My first marriage failed because I was unfaithful to my wife,” shares Michael. “I’m very prone to wanting to go back and beat myself up for that. That was a horrible mistake. I know God is a grace-filled God. He still loves me and has forgiven me, and my first wife has forgiven me. But that’s an area where I struggle. I still think about my failure quite a bit. That’s a vicious cycle you can get yourself into if you spend your entire life replaying your mistakes of the past.”
When people continue to focus on their failures and allow their negative thinking and self-talk to perpetuate, they begin to believe they really are failures, losers, not good enough, unable to change. So many people get stuck in this pattern, and unnecessarily.
Does personal failure have an impact on the church? Yes. When people get stuck in this negative pattern of thinking, it’s more than an internal struggle that has no effect upon the church. Because if you think about it, it’s easy to see why someone who feels like a failure would hesitate to volunteer to serve at church, and you can see how he might lack the confidence to try and lead his wife and kids or share the gospel with a friend.
Here are four actions you can share with people who struggle to renew their minds after failure:
1. Remind yourself of how God views you
One of the implications of the gospel is that we are failures; we all fail. And that is why Jesus came. God loves us so much that He did something to take care of those failures. So a believer who feels like he is a failure and continues to dwell on his mistakes needs to be reminded of what God sees when He looks at him. That person can feel that his own low view of himself is what God is seeing, too.
Dr. Stephen Viars, senior pastor at Faith Church, Lafayette, IN, and Dr. Laura Hendrickson, psychiatrist and biblical counseling professor, speak to the person who struggles with this:
If you know Christ, when God the Father looks at you, He doesn’t see you in light of your failures, he sees you in light of the finished work of Jesus Christ, the imputed righteousness upon you. That gives you great hope for today: you don’t have to be on some sort of pre-programmed route to failure. You’re a child of God because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Preach the gospel to yourself every day. You can now have new life in him.1
When the Father looks on you, He sees Christ’s sinless perfection, not your failure, and you can rest.2
Granted, although there is a sense in which God is more or less pleased with us based on our behavior (Col. 1:10), these Scriptures can be shared with the person as a daily reminder of a believer’s righteous, unchanging standing (position) before God: 2 Corinthians 5:21; Colossians 1:22–23a.
2. Turn thoughts of failure into opportunities for gratefulness
Encourage people to think about how they’ve fallen short—not as a reminder of personal failure, but as a reminder of God’s graciousness and His work in them.
“I would encourage you to think about the ways that you’ve fallen short and be amazed at the way that God has been gracious to you anyway,” says Dr. Viars. “Be amazed that God has loved you anyway, be amazed that God committed His love for us and that while we were yet sinners—all of us—Christ died for us.”3
If you’re grateful and you know it …
If the person is not sure how to express his gratefulness to God, here are tips that he might be interested in or that might spark ideas of ways to express gratefulness more suited to his talents and personality:
- Write prayers of thanks to God.
- Share his personal testimony of God’s forgiveness with a small group or the congregation.
- Become more engaged in worship.
- Join the praise team.
- Keep a daily record of God’s faithfulness in his life.
- Explain the gospel message to a family member or child as it relates to struggles with feelings of failure.
- Create a garden or a work of art as a reminder of God’s graciousness.
3. Use a biblically based homework exercise to learn to control negative thinking
Biblically based homework exercises can be effective in teaching people to address their problems with scriptural truths. For the person who is struggling with negative self-talk, you’ll want to construct homework with the purpose of renewing his mind, of training him to habitually view himself and his situation from God’s perspective by speaking truth to himself.
One way to train people to change the way they think
Here is an example of an exercise to help a person learn to counter his negative self-talk with scriptural truths. This exercise is based on the principle of Ephesians 4, where we learn that it’s not enough for the person to try and discipline himself to “stop thinking that way,” rather, he must replace his old pattern of thinking with a new pattern. “You were taught … to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (vv. 22–24).
Have the person write down a feeling he’s been struggling with as it relates to his failures: “I feel ____ because ____.”
Then have him write down a truth from God’s Word that speaks to the situation: “But, the truth is, ____.”
The person should continue to write new sentences using this same template, seeking to address every emotion he’s experiencing, thereby identifying his fears and vulnerabilities and renewing his mind with God’s perspective.
For example, if a person feels, “There’s no sense in trying,” some verses that would help are Galatians 6:9–10 and Hebrews 11:6. Here are are more Scripture ideas to counter negative thoughts he might have:
- “God has got to be ready to give up on me.” – Romans 8:1, 28–30
- “I’m never going to get any better at …” – Philippians 1:6; 2 Corinthians 3:17–18
- “I don’t have what it takes to …” – 2 Peter 1:3–4; 1 John 5:4; Philippians 2:13
- “I’m just stuck in my ways.” – Romans 6:1–14; Galatians 5:16–25
- “God will never forgive me.” – Romans 5:8–10; 1 John 1:9; Psalm 130:3–8
You may need to offer the person some passages to search through. While it’s important for the person to engage in the process of searching and applying the Scriptures, he might need direction on where to start.
4. Choose wise and encouraging friends
Isolation can breed negative thinking; when alone, a person can find his mind drifting down those negative paths again, listening to Satan’s lies about what a failure he is. But spending time with certain people can also aid negative self-talk—especially when they allow the person to vent his concerns without offering life-giving truths to counter the lies he’s telling himself. Even well-meaning Christian friends might listen and nod and say, “I know what you mean; I hear ya,” but never encourage the person with the truth of the gospel.
Help the person connect with new friends
Encourage the person who feels like a failure to find someone in the body who will be a true friend and encourager, a friend with whom he can seek to live out gospel truth together (Prov. 27:17). As C. S. Lewis says, “The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are.”4 Identify people in the church who have the gift of encouragement so that you can know whom to call on to help a person who tends to beat himself up.
We can reassure the person who’s beating himself up with thoughts of his failures and mistakes that it is possible to have a renewed mind and change his pattern of thinking. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Change comes when people renew the way they think and thereby see things from a different perspective; gospel-centered thinking and encouraging friendships are a powerful source for change and for viewing life from God’s perspective.
Please share with us a success story of someone you know who’s struggled with feelings of failure and negative self-talk and how gospel-centered thinking has renewed his mind.
- Church Initiative interview with Stephen Viars, September 2010.
- Church Initiative interview with Laura Hendrickson, June 2010.
- Stephen Viars, September 2010.
- C. S. Lewis, They Asked for a Paper (Geoffrey Bles, 1962), 63.