Grace in the Call: The Role of Failure

Image-1A young man goes off to seminary to prepare to be a global missionary. While there he fails to manage the workload and drops out indefinitely.

A young woman has dreamed of begin a global missionary her whole life. She falls in love and gets married to a strong Christian, but he never wants to go overseas.

A young couple makes it all the way through the assessment process with a missions agency. Before they are commissioned the agency suddenly determines they don’t meet the criteria and removes them from consideration.

A family has been waiting their whole lives to move overseas. Upon arrival the mother’s culture shock leads to a nervous breakdown and the family returns home after only a few weeks.

A veteran missionary couple grew up as missionary kids and have been serving abroad for over a dozen years. Suddenly their health breaks down and they have to return to the states indefinitely.

Is there room for failure in the missionary call? I sure hope so.

These stories are more common than not. An initial response to these people might be that none of them were failures. Nothing immoral took place. Life just happened. How gracious of us! Indeed, in both truth and theory, these people were not failures. Yet, in reality they will be regularly and unjustly treated as such.

Perhaps the worst place to find yourself in the Evangelical world is as a “failed” missionary. Place yourself, for example, in the awkward shoes of recently resigned pastor Mark Driscoll. Is he a brother in Christ? Yes. Is he holy and dearly loved? Yes. Should he be warmly received by the body of Christ? Yes. But no matter what, even compassionate eyes are going to drift to the chink in his armor. Sure, as a leader he was held to a higher standard. But the mean-mugging will continue because he was considered a hero. In our culture we have more room for tyrannical heroes than fallen ones. Case in point, the 2008 film Hancock starring Will Smith, which portrays public disdain for a washed up superhero. We subconsciously grope so much for pseudo-saviors. When they fail us, we are not kind.

How much more are missionaries considered heroes? And when they slip from the pedestal that we’ve placed them on, we’re not sure what to do. It’s such a graceless thing.

Yet the grace of God rearranges the whole strange paradigm. It begins by saying that we are all on same playing field:

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, Romans 3:22-24

It may, however, seem like a bit of a paradox when Paul later writes as though there isn’t a common playing field:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them, Romans 12:6

But a closer look at these different “measures” of grace when it comes to spiritual gifting shows that the playing field is never at stake, only the position. Everyone has a crucial role to play in the mission of God:

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor, 1 Corinthians 3:7-8

And though Bruce Wilkinson might put the emphasis on different levels of reward, it’s most importantly the same for all who believe:

The Lord is my chosen portion, Psalm 16:5-6 (or Genesis 15:1, Lamentations 3:24, Philippians 3:8)

Catching the theme here? Same, same, same. The exalted view of the missionary is indeed understandable, but it’s just not helpful. Yeah, they’re going to fail at some point like everyone else on the playing field. But it’s meant to be that way.

In three of the most influential little letters I have ever read, John Newton, famously known as the author of Amazing Grace, unpacked the “progressive work of grace” (1) in a way I can’t shake. Using a form of interpretation I wouldn’t recommend, yet an elderly wisdom I cannot deny, Newton points to three movements of sanctification from Mark 4:28: grace in the blade (“desire”), grace in the ear (“conflict”), and full corn in the ear (“contemplation”). Generally speaking, the journey of the Christian life begins with the full-blown zealous desire of a new believer and ends with the sobered and scarred confidence of a dying one. In the middle are the sovereignly-orchestrated roller coaster days of stumbling and failure. And they are the only way to travel from beginning to end. He writes:

The Lord appoints occasions and turns in life, which try our spirits. There are particular seasons when temptations are suited to our frames, tempers, and situations; and there are times when he is pleased to withdraw, and permit Satan’s approach, that we may feel how vile we are in ourselves. We are prone to spiritual pride, to self-dependence, to vain confidence, to creature attachments, and a train of evils. The Lord often discovers to us one sinful disposition by exposing us to another. He sometimes shows us what He can do for us and in us; and at other times how little we can do, and how unable we are to stand without him. By a variety of these exercises, through the over-ruling and edifying influences of the Holy Spirit, [we] are trained up in a growing knowledge of [ourselves] and of the Lord. [We] learn to be more distrustful of [our] own hearts, and to expect a snare in every step [we] take. The dark and disconsolate hours which [we] have brought upon [ourselves] in times past, make [us] doubly prize the light of God’s countenance, and teach [us] to dread whatever might grieve the Spirit of God, and cause him to withdraw again. The repeated and multiplied pardons which [we] have received, increase [our] admiration of, and the sense of [our] obligations to, the rich sovereign abounding mercies of the covenant. Much has been forgiven [us], therefore [we] love much, and therefore [we] know how to forgive and pity others (12-13).

Now can we talk? There’s room in the missionary call for failure because there’s room for it in the Christian life. God more consistently uses our failures to shape us than our successes. Missionaries, and those who aspire to be, are free to fail.


Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need, Hebrews 4:14-16

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