Room at the Top: It’s Okay to Be Seen as a Failure

We are often told there are times we need to “cut our losses.”

For example, if you’ve invested in a losing stock, there’s a point at which you may decide it’s better to get out at a loss than to continue to bleed more money.

Athletes know all too well that it may often be better to punt the ball than go for it on the fourth down. In chess, losing a pawn beats losing your king any day. And in a battle with limited resources, it may be wiser to give up fighting for a smaller territory in order to focus your resources on defending your capital city.

We all nod instinctively about the immeasurable wisdom gained from these failures. The only problem is that even with this knowledge about losing, we want absolutely nothing to do with it!

“When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:34-38

What Jesus is saying in the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is that winning in his eyes will most often look like losing to the world. If you’re going to follow him, you’ll truly be performing for “an audience of one.”

That’s because the rest of the crowd will walk away.

When others judge you for your value (and they always do), you’ll be found lacking by the vast majority. Sometimes, that will include those whom you love and respect. No one else may ever get the fact that, in spite of appearances, in Jesus’ Kingdom you’re actually a winner.

So if you really want to be great in God’s Kingdom, are you going to be okay being viewed as a complete failure?

I’m asking because most people aren’t okay with it, and never will be. It goes against our very nature. And more than anything, we want to be viewed as a success, even if we know in our hearts it’s a mirage.

A few years ago, God started chipping away at the successful image I’d constructed for myself. Lovingly, he pointed out that though I looked good on the outside, there was little of any real value I’d accomplished.

Though I was in a career that was about changing lives (church ministry), little of what I’d done had any eternal consequence in people’s lives. No one was pointing to me and saying, “I know God now because of him,” or “My life has been forever blessed because of his influence.”

There was nothing I could point to that would live on past me. And that’s because I’d avoided sacrifice, loss, and humiliation like the plague.

Here’s something interesting about this passage in Mark. It comes right after Peter has proclaimed boldly, “You are the Christ!” (verse 29). This proclamation of his true identity has got to have been something Jesus had longed to hear. Finally, someone had said out loud what all creation longed to proclaim!

And then, Jesus follows up on this triumphant moment up with some hard truth. He describes how he’ll soon suffer on the cross and be sacrificed for our sins. And this is where Peter completely destroys his batting average for the day. He quickly pulls Jesus to the side and rebukes him for talking about his upcoming suffering. Some of my name-it-and-claim-it friends would have also taken Jesus to task, calling his words a “negative confession.”

Clearly, this is not the upward trajectory you’d expect for an up-and-coming messiah. The new king of the Jews should be a winner, and conquer all those who oppose him, right? But Jesus dashes Peter’s hopes with a jolting response: “Get thee behind me, Satan!” 

Quite a shift in tone from his congratulatory remarks just a few minutes earlier.

Don’t miss the weight of Jesus’ response to Peter. He’s positively furious at any suggestion his exaltation should come without first enduring a crucible of tremendous suffering. It’s as if Jesus sees the suffering as somehow qualifying him for the exaltation yet to come.

Of course, I know Jesus was and is perfect and didn’t need to be “qualified” by anything. He was worthy of worship before the cross. However, his cross is what qualified us to be God’s sons and daughters. Without his cross, we are not qualified. Outside of the sacrifice of Christ, the Bible teaches there’s no other just payment for our sins.

So take away the cross, and millions are lost to eternal damnation. No wonder it struck Jesus so viscerally.

But I believe there was something else important about the sufferings Jesus would endure. His suffering did qualify him to answer one question that up until that point God could not fully answer. I know, I know—that almost sounds like heresy, but bear with me.

God is omniscient, meaning he knows all. However, you could argue that he had not experienced everything. Surely God had never known what it was like to be a helpless baby, not until Jesus was born in Bethlehem’s stable. Surely he had never known what it was to be unsure, until he limited himself in human form, needing to rely on the permission and intervention (through prayer) of the Father.

So when Jesus struggled along the Via Dolorosa toward Mount Calvary to be nailed to a cross, He would now be able to answer a question he’d not been able to answer before. When his children now come to him with their hurts and trials, he can finally, and with all certainty, look them straight in the eyes and answer back,

“Yes, my child. I do indeed know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to suffer!”

Now, let’s bring this back to you and me.

Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ suffering talk is exactly what we say when he begins to lead us into a place of suffering. For Jesus, these are important prerequisites that qualify us as leaders in his new Kingdom. These dark places are our training grounds where we learn the skills needed as his disciples. But for us, it’s the last thing we want to hear.

We brazenly believe that while the way of suffering was just fine for Jesus, we should somehow be exempt.

Seriously, read that last sentence again. We think we are too good for the cross Jesus embraced with both hands!

How do we keep forgetting that following Jesus always leads first to a cross, not a throne? Why do we rebuke our Master as Peter did every time he sends us to the same cruel instrument he embraced? Do we truly think we’re better than him?

The one and only way to true success and significance for the follower of Jesus is through a relentless regimen of loss. Our affection for the appearance of worldly success will always conflict with that regimen, and often make us go AWOL from our training. We simply cannot pursue both.

One pursuit will eventually cancel out the other, because they lead to opposite destinations. One leads us to glorify self, and the other to glorify God alone. And there is no room on his throne for us both!

It gets truly fascinating when you realize that Peter is considered to be the main eyewitness source Mark used in writing this Gospel. Some theologians even believe Mark pretty much wrote it down as Peter told it to him.

So if you compare similar accounts from the other Gospels, you note something interesting. Not only did Peter include this passage, avoiding the temptation to just put in the good parts and leave out his rebuke from Jesus, he added an extra verse that the others don’t include:

“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

Wow. Did anyone ever mess up more in this category than Peter? He denied Christ three times before the crucifixion. So he not only remembers this statement by Jesus, but he includes it here to serve as a stinging indictment of his own failures!

Obviously, Peter wasn’t ashamed of being a loser. He was willing to be debased for all of history so that Christ could be all the more glorified!

I hope you’ll accept the role of “loser” with more enthusiasm than I have, and find a home up on that cross with Christ.

Trust me, there’s lots of room up there. Nobody much is fighting for that particular position “at the top.” But with your view looking out from that summit, you’ll start to see the world and your own life much clearer than ever before.

Dave Gipson
Latest posts by Dave Gipson (see all)
Four Verbs from God

Four Verbs from God

We are often told there are times we need to “cut our losses

What Are Evangelicals Trying to Do?

What Are Evangelicals Trying to Do?

We are often told there are times we need to “cut our losses