash their feet. In the ancient near east, people walked the same roads as animals and they didn’t have boots or shoes, maybe they had sandals, but they didn’t cover much. At the very least, when you entered someones home, your feet were going to be dusty. Sometimes, people would wash their own feet when they entered a home, but if you were with a group and you were the first one to bend down to wash your feet, since you’re already there, you might as well wash everyones feet. It’s kind of like holding a door open for someone, and then another person isn’t that far away so you hold the door open for them. All the disciples walk into the room but no one washes their feet because they don’t want to take care of one another, but Jesus washes all of their feet and then says this is what you must do for one another – as I have loved you, you must love one another.

Jesus knew that all of the disciples were going to fail him that night. Peter was going to deny him, Judas was going to betray him, all of the other disciples were going to flee in fear for what could happen to them, but Jesus didn’t let their failures stop him.

After washing the disciples feet, Jesus says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” I have been stuck by that line, you will be blessed if you do them.

This blessing is not about success or failure, Jesus simply says you will be blessed if you do them, when you love one another, when you live with humility and grace, when you dedicate your life to grace and peace you will be blessed. Jesus asks us to try, so may we be a people who try this week and always​

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Posted by GraceDesMoines on Sunday, July 4, 2021

Guide to Prayer & Study: July 5 – 10, 2021

Click on the day to expand the guide.

Monday

Read Exodus 3:2-4, 9-11, 13, 4:1, 10, 13; Deuteronomy 34:10-12

Notice – Moses had a safe, stable job tending sheep for his father-in-law; God had other plans for Moses’ life. God kept calling as Moses offered excuse after excuse. In the end, Moses left his safe life to answer God’s call, and marched into history trusting God to guide him in leading Israel out of slavery. As you read all of Moses’ reasons for not doing what God was calling him to do, consider which of them most resonate with any fears you face. Ask God to day-by-day help you grow, as Moses did, into a person God can use to serve where you are—your home, workplace, or neighborhood—or in a special mission to which you sense God calling you.

Pray – God, you don’t call all of us to huge, historic missions like the one you gave Moses. But at times your call looks big enough that I get scared. Give me your strength to live for you beyond any of my fears. Amen.

Tuesday

Read1 Samuel 17:4-11, 32-37, 41-45

Notice – In sports or business, we often talk about a “David and Goliath” story when a “little guy” takes on an established power. The Philistine giant, whatever his exact size (ancient manuscripts differ), was big enough to terrify King Saul and the whole Israelite army. But he didn’t scare David. Goliath was no doubt a veteran fighter, but he seemed to count as much or more on insults and intimidation as on his physical skill. As the Philistine poured out scornful insults toward David, the young Hebrew man wasn’t cowed or distracted. To what extent are you able to be “inner directed,” rather than overly sensitive to what others (especially any giants you face) may think of you? What makes that ability important when you’re tempted to feel afraid of failing?

Pray – God, giants don’t always have to be nine feet tall to feel that way to me. Teach me that you are bigger than any human “giant,” and help me “cut them down to size” by trusting in you. Amen.

Wednesday

ReadNumbers 13:27-33; 14:1-3

Notice – As Israel neared the Promised Land, Moses sent 12 men to scout the land (Numbers 13:1-3). When the scouts returned to give their report, ten of them focused on obstacles and problems, and were terrified. Long before David faced Goliath, they were frightened of the “huge men” they saw in the Promised Land. Only Caleb (along with Joshua—Numbers 14:6) focused on God’s promise and power, and pleaded with people to keep moving forward. This story shows two things about fear. First, it’s contagious—the 10 scouts’ fear spread to most of the people. Second, it clouds the ability to think clearly—once afraid, the people thought irrationally, “Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” Can you think of times when fear has magnified a challenge you faced, or led you to a damaging response? How can you avoid being a source of contagious fear for others?

Pray – Jesus, had you been governed by fear, you’d no doubt have stayed safely away from this broken, sometimes hostile planet. Please keep infusing your holy fearlessness into my heart and life. Amen.

Thursday

ReadPsalm 73:1-13, Daniel 8:12-25

Notice – Psalm 73 reflected a spiritual puzzle. People who completely ignored God seemed to be having success—no troubles at all (verses 3-5). If that was the case, maybe serving God was futile (verses 11, 13). Daniel 8’s apocalyptic vision pictured an evil power (probably, originally, the oppressive Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes). Three times it said he would “succeed,” but only in the short term. In the end, “he will be broken—and not by a human hand.” If the evil power in Daniel 8:12-25 was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the “daily sacrifice” likely referred to that king sacrificing a pig on the Temple altar in Jerusalem, deliberately trying to discredit Israel’s God. He was arrogant about his power— “in his own mind, he will be great.” But his army and title did not dethrone God. Can you think of other evil forces that crumbled after seeming success? Can you trust, as James Russell Lowell wrote in “The Present Crisis,” that “behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above [God’s] own”?

Pray – Lord, give me more and more of your eternal perspective on success. Keep my steps from slipping at the times when I see the apparent success of the wicked. Amen.

 

Friday

Read1 Timothy 1:3-5, 4:8-16

Notice – In God’s sweeping story in the Bible, we see that God used people who might have been thought too old (e.g. Abraham, Moses) and others who might have been thought too young (e.g. Jeremiah, Timothy). If you are on the younger end of the age spectrum, do older people ever intimidate you, making you afraid to offer your gifts and insights? If you are on the older end of the spectrum, what helps you resist the urge to look down on younger Christians that might want to try things in new and different ways?

Pray – Jesus, as I live in this age-conscious culture, remind me that from your eternal view, age is one of the least of your concerns. Empower me to live without fear, now and in all the years of earthly life that are left for me. Amen.

Saturday

ReadIsaiah 52:13 – 53:11

Notice – Rabbis debated who Isaiah’s fourth “servant song” was about. The first Christians had no doubt—they quoted this song more than any other verses to describe Jesus’ redemptive suffering. In Jesus, the early Christians saw, God’s servant succeeded by taking the world’s evil and hatred onto himself, and through what looked like failure to human eyes, changed it into a redemptive force. As the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology said, “God’s power is at its greatest not in [Jesus’] destruction of the wicked but in his taking all the wickedness of the earth into himself and giving back love.” * Jesus set the stage for the way New Testament writers applied Isaiah 53 by quoting part of the passage and applying it to himself (cf. Luke 22:37). It all came true in Jesus’ saving death and resurrection, they said. What does Jesus’ way of succeeding in defeating evil as the Suffering Servant tell you about how God defines success? What kinds of evil have you faced? How can Jesus’ example guide you toward the path of genuine success at those times?

Pray – Jesus, you succeeded through self-giving love, through suffering for others and giving your life to offer me life. Reshape any flawed notions of success I may have, and help me to truly succeed by the same divine standards that you did. Amen.

  • T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, ed. The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, p. 222.
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