What happens if overseas = failure?

Reading Time: 6 minutes


Thursdays were my day.

I’d scoop up the hodgepodge of visual aids I’d amassed for my classes, grab the projector (and pray for electricity), make sure my kids had what they needed for homeschool and the sitter had a dinner plan.

Then I’d pull out in our high-clearance minivan, lurching through traffic toward the refugee center.

Half of the students were Muslim. I was a once-a-week Bible teacher, using Old Testament storytelling to weave a thread of redemption, all the way to the Gospel presentation at the end of the semester. Lunchtime, I hung out with the teachers or led a devotional.

It was the wring-me-out highlight of the week.

This feels like it might be failure

After classes, I picked up groceries for the week, throwing my weight behind the cart for our family of six up and down the ramps and parking lot.

Then I’d sit in a coffee shop with a personal pot of chai wa maata tangawuzi ne mubisi gwandukyi–African ginger tea with honey I drizzled in, dazed, the remnants of sweat salting my skin, wondering again if natural deodorant was really a feasible option in this country.

This week I steeped a pot of ginger tea in my American kitchen and remembered how much I associated that pot of tea with relief from the day.

But I also remember the questions piping through my brain’s haze as I stared through the steam.

Is any of this working? Is it valuable?

We ended at a weird point in the lesson today. How will that sink in?

I could sleep for days on this cafe table. Am I even effective, for all this costs me and my family?

Because–like a packet of flower seeds–no matter what you anticipate moving overseas, nothing matches the picture you thought you were buying into.

And so often, those lack of results whiff of failure.

What does failure mean?

Failure, even possible failure flays open my skin, unveiling raw questions inside. Questions like, What does this say about me? Or, Why didn’t God show up? 

Or maybe, What do I do now?

I see great people in the Bible wrangling these same questions.

I see Elijah, alone in a cave. And John the Baptist—the one who first identified “The Lamb of God!”—rotting in a stinking cell, with a telling message for Jesus: Are you the one, or should we expect someone else?

In his book The J-Curve, Paul Miller points out that our response to “failure”–which I feel I should put in quotes due to what we can’t see God doing–can sometimes be due to self-righteousness.

Our identity, our sense of worth, can be bound up in what we do, rather than what Jesus has done for us. 

Memos To MYSELF in the Midst of Possible Failure

Remember the garden.

Not the one in the beginning (Eden); the one in the end (Gethsemane).

Remember that Jesus had an “unanswered” prayer, one He prayed so hard, He sweat blood.

Keep in mind how important it was He didn’t get a “yes.”

Remember the hiding.

Just 24 hours after the Garden, His disciples were cowering behind locked doors, shaken and haunted. For three years they’d recklessly placed all of their eggs in this basket, and now–?

Remember that sometimes what looks like smashing failure is ultimately stunning victory. 

Remember God makes beautiful things out of dust. And failure.

Whether it’s a prodigal child, a drowning business venture, or even a capsized marriage, no matter our level of responsibility, what people intend for evil, God intends for good (Genesis 50:20).

This does not mean evil is not evil, or that bad is good: Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ grave, for the loss and travesty of this death, even though He knows God will create a miracle in minutes.

Remember courage.

Imagine Peter’s ecstasy, defying the laws of nature and gliding on water. Imagine not only the physical choking and sputtering and dread as he began to drown—but also the emotional reality that his faith had overturned; he wasn’t enough.

Still now, two thousand years later, we speak only of Peter as the one with enough hutzpah to get out of the boat.

Would it have been better if he hadn’t?

Would it be better if we didn’t hope God would show up big-time? If we had reasonably-sized, well-contained hopes?

Remember the mourning.

Maybe you will flirt with failure in part because of someone’s hard-heartedness; because the forces in this world were stronger.

Looking at Scripture, it seems God sometimes simply asks for us to witness what is not right in this world, and to participate with Him in lament.

Sometimes our memory of Eden is powerful.

I wonder if sometimes we’re not just given a glimpse into why this place is temporary; why it is passing away; why this place and this body and this fallen version of me is not forever.

Sometimes failure, I think, can shape a mental sticky note to me: You are not. But He is.

When you mourn with God, you are blessed. And you will be comforted.

Remember how many great things begin as seeds.

When I happily crack open the soil to plant new perennials, I am reminded of God’s script for most of nature.

Just wait.

As I watch my still-runty peonies from the window, I recall the gardening handbook credo: first year, sleep; second year, creep; third year, leap.

Often, I earmark a project “failed” that’s only in its “sleep” phase. I mis-christen waiting as failure.

Somehow my microwaved, instant-access, 75 mph world has transformed my notions of success, shoving aside this world of seeds and seasons and imperceptible growth.

What if we redefine success as “faithfulness”?

What if we redefine success as “faithfulness”?

Sure, God wants us to get excited about results, too. He’s designed purposes for us. But don’t forget the “fruit”, in His eyes, starts long before what we see.

Remember the promise.

Hope, joy, and peace I’m looking to gain from fulfilling my dreams are often ill-placed.

Failure sometimes exposes places I’ve been looking to which can only be truly filled by God.

Tim Keller writes,

I think…most of us aren’t able to recognize our soul-thirst for what it is. As long as you think there is a pretty good chance that you will achieve some of your dreams, as long as you think you have a shot at success, you experience your inner emptiness as “drive” and your anxiety as “hope”…

Most of us keep telling ourselves that the reason we remain unfulfilled is because we simply haven’t been able to achieve our goals.

Our desires for lasting fulfillment and significance—for real, unvarnished glory—are twisted into our DNA by God.

Yet my best investments are in doing what He says even when I don’t get the why or the how or the when.

It’s the equivalent of filling up jars with water at a wedding, or finding a donkey, or letting down my net on the other side of the boat.

Think Jesus’ words: My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me (John 4:34).

Remember the glory.

This quote from C.S. Lewis changed my life:

Nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

…. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely … the promise of glory … becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory meant good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgment, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.

Crouching in the waiting or the failure or whatever it is, hang your hat on that accolade that’s the one you’ve craved all my life. The one that carves your identity, or should.

Your Failure is Never Failure

The Cross lassoes even our failures, hijacking them for God’s purposes.

So someday in the future when you stare through the steam of your own questions, remember that failure’s not all you think it is.

And like the Cross, it may just be a door to breathtaking resurrection.


Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, and speaker, as well as the editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Janel also frequently writes and speaks to global women through Thrive Ministry.

Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit. 

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