Calling And Failure

I first became acquainted with God’s calling and failure at age twelve or thirteen. My parents were the type to ask God’s opinion on big decisions and, in one of these conversations, my dad heard God telling him to run for Attorney General.

The campaign commenced with fundraising, phone calls, family pictures in matching collared shirts, and red and white signs with “A Prosecutor, NOT a Politician” dotting our neighbors lawns. My sisters and I spent the summer licking envelopes and mailing letters, attending fundraisers, and proudly wearing our red “Harper” t-shirts.

But Harper didn’t win the election.

The phone calls and commercials stopped. The signs were taken down. Life was supposed to go back to normal. But questions arose in my heart.

Why did God tell my dad to run and not help him win? Was God like a mean father that bosses his family around just to see if they’ll obey? I didn’t know, but I didn’t particularly want to know this God who told people to head towards . . . failure.

As I grew older, I heard pastors explain God’s wrath and punishment. I remember hearing Pat Robertson declaring Hurricane Katrina was an example of God’s punishment for the sinful people of New Orleans. I started to see God, not as a jerk that directs his people towards failure,

—but as a cruel taskmaster ready to punish for the slightest fault.

So maybe my dad didn’t win the election — or later my friend’s mom died in the risky surgery she’d prayed so much about—because they had done something that angered God?

It’s a peculiar experience growing up in the South—where it’s as easy to find a church as it is a gas station or a soccer mom. But with all these churches, there’s a lot of God talk and it can be difficult to know who God is because of all the ‘wisdom’ contradicts itself. ‘God loves you and has a plan for your life’ doesn’t quite fit with the teaching that our three best friends and aunt might be burning to death for all eternity because they didn’t pray a prayer.

My point is it can be difficult to wrap our minds around who God really is with all the conflicting teachings, can’t it?

I had my own experience with God’s calling, leading to what felt like failure, when I moved to China. My dream of pedaling around the crowded streets, serving those damaged by the severe earthquake, and sharing Jesus with college students was quickly shattered when our team was split up because of some extremely difficult issues that came to light.

I was shattered into pieces.

Bitterness flowed through my blood and came out in the form of wild nights of screaming intermixed with sobbing. I had many conversations with God that sounded something like this: “Hello? It’s me, Ruthie. The one who moved across the world to tell people about you. Did I mishear you? Did I do something wrong?”

I asked the questions we all do: Did I misunderstand? Is God punishing me? What now?

If God calls us to something, does it mean success? Or might it mean failure?

I’m in the middle of this journey myself. I feel God has called me to write. In fact, He’s been telling me for many more years than I’ve actually been writing because it took me a while to listen (My husband might use the word stubborn). Our dating book (Real Men Don’t Text) comes out in September and there are days when I panic that it won’t sell.

Would God call me to write if it wasn’t going to work out? If it doesn’t sell does that mean I did something wrong?

How do I define success? Is failure a possibility?

I think about the stories most of us grew up hearing. John the Baptist followed his calling and it ended in beheading. Mary listened and her son was later publically executed. The disciples listened to Jesus and got into a boat and a storm arose.

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know why some books sell and others don’t. I don’t know why God favors one praying politician over another. I don’t know why God calls us out to sea only to have the waves engulf us.

Maybe it’s the lessons along the way. Maybe it’s the people you meet, the lives you touch. Maybe it’s one person instead of hundreds like you imagined. Maybe it’s to build the Kingdom in a way that none of us understand.

I don’t know. But I do know, we’re supposed pay little attention to the surging waves and keep listening to the still voice urging us onward and bringing a song to our hearts.

Have you struggled with unanswered prayer? How did you respond?

[Photo:  kelsey_lovefusionphoto, Creative Commons]

  • Jennifer Morgan

    My own answer to this issue is that God needed me to learn something from the experience so that I could help further his plan in the future.

    • Ruthie Dean

      Amen. That was my story with the China experience.

  • sheila @

    Oh Ruthie…thanks so much for a great post! You address subjects that my husband and I contend with sometimes as writers who quit the rat race to pursue The Call..and are in the middle of the struggle. We have discussed what God’s definition of success may be…and one thing is for sure: those lessons along the way are stepping stones to growing more God like, which is always a positive!

    We wrangle with this too: ‘God loves you and has a plan for your life’ doesn’t quite fit with the teaching that our three best friends and aunt might be burning to death for all eternity because they didn’t pray a prayer. My husband’s essay, Mercy for All touches on this…

    God bless you as you keep following the call… :)

    • Ruthie Dean

      Hi Sheila, Glad the post spoke to you. It’s one of those things that isn’t clear in the Bible, but must come from our own relationship with God (thus making it hard!).

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Melanie Pennington

    Sometimes the best way for me to learn is the fail. I don’t believe God tricks me. I just believe He teaches me any way I’ll learn. Thanks for this insightful post.

    • Ruthie Dean

      I also think our definition of failure and God’s are often very different. Sometimes our ‘failure’ might be God’s success–teaching us/refining our character/preparing us for something greater.

  • Douglas Humphries

    I’ve often struggled with this, constantly even. I know sometimes God moves people to do things that don’t work out in the way they want, and there are reasons for that. And one failure certainly shouldn’t completely derail us. But what of continued failures? Or continued lack of success? I wonder, shouldn’t something work out, as an indication that I’m doing something right, that this what I’m supposed to be doing/thinking/feeling? Failure teaches, yes. We learn from it. But sometimes that feels like a sour sentiment, especially when all the “learning” seems to just leave you bruised. Because all you really want is one thing in the win column, for someone, God, to say, unmistakably, that this’ll work. This time it’ll work.

    And I just don’t know.

    • Ruthie Dean

      I don’t know either, Douglas. Many, many times failure leaves us with bruises and sometimes breaks. Thanks for sharing.

  • Stephanie May

    Ruthie – I love this. One of my biggest fears has always been that God wouldn’t use me. It crops up randomly – this fear that he’ll ask me to do something that could never work, or that he just would pick someone else instead. I’ve been afraid that I’m not good enough, or that if I don’t behave perfectly, God will pick a more qualified candidate. And honestly, sometimes we are asked to do hard things, and sometimes the hard things don’t turn out the way we want them to. But I think you’re right – it’s not always about success the way that we define it. And even when we don’t understand what he’s up to, we can always trust him to be good. Here’s to listening and to continuing onward!

    • Ruthie Dean

      Oh sister. He’s already using you and your words in huge ways! I think your struggle is a common one.

  • Katie Axelson

    A few years ago I heard a pastor say something that’s really stuck with me: “We’re not called to be successful. We’re called to be obedient.” God didn’t call your dad to become Attorney General; He called him to run for Attorney General. Being unsuccessful isn’t easy but being disobedient is worse.

    • Ruthie Dean

      I love that, Katie!

  • Virgil T. Morant

    How, though, does one know whether what one thinks is a calling is indeed a calling from God? He doesn’t exactly send most of us engraved invitations. There is always, even when our every rational examination indicates that our purposes and ways are righteous, the possibility that the calling comes not from God.

    We’re also, on account of those rational faculties, able to derive lessons from failure. Any failure, pain, or disappointment that does not completely destroy you can be taken for some lesson or wisdom or improvement. We’re smart enough to learn from mistakes. We should be careful in ascribing these lessons to God.

    It is not unheard-of, for instance, for what one took to be the Godly lesson one got from this failure or that to turn out to be the wrong one: sometimes we think we learned one thing from a situation, and then later, upon further experience, we modify or reject that lesson. No engraved invitations, and also no report cards from on high, telling us whether we got it right.

    Our numerous examinations of these things always run the risk of darkening counsel by words without knowledge. Who knows what God’s purpose is in permitting this or that? It’s good to take an intelligent lesson out of misfortune. It’s good also, I think, not to be too sure whether that lesson came from God.

  • Brenda W.

    Thank you for this. I agree with you and the other commenters that God’s definition of failure often doesn’t match ours, and he’s teaching us even in our perceived failures. But it’s tough when you keep trying and taking opportunities and hitting nothing but brick walls.

  • Liz

    This is exactly what I needed to hear right now. I mean, exactly. what. I. needed. I’ve almost accomplished one dream and calling, but it hasn’t led to the next thing like it’s “supposed” to. I’ve been reluctant to even pray about it, because I’ve become nearly convinced on this journey that God could care less about worldly definitions of success. He never promised me a career, just sufficient grace and salvation. As if there’s anything “merely” or “just” or “only” about it. Only salvation? What else do I have the right to want from Him? I needed to be reminded that when things don’t work out quite right, it isn’t because He’s abandoned the field to the world’s chaos, it’s that I don’t necessarily know what the success He had in mind really entailed. Thank you for post this. And good luck with your book.

  • Erika

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much this post has resonated with me. I moved 1,000 miles away for school, a total leap of faith, and now I wonder why listening to God has caused so much heartache. Thank you for sharing and for your encouragement!

  • Sarah Hayes

    Ruthie, this so struck a chord with me.

    I’m in the midst of working on my first book, feeling, like you, called to write. And as I struggle to make the story come alive on the page, I find myself constantly battling the fears of how the book will turn out. Will a publisher accept it? Even if they do, will it sell well? Will people like it? Will the story resonate?

    It’s a scary and difficult place to be in, but what I have had to remind myself of is that God’s calling doesn’t always mean success in a worldly sense, but success in a worldly sense is not necessarily success in a heavenly sense, and if there’s a lesson that God wants you to learn from a “failure” and you learn it, then wouldn’t that, in the end, make it a success?

  • maranatha

    YES! All the time. I think God is more willing to answer our prayers than we think. Plus there are times that we ask for things that are outside His will. The Bible says in 1 John 5:14, 15 that God answers our prayers based on His will. He is God, and He knows what’s BEST for us. I wanna recommend Dag Heward-Mills’ “100% Answered Prayer”. It’ll answer all your questions :) Be blessed!