When I was young, my friends and I would often run to the potter’s house near our school. We little fellows would stand under the tall coconut tree in front of the potter’s work shed and watch him and his wife make clay pots. Many times I saw the potter forming a beautiful vessel out of the lump of clay he had placed on his wheel. But all of a sudden, the pot would become marred, and the potter would take it off the wheel and throw it away.
Many people start out in their Christian life and in their service for God with wonderful dreams, incredible commitment and great vision. No one around them can match the zeal and fire they have in their hearts. But somehow, whether through circumstances or by their own deliberate decision, knowingly or unknowingly, they make a wrong move—and everything in their life collapses. Regretting their loss, they sit in agony, wishing a thousand times that what they did had never happened. Often because of their failure, they feel that God has cast them aside, just like the potter discarded the marred clay pot.
Having been in ministry for over 30 years, I have confronted, counseled, talked with and wept with many of God’s people who made terrible mistakes in their lives. Some of them were servants of God who had been known for their strength, their uprightness and the incredible ways God had used them. It was extremely painful for me to see them cut down by the enemy. I discovered that their despair over their failure was much deeper than what others felt because they realized the shame they brought on the name of the Lord and His Church. Their struggle was not whether God would forgive their sin but believing that He still could, or even desired to, use them in His kingdom.
We Christians, who are supposed to be recognized by our love for one another, are very quick to judge, condemn and write off completely those whose failures have become the talk of the town or the focus of the news media.
However, each time we write off one of our brothers or sisters who has failed so publicly, Jesus takes a long look into our hearts and says, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7, NASB). The truth is, we all have failed. The only difference is that our sin cannot be printed in the newspaper headlines because it’s hidden in our hearts. We are so confident that we would never murder someone who offended us. But Jesus said that if we become angry with our brother—not just externally, but internally—we have already committed murder (Matthew 5:21–22).
The longer we walk with the Lord, the more we realize how far we are from God’s standard. As He sheds His light in our hearts, we learn to see our lives with His eyes, and we recognize that even our so-called “small” failures are major hindrances to our spiritual growth.
One of my own struggles in life is with discouragement after God puts His magnifying glass on an area in which I’d thought I was doing so well. The failures He reveals to me have become a major reason for some of the darkest valleys I’ve been through. Many times I’ve wept alone or cried myself to sleep over my sins and failures. By His grace, I have learned to return to the cross again and again to find strength to continue in the battle.
In light of God’s perspective, even after 20 years of preaching, the great apostle Paul calls himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). The truth is, we all live with failure, no matter how old we are or where we are in life. The devil uses this fact as a powerful weapon to discourage us and keep us down. Because of past sin and failure, many of God’s people live with an incredible amount of self-rejection, self-pity, guilt, condemnation, hopelessness and remorse. They blame themselves or someone else and, as a result, lack the inner strength to go on. They can’t find any answers to devastating questions like the following, which trouble their hearts:
• What can a woman say in her own defense when she is caught in adultery and brought before the court to be stoned to death? (John 8:3).
• How could this disciple ever repair the damage he did after he denied Christ—never even imagining this would happen? (Luke 22:61).
• What does a man do if his wonderful beginning ends with adultery and then murder to cover it up? Is there life after that? (2 Samuel 12:9).
• What happens when someone becomes physically sick because of sin? How can he ever find the courage to ask God to heal him, since he brought it on himself? (Psalm 32).
• How can a young man hope to ever make it in the ministry when his coworkers look down on him because he didn’t perform well and the most famous apostle of all has labeled him as halfhearted? (Acts 15:38).
• How can a woman ever expect to stop hurting and be free of guilt and inner turmoil, having been through several marriages and divorces? (John 4:18).
Even if we cannot find any answers or solutions to our marred and hopeless situations, the Bible has good news for us: God is in the business of making total failures into beautiful people. He does not rejoice over our failures—neither does He ignore them. But in His great mercy, He turns that which the devil meant for destruction into a stepping stone toward His purpose.
As a matter of fact, failure in our life is one of the most important tools God frequently uses to break, melt and mold us so we can become more like Jesus on the inside.
Should there be any among us who think they are able, perfect, upright and strong in themselves, they must know that God cannot use them to fight in His army in their own strength. Before picking up any of them, He must first lead them through deep valleys until they are broken and realize how helpless they actually are. That’s what happened to Paul. With all of us, God will only begin on level zero, where we know by experience that without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).
Yet for all those who have failed, the most painful questions of all remain: “What do I do when the vessel is marred and the original purpose is lost? Even if God should decide to give me a second chance, will He make something different and a little lesser out of my broken vessel than the original dream on His heart? Can I still fulfill God’s perfect plan—the best He had for me—and not the second best? Where do I go from here? Is there a way out of this mess?”
Is it possible to recover, and recover fully? The answer is a thousand times “Yes!” . . . if only you can believe.
The Lord says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Whenever it looks to us like the end, it’s only the beginning for God. In God’s workshop, the marred clay pot is not thrown away and forgotten. Rather, with great care, the Potter removes the impurity from the clay and later makes it into a better and more valuable vessel than before. You see, Jesus came to “give . . . beauty for ashes” (Isaiah 61:3).
To give us hope as well as instruction, the Bible is filled with illustrations of people who failed miserably. God worked with their failure, sin and frailty and still was able to fulfill His perfect plan in their lives. Many of them became heroes of faith and examples for us to follow.
God’s work began with creation. In Genesis 1:1–2, we read that the earth was formless, void and full of darkness. God never created anything void, chaotic or evil. It became that way through the fall of Lucifer. So what was God going to do with it—throw it away?
No, He began re-creating it with the words, “Let there be light.” After each step, He paused and declared, “It is good—it’s marvelous, wonderful, first-class!”
God re-created this planet that had been so filled with chaos and that had lost all its original beauty. He renewed it in such a way that it became the home for His Son’s bride. It was definitely not a second-best place.
Adam and Eve were God’s most precious creation. He took the clay in his own hands and, with great care, formed man in His own image (Genesis 1:27). The plans He had for their lives were incredible and wonderful. But the man and his wife failed miserably and had to be driven out of the Garden of Eden. An angel with a flaming sword was posted at the entrance to the garden so they would never be able to come back (Genesis 3:24). What was God going to do now after the whole purpose of man’s creation—fellowship with Him—was lost?
He immediately gave them the most wonderful prophecy in Genesis 3:15, the promise of the seed of the woman, who is the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior.
Does this mean the cross is God’s second best because He lost his first plan for mankind when Adam fell? If we say that the Messiah and the cross (and what Jesus accomplished there through His death) are an inferior choice to God’s original plan, it would be blasphemy! God’s gift, “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8), was God’s greatest revelation of His love toward mankind, greater than what Adam ever experienced before his fall. And think about this: The original plan made man only in the image of God, whereas the second one made him a child of God (John 1:12). No, the cross is not the second best—it is the very best!
Moving through the book of Genesis, we encounter Abraham; what a mighty man of God! He was not only the father of the nation of Israel, but of Christianity as well. The Bible declares in Romans 4:16 that all those who believe are the children of Abraham. But this legacy began with lies and deception. Twice, to save his own neck, he put his wife’s life and future in jeopardy by telling others she was only his sister. Then he had relations with a young woman—who was not his wife—and got her pregnant. All along, Abraham hoped God would be pleased with this detour and accept the child as the son of promise.
After all this, God picked Abraham up, used him and even brought His own Son into the world through Abraham’s line. When was the moment in Abraham’s life in which God took this marred clay pot and remade it into the most beautiful vessel? It was when Abraham finally realized and admitted he was a hopeless case (Romans 4:19).
Then there was Jacob. Jacob is the classic example of a messed-up clay pot! Even before he was born, Jacob was chosen by God, as his parents were told, “The older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). What more could Jacob want? But he wasn’t content to wait until God worked out the details of His promise. Jacob became a deceiver in order to get what was already his through God’s plan. He had the audacity to pretend before his father and say, “I am Esau your firstborn” (Genesis 27:19).
As a result, Jacob wasted 20 precious years of his life. He became a nomad; lived in constant pain, agony and turmoil; and missed out on every blessing he could have had in his home and with his family for all those years.
Finally, Jacob came to the end of the road. He wrestled with an angel, who asked him, “What is your name?” (Genesis 32:27). For the first time, he said, “[My name is] Jacob” (Genesis 32:27). With those words, he admitted that he was a deceiver and a failure. And that’s where his name was changed to Israel, meaning “prince with God.”
In the Bible, it is interesting to note that God often introduces Himself like this: “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and . . . Jacob.” Why does God identify His almighty name with “Jacob,” the deceiver who wasted 20 years of God’s time, and not with the new name “Israel”?
The answer is this: Through His name, His very identity, God wants to say to you and me, “I am still the God who makes failures into princes. I am still the God who picks up broken lives, failed marriages, people sick in body because of sin, those who’ve been in prison for 20 years, men and women labeled as losers, nobodies and outcasts—and restores them beyond even their original beauty and purpose.”
Another hero of the Old Testament is Moses, one of the greatest leaders who ever lived. According to God, he was the meekest, most humble man on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3). But Moses didn’t start out that way.
When God called Moses to do something, he was so naturally able that he ruined everything and became a murderer. For 40 years he had to live with that loss, left out and forgotten by the rest of the world. Finally, when God called him to deliver the nation of Israel, his answer went something like this: “God, I am a total failure. I can’t even speak” (see Exodus 4:10). When God picked up Moses there in the desert of Midian, He remade this broken vessel into such beauty that God Himself declared, “There has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 34:10).
Then we read about Samson. What incredible physical strength Samson had! Yet he totally lacked moral convictions, and even common sense, when it came to women. Above all, Samson took the call of God on his life much too lightly. There came a day in Samson’s life when he lost it all, when his vessel was not only broken but shattered into a thousand pieces as well. Then why do we find his name listed in Hebrews chapter 11? While forced to grind at the mill of his enemies—a prisoner, blind and without hope—Samson must have surrendered his wasted life to the One who gives beauty for ashes. God testified that Samson accomplished more when he was blind and in his dying moments than when he was a free man and had his sight (Judges 16:30).
Reading on in the Old Testament, we read about Rahab, a prostitute, who used to stand every night at the street corner of the “red-light district” of Jericho, waving at potential customers. How did her name get into Matthew chapter 1? How was she chosen to be the great, great, great . . . grandmother of Jesus Christ? The only answer is that God’s grace and ability to save, deliver and make new are far beyond our comprehension.
Then there was Jonah. Jonah was a rebellious preacher up until the end of his Nineveh episode and perhaps even beyond. Why would the Son of God identify His name with Jonah’s (Matthew 12:40)? The man had a real problem with deliberate disobedience and considered himself qualified to argue with Almighty God. In the end, Jonah got mad at God for accepting the repentance of the inhabitants of Nineveh and not striking them dead. God tried to teach him a lesson about mercy, but Jonah didn’t get it. Finally, God quit talking to him on the subject, and the whole book of Jonah ends without any answer. We are not told what else transpired in his life, but surely God must have taken this disobedient vessel and turned Jonah into something so wonderful that Jesus could attach His name to him.
More examples abound in the New Testament. Peter, the apostle to whom Jesus gave the key to open the kingdom of the Church to the Jews and to the Gentiles, never imagined that he would qualify for such a task after he had denied Jesus three times in a row. He must have thought that if anyone should be given this honor, it should have been John, the “beloved” disciple.
In fact, even after the resurrection, Peter didn’t think he was good enough for any ministry at all. Deeply disappointed with himself, he said to the rest of the disciples, “I am going fishing” (John 21:3). However, even when Peter had given up on his usefulness to God, Jesus stepped in and in the most loving way restored him to the ministry and to a relationship with Him (John 21:15–19).
Thank God that one of Christ’s disciples, the so-called “doubting Thomas,” came to my village of Niranam, India, in A.D. 52. Would we have accepted him for missionary work with our organization? From all I read in the Gospels about Thomas, he would have never made it past the application form! But Jesus selected Thomas to go to one of the worst regions on earth to plant His Church. What power and love the Lord has to transform someone so unqualified into a mighty apostle!
John Mark—what a blessing this man became to the whole Church by writing the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. He was the one who was rejected from Paul’s ministry team because on his first assignment he deserted his teammates. In Paul’s opinion, John Mark was a failure and didn’t deserve a second chance (Acts 15:36–38).
How devastated and useless John Mark must have felt after the apostle Paul himself declared him unfit for his mission team. But God didn’t give up on him. Rather, He used this failure to do a deep work in John Mark’s life. The change must have been obvious, because even the apostle Paul was convinced that John Mark had become a different man and sent for him (2 Timothy 4:11).
There are so many others we could mention whose lives were marked by failure . . . and by God’s grace, remade into the most beautiful vessels. Take time and read through Matthew chapter 1, and underline the names of all those who were total failures. You’ll find prostitutes, crooks, those who committed incest, liars, murderers and just about everything you can imagine—all that in Jesus’ family, the line through which He chose to come.
The Bible tells us all these unedited life stories of God’s heroes to give us this one message: When we have failed and all seems ruined, God is still able and willing to make the best out of our lives, not the second best. All He asks is that we repent, accept His forgiveness and never look back. When God forgives us, it is as though the offense was never committed.
In the lives of those who once were broken vessels, whom God picked up and in His mercy restored to beauty, we will find wonderful qualities such as real gratitude, a longing for holiness, deep humility and compassion for others.
Please understand me correctly: We will not become better Christians in the end by sinning and failing as much as possible (Romans 3:8). Neither does God need or depend on our failures to work in our lives and teach us valuable lessons. If that were the case, He would not have been able to do any work in Jesus’ earthly life because He never failed.
Even if we fail again and again, God is faithful to remake our vessel each time. However, it is not part of His plan for us to take His grace lightly and carelessly continue to produce failures. He is expecting us to learn from our past mistakes, walk in humility and honor Him with a life of obedience to His Word.
However, we must remember that as long as we live on this earth, the devil will try his best to trip us up. None of us should ever presume to have “arrived” and to be strong, experienced and holy enough to never fail. Not even a spiritual rock who has been faithful for the past 50 years is immune to failure or the worst of disasters. The Bible warns us in 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
In the 18th century, Robert Robinson was saved under George Whitefield’s preaching and became a wonderful man of God and a spiritual rock. He was the one who wrote this well-known hymn:
Come, Thou Fount of ev’ry blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Sadly, Robinson, who had blessed and encouraged so many with this song, wandered far away from those streams of life and the God who saved him. Like the prodigal son, he became involved in all the wickedness and worldliness of his society.
Years later, he was traveling by stagecoach and was sitting next to a young woman who, he noticed, was deeply fascinated by the book she was reading. When she came across a lyric she considered especially beautiful, she read it to Robinson and asked him what he thought of it. This is what she read:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love, . . .2
He broke out weeping, and with tears running down his face, he replied, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”
This encounter brought Robinson back into the outstretched arms of the living God. The Lord restored to him the long years that the cankerworm and the locusts had eaten (Joel 2:25).
God has a Father’s heart, and each time we fail, He feels our pain and the agony we go through. Above all, He wants us to know that no matter how deep we fall or how badly our vessel is shattered, He is still greater! There is no failure in this world, no matter how severe and devastating it might be, that could prevent Him from fulfilling His perfect plan in our life—if we believe.
The overcomers are not the ones who have never failed but rather those who overcame by the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 12:11) that was shed for sinners and total failures.
It is time to get up and go home—Father is waiting for you (Luke 15:20–24).
Reflecting His Image © 1998, 2004 by K.P. Yohannan, the president and founder of Gospel for Asia. It was written with the intention of encouraging and edifying the Body of Christ. To learn more about Gospel for Asia or to receive additional free resources, visit Gospel for Asia’s website.