Responding to Failure in Discipleship

Written by: Sam Meeks

College is an amazing season of life; you have remarkable control over your schedule, can be as sociable (or not) as you please, have unmatched free time to pursue hobbies and develop yourself, and are mentally open to new ides. This mix made me prime for discipleship after coming to Christ as a freshman. I absorbed what I was taught; over those four years, I developed a vision for discipleship and for what my life would be after I graduated.

Only I was wrong – horribly, wonderfully wrong – about what my life would become. In most areas, I adapted pretty well from expectation to reality without experiencing much disappointment. But one area of my life left me feeling like a failure, eroding a hole in my confidence that threatened my very identity. I failed in discipleship.

For context, I graduated from college in Oklahoma and moved to Memphis to participate in the Downline Emerging Leaders program – discipleship was on my mind. It’s not like I just forgot about it – I moved cities to grow in it. Except, I found myself almost daily failing in some way or another. Though over the course of the year I gradually gained peace and stability in my discipleship relationships, nothing really changed in my perception of my day-to-day experience. I felt that I continued to fail on both ends of discipleship according to the standards I held.

And that was the problem – the standards I held. I had taken the aggregate of what I was taught and used it to construct a gold standard for how I was to disciple for the rest of my life. The problem was that it assumed that my failures would be few and far between, and that I would easily jump right into mature discipleship the day I graduated. I assumed I had the maturity to move to a new city, far from family, friends, and community, and simply thrive. Instead, I struggled.

Looking back, I realize clearly how the beliefs I held trapped me in a spiral of failure. I couldn’t recognize the trap because I didn’t look in the right places; my theology seemed pretty solid, so I assumed that I was doing everything right. My philosophy, however, was toxic. I had a mold of discipleship that left no room for inadequacy and allowed no time for development. I failed to understand how grace fleshes itself out in discipleship; I failed to understand sanctification. Consequently, I was unable to see how they affect discipleship.

First, give yourself time to grow. Bryan Loritts tweeted once, “Sanctification says if you used to cuss at the drop of a hat before Jesus, you shouldn’t cuss so fast now.” In the same way, if you haven’t been the pupil in a healthy discipleship relationship, you won’t be a perfect teacher right away. Probably, you won’t be a teacher at all, until you’ve been the student. Allow yourself the time and space to develop; the Lord knows your days and won’t waste them, so long as you’re faithful.

Further, discipleship isn’t strictly vertical, like I believed. Teacher and pupil are shifting roles, as wisdom dictates that we learn not from people (based on hierarchy), but from truth (regardless of where it comes from). Neither person represents Christ fully, and individual failures are inevitable as we wrestle with sin. Mutual transparency creates space for confession and forgiveness, as we minister to each other in authentic relationship. The more mature believer takes the posture of teacher, but the wisest teachers are constantly looking to learn.

Further, seasons of life are a very real thing. You can’t always have the ideal model of discipleship playing out in your life. It isn’t something to be ashamed of – the Lord brings rain and drought as He conditions our hearts to be like His. Your job isn’t to be Jesus, or Paul, or your pastor. Your job is to be faithful; your privilege, your worship, your reasonable response to the gospel is faithfulness.

Feelings of failure in discipleship are often an unhealthy magnification of otherwise honest shortcomings. Choosing to let your failures dictate your behavior is to act like the gospel covers everything but that sin. We often set up our expectations as higher than the declaration of God and condemn ourselves as failures. Only when we choose to believe the gospel in our specific situations are we freed to pursue discipleship without expectation and without pressure.