12 September 2004

The Possibility of Failure

Do you think it is possible to fail? Suppose a Christian is out living his life in the world… is it possible for that Christian to fail? Can a Christian fail in his testimony before the world? Can a Christian fail in his Christian life? Can a Christian live in such a way that he brings no praise or glory to Christ, or at least, very little praise and glory to Christ?

The answers to these questions depend on the people to whom the questions are put. Some would even be offended that such questions are asked. “After all,” some would say, “we are in the Spirit, of course we are having victory.”

It is a real shock to the system when, in spite of such confidence, Christians fail. In fact, many Christians who think this way fail spectacularly, and are seemingly unable to recover from their failure.

A more realistic view of Christianity and Christians would admit that failure is a possibility. We are all plagued with a sinful human nature that must be kept under control by faith in Christ and obedience to His Word. Failure should grieve us and sadden us, but not surprise us. Failure should point us again to the need to rely totally on Christ for victory in this life.

In former days, Christians were encouraged to look at the failures of others and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” In other words, the realistic view that my failure is eminently possible was a prudent point of view that Christian teachers encouraged. Today, many people are taught to see themselves as believers to be ‘victory-oriented’, ‘in Christ’, and so on. When we look inside ourselves, we are encouraged by some to see a person in victory by the strength of the Holy Spirit within.

Where did such teaching come from? This positive view is the fruit of decades of teaching that integrated psychological precepts with Christianity. In Christian circles, this view is taught as “self-esteem”. In the secular world, self-esteem teaching has come to dominate the minds of educators, health professionals, and, of course, the psychological therapists of various kinds.

Most people are taught at some point in their lives that the most healthy way to live is to have good self-esteem. If you don’t feel good about yourself, all sorts of evils are said to be the result. Sadly, Christian teachers have bought into this thinking with no scriptural basis.

What is the result of self-esteem teaching in the world? The result is a world where almost no one takes accountability for sin. We live in a world with a huge problem with authority. We have hosts of individuals who mistreat one another (seeking self-actualization) and can’t understand when others (especially their spouses) won’t treat them the way they expect to be treated. It is almost as if the whole world thinks this way: “Can’t they see how wonderful I am?”

The presence of this teaching in the church parallels a period in which a great decline in personal standards of behaviour also developed. The church, by and large, seems almost indistinguishable from society at large. Christians see very little of their behaviour as ‘sinful’ or ‘worldly’ any longer. The older generation of Christians who would have frowned on current behaviour is ignored, thought of as ‘old-fashioned’, legalistic, Pharisaical, and so on. Christian behaviour now emphasizes ‘liberty’, the qualms of older generations notwithstanding. It is no coincidence that Christian standards have deteriorated in company with the rise of self-esteem teaching.

Self theory is rooted in these basic ideas: “I am loveable, therefore I should love myself.” The first assumption of self theory is that lovability is absolute. It matters not what you do, or what you are, you are lovable because you have value as a person. This lovability is immutable (unchangeable). The consequence of lovability is one of obligation. “Since I am lovable, it is irresponsible not to love myself.” In fact, some teach that it is selfish to not love yourself.

All of this theorizing takes much more space than we have here to explain. Nevertheless, we ought to be very sober about this. These theories have been practiced sufficiently in our world and in our churches for us to observe whether they have been successful or not. Let’s propose some tests:

  • Since the advent of self theory, are people more considerate of others or less considerate?
  • Are people more concerned with their testimony or with enjoying all this life has to offer?
  • Are people more submissive to the authorities God has placed in their lives or less?

I suppose the answers to these questions are obvious. The fact is, as sinful human beings, we all need the grace of God for victorious Christian living. Unfortunately, many people have been influenced by a false self-theory that is essentially a denial of sin. The consequence in the world is more chaos and trouble, the consequence in the church is a deadening of spiritual life at the same time the church claims to be alive. It is no coincidence that the growth of sinfulness, worldliness, and selfishness in the church has paralleled the rise of self-theory in the church.

Let’s get back to the self-view that sees self as simply a “sinner, saved by grace.” And let’s depend on grace to get us safely home even as we shrink back from “the garment spotted by the flesh.” (Jude 23)