Failure, or rather the fear of failure, controlled my life for many years. Somewhere in my subconscious state, I realized there was something about failure which led me to feel an intense amount of emotional pain. What was I experiencing and what role did failure have to play in it?
I’m far from being the only person in the world who experiences this struggle. Many of you reading this article also live with the fear of failure. And even more of you are experiencing the real root of the struggle; you’re struggling to identify and process the emotion which I believe to be at the heart of our fear of failure: shame.
With the help of pastor and author J.R. Briggs, I got to the heart of my struggles and after taking the time and energy to work through it, have come out on the other side a completely different person. I’ve written this article to share my discoveries in hope that you will also find freedom from failure, rejection, and shame.
The Relationship between Shame, Rejection, and Failure
I hated criticism. I’m not talking about simply disliking it; I’m talking about complete full-on hatred of it. I hated criticism more than Buckeye fans hate the Michigan football team. Due to my fear of criticism, I dreaded my yearly performance reviews. Although 95 percent of what my bosses said was positive and complementary, the only part I usually remembered was the 5 percent where I felt criticized. Looking back on it, all they were trying to do was help me improve, but at the time, I felt as if I’d failed because I was being criticized.
I read a story one time about a successful screenwriter, Larry, who went to a homecoming back in New York. While there, he attended a Yankees game and during the game, he was honored in front of the thousands of fans in attendance. On his way to his car after the game, a stranger driving by yelled, “Larry, you suck!” What do you think stuck out in his mind that evening? The standing ovation he received from thousands of fans or the drive-by insult he received after the game? You guessed it. He dwelt on the one insult.
What is it about criticism that destroys some of us? What is it that causes us to overlook our successes and spend our time dwelling on our failures?
This is where J.R. Briggs comes into play. In his book Fail, he shared his story of “ministry failure” (not marked by the usual signs of embezzlement or sexual misconduct) and the journey he went on to heal from it. His first realization, much like mine, was that he feared failure. But why did he fear failure? After digging into this question, he realized his fear of failure came out of his fear of rejection. His experiences had taught him that failure leads to rejection. This, he thought, was at the heart of his struggle.
But a few weeks later, he came to realize that there was something even deeper which lay at the heart of his fear of rejection. When he felt rejected, he experienced shame. So failure led to rejection and rejection led to shame. I’ve depicted this in the figure below.
After reading about Briggs’s experiences, I spent some time evaluating my own life to determine whether this could possibly explain my experiences. My conclusion was that this was exactly what I was experiencing. My fear of failure came out of a fear of rejection which came out of a fear of shame. Shame was ultimately at the heart of my struggle.
Shame and guilt are often associated with one another, but they are two different animals. Guilt is experienced due to an action. For example, when we realize we did something bad, we feel guilt. Shame, however, is experienced when our identity is tied up in the action. When our bad action leads us to say, “I’m a sinner,” that’s when we experience shame.
Personally, I used to spend a lot of time wallowing in my shame by dwelling on my past failures. I felt like I wasn’t good enough. And if anyone ever tried to tell me I was, their words never made it through my thick skull. I was so terrified of failure and rejection that I became non-committal, I stopped trying new things, and I stopped setting ambitious goals for myself in order to avoid the shame I felt from having my identity wrapped up in my failures. When not handled healthily, shame can cause us to become depressed and enter into a state of complete debilitation.
In my research on shame a few years ago, I discovered that the Bible actually speaks quite a bit about shame. One verse that really sticks out to me is this one, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” When Christians talk about what happens to people who don’t receive eternal life, we often focus on fire and brimstone. But what about shame?
Can you even begin to imagine what it would be like to experience shame for all of eternity. I can’t even begin to fathom it. What would it be like to experience even more shame than I’ve experienced for all of eternity? This would be the worst emotional punishment we could ever experience.
Shame is obviously harmful to us and based on the Bible, is not something we’ll experience when we’re with God in heaven. So if God’s kingdom is here right now, is there any hope for overcoming shame right here, right now? I believe there is based upon the radical transformation that’s taken place in my life. I went from being someone who spent a lot of time wallowing in my shame to someone who doesn’t have to spend much time there anymore.
The Thing That Changed My Life
How do we become free from our shame? We may be encouraged to try a few different coping mechanisms that attempt to convince ourselves that we’re good enough and worthy of belonging. You may have tried some of these methods and maybe they worked for you, but no amount of attempting to convince myself of these things made a single dent in my struggle with shame. The struggle still existed.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think the problem with these methods is that they are based on what I believe to be a bad foundation. As long as humans have been around, we’ve believed that humanity is ultimately good at heart. Of course this is what we believe. What person wants to arrive at the conclusion that humanity is intrinsically evil when our emotional health is at stake? To believe our hearts are evil seems like it would lead us into a never-ending state of depression.
Nonetheless, I have decided to stand among the minority who claim that our hearts are inherently evil and there’s nothing we can do to change it. This was not a conclusion I arrived at lightly; I arrived at it after spending much time and energy pouring over books, having discussions with friends, and experiencing life. If you’d like to read more about my thoughts on this topic, I’d encourage you to check out my articles titled “Are There Evil People in the World?” and “Mental Disorder or Evil Heart Condition?”
The reason I share this conclusion is that it was foundational in my journey to being set free. Once I began to see how evil I was and how I couldn’t do anything to set myself free, I began to see the magnitude of how great God’s love is for me. My experiences up to that point (outside of my family) had shown me that acceptance was conditional. For example, in the article I posted a few weeks ago titled “How Freedom in Jesus Impacts Our Daily Life,” I shared a story about how my elementary school classmates made fun of me because of my skinny arms. The result: I felt rejected. So I worked really hard to do something that would earn their acceptance.
For some reason, I believed God worked the same way. I thought I had to earn his acceptance. When we mix this belief with the belief that humans are ultimately good at heart, we arrive at the dangerous conclusion that we can pretty much save ourselves, but need Jesus to take care of those few times when we fail. When we fail, we need to confess our failure and try harder next time. However, if we continue to fail, God may decide to stop forgiving us. This way of thinking would make God’s love conditional. The good news is that this is not what the Bible says about God’s love.
The biblical writers tell us that God’s love for his people is unconditional; it’s not contingent upon anything we do or don’t do. Do you realize how amazing this is? While we were evil sinners who wanted nothing to do with God, he accepted us. He looked at me, a person who was inherently evil and worthless, and made the decision to make me a part of his family. Wow! That’s incredible! Who does that? Your employer doesn’t do that. Most of your friends probably wouldn’t do that. Even your family may not do that. The vast majority of people in this world accept you because of what you bring to the relationship. But not God. He accepts us even though we have nothing to offer him that he doesn’t already have.
Since this shift has happened in my life, I have become a totally different person. I can wake up every single morning knowing that although I may not be accepted by people here on earth, I am accepted by the king of the universe. Not only am I accepted by him, but he has forgiven my sins, that which had led me to feel shame. Instead of living in everlasting shame and contempt, the punishment we all justly deserve, God will bestow glory and honor upon his people.
Would you like to be set free from shame? If so, I’d encourage you to seek Jesus with all your heart. As one of the biblical writers tells us, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”
 Jon Acuff, Start: Punch Fear in the Face Escape Average Do Work that Matters (Brentwood, TN: Lampo Licensing, 2013), 153-54.
 J.R. Briggs, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 36-42.
 Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED, YouTube, March 16, 2012, accessed August 3, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0.
 Daniel 12:2.
 I realize this statement may not sound biblical, but it is. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father, representative of God, honors his lost son upon his return. And in Romans 8:30, we’re told, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” It’s not that we do anything to deserve honor and glory, but it’s that by being united with God, we get to share in his honor and glory.
 Jeremiah 29:13.