In my time writing for YMI, I’ve shared my reflections on my struggles with perfectionism, alcohol, and masturbation, among others. As this year comes to an end, I wanted to be able to proclaim that I have found complete victory over these struggles. But I haven’t. There were days when I didn’t do so well and days when I failed miserably.
Perfectionism is still something I’m grappling with. I’ve turned to drinking for self-soothing many times. Alcohol has often been a gateway to pornography for me, so I’ve sinned sexually as well. Neither am I entirely free from masturbation.
I thought for a long time about whether or not I should write this piece. If I share about my failures, would others think lesser of me? Would I let people down when they realize I am not exactly who they think I am? Am I ready to write so openly about the struggles I still feel deeply ashamed and guilty about? In my desire to be honest, am I being unwise in what I intend to share? Would it stumble others? What would be the repercussions of this piece? Is it pride or prudence that’s causing me to think twice?
But finally, I decided to go ahead and write about my recent failures and what I’ve learned through them. I personally don’t believe it’s healthy for Christians to feel like they can only share their stories when it’s a success story. I’m convinced that stories of ongoing growth—which necessarily include failures—deserve to be heard, too. I hope that I can encourage others who, like me, are still journeying through abiding struggles in their lives.
Through my failures, these are some lessons God has been teaching me this year. These are His opportunities of grace in the midst of my sins and missteps.
Accept God’s Forgiveness
One of my biggest struggles when I fall into sin in an area I’ve been struggling with for a long time is receiving and believing God’s forgiveness. “I can’t believe I’ve done it again,” I say to myself. “I’ve told God I won’t ever do it again, and yet, here I am again.” I’ve trouble believing how God can keep extending His forgiveness and grace to me when I’ve disappointed Him so many times.
The morning after I’d gotten drunk and turned to pornography and masturbation the night before, I felt really lousy about myself and I didn’t know how to face God after what I’d done. He spoke to me through Peter’s question to Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”, and the Lord’s reply, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22), which was to say, for as many times as it’s needed.
In the midst of my self-loathing and despair, I felt God say to me that He would not tell Peter to do something He Himself was not willing to do. It was as if He asked me, “Would I not forgive you that many times as well?”
I was very moved by His kindness and His grace toward me. Though I still struggle to always deeply believe and receive His forgiveness, I’m learning to hold fast to His promise of forgiveness and cleansing once I’ve confessed my sins to Him: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9).
Ask for Accountability
Confessing to God is one thing: despite my insecurities, I know that He will not reject me. Confessing to others is another thing altogether for me.
When I’d sinned, especially sexually, my first instinct was to hide this from people who knew and loved me. I was already overwhelmed with how much I’d let myself down; I couldn’t bear the thought of others also seeing me as a disappointment. These are people who have walked with me, seen me do better for a while now, and yet, I’ve failed in those very areas that they’d journeyed with me.
Still, I’d lived long enough to know that as painful as it was to confess my sins to someone, the pain of not confessing was even greater. I’d hidden my sins from others before—resolving never to repeat them and hoping therefore that I wouldn’t ever need to bring them up to anyone—only for that to backfire on me. What it did was to make it easier for me to create a double life: since no one knew about my sins and I wasn’t accountable to anyone about them, I had lesser reason to think twice the next time I was tempted to sin, since even when I fell, no one would have to know or call me to account for my actions.
So I plucked up my courage and told my mentor what I’d done. He patiently listened to me, lovingly asked questions to find out more about what I was going through, and wisely shared his counsel with me. Instead of rejection and condemnation, I received unconditional love and support. His response helped to dispel my fear that people would only accept me when I did well, and if I messed up, they’d disapprove of me.
Admit Failure Humbly
The thought of telling others I’d sinned also felt humiliating. At first, I thought the humiliation had to do with feeling ashamed of myself for my long-standing flaws. While it did indeed involve feelings of shame, I realized that the root of the humiliation actually came from my pride—from my own false sense of superiority. I’d thought I was better than this, that I’d overcome all these weaknesses and I was much stronger. But now that there was evidence to the contrary, my prideful sense of self was utterly wrecked.
God had to humble me to make me aware that apart from Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5) and I have no good thing (Psalm 16:2). And He did this out of His love for me. As long as I held on to any illusion that it was I who achieved my own victories, I was dangerously depending on myself and my strength, rather than on Him and His power, to walk the Christian life. God was protecting me from fostering pride in my heart, which would easily lead to sins of self-reliance and rebelliousness against Him.
Acknowledge that Sanctification is a Messy Process
This year, I had to reckon more honestly with what the journey of sanctification looks like. Even though I’d known in my head that I wouldn’t just stop struggling with my sins overnight, I’d secretly hoped that that would somehow still happen for me.
Of course, it didn’t. I had, through repetition over a long period of time, reinforced these habits of sin, so it would also take a period of time for me to unlearn these unhealthy habits and to learn new, healthy habits.
And I’m actually glad that these changes don’t happen instantly, because it is through wrestling with these issues in the trenches that I can cultivate the skill, strength and steadfastness of developing and maintaining godly, healthy patterns in my life.
A few days after I’d shared my struggles with my mentor, he texted me this quote by Gandhi: “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” I understand that sanctification is a messy process which involves making the same mistakes over and over again, and that’s part of the process of developing the strength to walk out the journey better.
In his novella “Worstward Ho,” the Irish writer Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” What makes the difference is what I do when I fail. Do I mope around in shame, guilt and self-condemnation, hiding and running away from God? Or do I use them as opportunities to learn how to “fail better”—to struggle better and more faithfully before God?
Always Fall at the Foot of the Cross
I once read in a devotional this wonderful line: “When you fall, fall at the foot of the Cross.” The author explained that when we sin, we have to make sure that it doesn’t cause us to fall away from God. Rather, when we fall, we are to draw even nearer to God, to seek His forgiveness and restoration because Jesus has made that possible for us at the Cross.
At the foot of the Cross, I’d found God’s unconditional love and acceptance, grace for my mistakes, and the removal of my guilt and shame. The Cross opened the way for me to always be able to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that I may receive mercy and find grace to help me in my time of need (Hebrews 4:16).
And because of the Cross, God accepts me not because of what I’ve done or haven’t done, but because of what Jesus has accomplished on it. One particular evening, when I was wrestling with my fears of being disapproved and disqualified by God, I heard Him say to me, “I don’t only want you when you’re successful.”
He reminded me of something the American pastor Sy Rogers said. Rogers pointed out that God already knew all the mistakes we’d make before He saved us. And yet, He came for us anyway, because God would rather have us messy, than not have us at all.
Isn’t that the Gospel? But how easily I forget this precious truth in my moments of failure. What I’m learning this year is to go back to the basics of the Gospel, to rediscover what it means to receive and rest in God’s love and grace.
So instead of seeing my failures as occasions for self-condemnation, I’ve come to see that I can lean into them as opportunities of grace to cling more closely to God and to depend more desperately on His strength. I’m learning in a deeper way what it means to experience His forgiveness for my failures and the perfection of His power in my weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).
This is the Father’s prodigal love and perfect grace for a broken but recovering, a messy but growing, child—for me, and for you, too.