Facing our Fear of Failure

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 8, 2015

Psalm 27:1-5, 14; 1 John 4:18 ESV

What are you most afraid of?  The truth is, as humans we are subject to all kinds of fears.  When our fears become excessive or irrational, they are called phobias.

  • some people suffer from hydrophobia, the fear of water
  • others are prone to claustrophobia, the fear of tight or close places
  • some have autophobia, the fear of being alone
  • while others have botanophobia, the fear of plants
  • some have papaphobia, intense fear of the Pope
  • others suffer gamophobia, fear of marriage
  • there is even euphobia, the fear of good news

Hundreds of fears or phobias have been identified, and if you go online to phobialist.com, you, no doubt, may find a phobia or two you didn’t even know you had.  Some years ago, Kevin Wood, a minister friend of mine, coined some phobias of his own.  Kevin has identified:

  • steeplephobia, the fear of going to church
  • volunteerophobia, the fear of being asked to volunteer or do something in the church
  • then there is pulpitphobia, the fear of standing behind a pulpit or preaching.

I am inclined to believe that all of us have fears of one kind or another.  Fear has been with the human race from the beginning.  As the ancient story in Genesis goes, no sooner had Adam eaten the forbidden fruit than we see him hiding and hear him saying to God: “I was afraid . . . and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10).  It is impossible, I suppose, to live in our modern world without some degree of fear.  Perhaps we have a fear of cancer or some other life-threatening illness.  Perhaps we fear nuclear war and the destruction of life as we know it.  As we grow older, we may fear death or running out of money in retirement.  Interestingly enough, the famous monk and Christian thinker, Thomas Merton, said that “the root of all war is fear.”

A bit of healthy fear can be good for us.  Over the years, after having made thousands of home visits, I have learned to have a healthy fear of big, vicious, snarling, teeth-showing dogs.  It is good to have a healthy fear of deep, swift-moving water.  But fear is not good for us when it becomes a crippling obsession.  Our lives are not meant to be controlled by unwarranted or irrational fears.  While working on this sermon, I happened to read an article by writer Meg Barnhouse in this issue of UU World about how she faced her fear of tarantulas when she found one under the tent while camping.1

What I want to do this morning is look at one fear or phobia in particular, but then also consider possible help for other fears in general.  The fear that I would like to focus on is the fear of failure. We live in a performance-driven, success-oriented society.  If you perform according to a set standard, then you are judged a success.  If you don’t perform to a certain standard, you are judged a failure.  Nobody wants to be a failure.  It’s just not the American way.  As General George Patton put it in that famous quote: “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”  That is a very strong statement!

But the truth is, not one of us is free from failure in one form or another.  As preacher Fritz Kunkel put it, “Failure and defeat are part of human life as well as success and victory.”2

I am afraid (there’s a form of that word fear again) that many have allowed this success-failure dichotomy to influence thinking about God or the life of faith.  Perhaps Adam and Eve’s descendents did inherit the fear of standing before God.  If we are not careful, we might catch ourselves thinking:

God loves a winner, but God despises a loser.

God supports the successful, but God abandons the failure.

God loves the saint, but God loathes the sinner.

We may fear that we will fail God, and subsequently, we may also fear abandonment by God in our greatest hour of need.  Some who fail may fear that God will execute his wrath and judgment.  Martin Luther, the great 16th century Protestant reformer, often wrote, prior to his discovery of God’s marvelous grace, of his great fear that God would find him out as the worst of sinners and bring down his wrath upon him.

For many, this fear of failure manifests itself in the excessive drive (what we might term their “overdrive”) to be successful in their business or profession, leading them to work long, ungodly hours so their boss or company won’t be disappointed, or their dedication will be noticed, or their position will be secure.  The fear of failure can affect so many aspects of our lives.

The Apostle John talks about fear; fear of failure, I think.  John, in the one verse that I read, talks about fear of judgment.  He talks about fear of punishment.  John talks about this relationship between humans and God.  In this relationship, there is no place for fear.  There should be with God, or the Divine, a relationship of harmony and love.  In this harmonious relationship, there should be no fear.  “Perfect love casts out fear,” John says.  To live in perfect harmony and love with God is to live victoriously over the fear of failure and punishment.  It is God who is for us, not against us (Romans 8:31).  If God is for us, then why should we fear God, and why should we go around all the time afraid that we will err or fail and then be cast off?  As we mature in our thinking, and as our love is perfected, we learn that we no longer need to fear God.  So what if we do make a mistake?  As rock singer Billy Joel put it in a song a few years ago: “you’re only human; you’re gonna make some mistakes.”  God will not strike us for it.

And remember that the great hymn, “Amazing Grace,” that goes:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

(but also) And grace my fears relieved.

The psalmist also spoke about fear.  In psalm 27 that I read from, he speaks of evildoers, enemies, war, trouble, punishment, abandonment by parents, and violence.   Yet, in spite of all those things, he said, he would not fear:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;

Whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?

Over and over we read these words in the Bible: “Fear not” or “Do not be afraid.”

Much of our fear of failure, and our fear of living in general, may result from the fact that we try to face the heavy strains of life with inadequate or misinformed spiritual ideas and do not rest in the promise of grace or draw strength from the community of faith that might support us.

During an assignment in India during World War I, a young British officer (who would become a famous preacher and theologian) by the name of Leslie Weatherhead had opportunity to watch some of the great rug-weavers of India.  As he walked among the weavers, he turned to his guide and asked, “What happens if the weaver makes a mistake?”  The guide answered, “If he is a great enough artist, he will weave the mistake into the pattern of the rug.”  So it is in life and faith.  We have the assurance that our blunders, mistakes, and failures can be woven into a beautiful and useful life.  As an ancient Chinese philosopher (Laotzu) saw it, “failure is an opportunity” (Tao 79).

When thinking about what we perceive to be failure in our lives, we need to remember five simple things:

1) It is okay sometimes to fail; failure is a part of life, and it is through failure that we learn and grow.

2) No failure is final until we give up and quit.  The naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “A man can get discouraged many times but he is not a failure until he begins to blame somebody else and stops trying.”

3) Success may be much closer than we realize.

4) Some failure in life may be necessary to sensitize us to our true lives, the true self.

5) Sometimes what we perceive to be failure is not really failure at all.  I have shared previously how the poet Walt Whitman wrote of his great literary classic, Leaves of Grass, “from a worldly and business point of view Leaves of Grass has been worse than a failure” (683).  Yet, untold thousands of copies of Leaves of Grass have been sold.

Psalm 27 invites us to trust more, to have more faith, and in the process let go of some of our fear.  And the New Testament writer known as John was convinced that perfect or mature love casts out fear.  We are loved and have intrinsic value and worth, come what may, even if we do sometimes fail and are not perfect.  We can have assurance, we can have confidence, we can have freedom—freedom even from the fear of failure.  Amen.


1Rev. Meg Barnhouse, “Tarantula,” UU World, Spring 2015.

2Fritz Kunkel, Ministers Manual 1985.  New York: Harper&Row, 1984, p 12.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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