What God Thinks When We Fail: Finding Grace and True Success

Written by Steven C. Roy Reviewed By Jay Thomas

Steven Roy's What God Thinks When We Fail is the type of book every ministry professional, not least pastors, should pick up and read on a regular basis. It is a pastoral and theological reflection on handling the disappointments of failure. As I began to read this book, I was reminded of Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome by R. Kent Hughes, one of the most formative books for me on what true pastoral success is and is not. So I was pleasantly surprised to read that Roy himself credited that very book as significant to his own pastoral and theological reflections on the nature of failure and true success (p. 22). What God Thinks When We Fail is a fresh expression of a poignant pastoral topic and builds off works such as Hughes's in a biblically meaningful and “deeply personal” manner (p. 7).

Roy begins with autobiography, for the book was born out of a soul-shaking experience of pastoral “failure” that he and his wife experienced. With honesty and humility, Roy takes us through that experience-how crushing it was and how it led him to find the perspective that now inhabits this book. This personal narrative sets up the rest of the book by focusing the reader on how emotionally charged this topic is and what it is about failure and success that drives our emotions.

The author's next move is to take on notions of success (and failure) by exploring the ways in which our definitions are so culturally bound. His analysis of the connection between the American story and our cultural definitions of success and failure is especially helpful. In doing this, Roy further sets the stage for what the gospel minister ought to use as the measure of success and failure, namely, God's Word.

The second half of the book invites the reader into the biblical text, theological themes, and consequent definitions of true failure and true success. The reader is pointed toward one of the most compelling and moving metaphors Roy employs, that God is the ultimate “significant other” whose opinion matters most. This God-as-significant-other approach is perhaps Roy's most vivid tool in making his point. Our emotional response to our circumstances is a result of who or what our significant other is. If it is a human, or anything else within the created order, our emotions will not accord to truth. But if God himself is our significant other and we know his disposition through Scripture, our emotions will be on surer footing as we wrestle through the trials of ministry.

The book concludes with several thoughtful applications for the reader in light of the biblical and theological reflections. The running theme of Roy's work is the grace of God. Grace is always held forth for the broken and burdened. Grace reminds us that Christ is the Successful One, who has succeeded for us. True success, therefore, is not in numbers, human approval, notoriety, or getting one's way, but in faithfulness, whatever public opinion may be.

This is not a technical work. But nor is it shallow. And while not the first work on this topic, it is fresh, not redundant. Roy writes in a biblically faithful and approachable way that takes us back to the ancient paths of grace-filled truth. This book is a wise balance between the raw and real experience of every minister of the gospel, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the rich truths of what the gospel holds out for those who feel defeated by the work of the ministry. It does not attempt to be novel, but simply takes a theme every Christian is going to face one day, and may be desperately facing today, and calls the reader to an honest wrestling with the God of grace in the face of perceived failure.

One wishes the author spent more time developing a robust reflection on the place of suffering and failure as a regular part of faithful ministry. This seemed implicit and touched upon, but the Scriptures seem to clearly teach that suffering, at the hand of men yet guided by the hand of God, is part and parcel of success (a theme that runs throughout, e.g., 2 Corinthians). In other words, faithfulness often leads to, and is bound up with, affliction. Roy focused on trusting the grace of God during affliction, but could have spent more time on planning for affliction as we make it our aim to be faithful stewards of the grace of God.

If you are a seminary student, church planter, seasoned church leader, or lay leader in your church, this book would be a fine addition to your shelf-to be thoughtfully read, and then returned to when the winds of disappointment in ministry blow.

Perhaps I could end with some personal narrative. When I began to read this book to fulfill my duty to write this review, I happened to be experiencing some rough waters as a pastor. I found myself thanking God that he providentially put this book in my hands at that appointed time. This book did not point me inwardly, asking me to dig down deeper to find hope and meaning in disappointment. Rather, it asked me to drink ever deeper of God's grace. Because of that, it is a worthy read.

Jay Thomas

Jay Thomas
Chapel Hill Bible Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

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