A Man’s Fear of Failure
When we quietly suspect that we don’t have what it takes, we shrink back in all sorts of passive ways. So what does it take to stay engaged in the face of fear?
Odorless. Tasteless. Invisible. Deadly.
I’m talking about carbon monoxide, of course. The gas that, if undetected, will quietly suffocate anyone in a home where that silent killer is leaking from a faulty furnace (or some other source). When dealt with properly, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is minimized, if not completely eliminated.
Fear can operate similarly in the heart of a man. No, it may not strangle our souls as quickly or assuredly as carbon monoxide. But left undetected or ignored, fear can poison a man.
The fear of failure in particular can contribute to all kinds of corrosively passive choices. In moments where we need to engage actively — whether at work or in a romantic relationship — it can feel safer to passively retreat into false comforts rather than risk the possibility of failure. But some concrete antidotes can minimize the toxic effects of fear on our hearts and relationships.
Let’s take a closer look at the how the fear of failure can lead to behaviors such as passivity, checking out and retreating from responsibility, as well as how we can battle this subtle-but-significant temptation.
The faces of fear
Many voices throughout the centuries have observed that a man’s identity is closely tied to what he does. All the way back in the garden, God gave Adam and Eve the responsibility to be stewards of creation, to care for the animals, to tend to the land (Genesis 1:26–31). From the beginning, there was a job to do.
When Adam and Eve disobeyed, the first man’s labor was one of the first things God said would be affected by the Fall: “The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it” (Genesis 3:17–19).
So our theological starting point here is that God has called us to redemptive, life-giving work. But He also said that work will often be very difficult. It might even seem futile at times.
As we grow up and move out into the world, we develop a sense of who we are and what we’re good at. But success requires both risk and hard work. At times, the fear of moving purposefully into both our work and relationships can seem pretty daunting. Author and speaker John Eldredge has suggested that as men face these important callings, the primary question we’re asking ourselves (whether we realize it) is this: “Do I have what it takes?” Do I have what it takes to get the job done? To excel? To make a contribution? To accomplish what needs to be done? To win a woman’s heart?
That question is indeed important for men to grapple with. Because when we quietly suspect that we don’t have what it takes, we shrink back in fear in all sorts of passive ways.
Personally, I’ve seen this dynamic over and over in my life. I played football for two years in high school. I was very nearsighted but didn’t have any kind of sports glasses back in the day, which meant I was practically playing blind. I lacked confidence that I could even see what was going on in a given play. More than once I got completely plowed by an opposing player in practice or in a game because of that liability. No surprise, then, that I often lurked behind the bench, hoping my coach wouldn’t notice that I hadn’t played much. Eventually, I quit because the thought of actually playing stirred up so much anxiety in me. I knew I didn’t have what it took to succeed, and I was deeply fearful of having that weakness revealed in such a public, embarrassing way.
As an adult, I see my tendency to passively disengage in more subtle ways. Instead of diving into a hard assignment, I might choose the path of avoidance by surfing my favorite websites. Or instead of doing the real relational work of engaging emotionally with my wife, I’ll turn on the news and check out. While on the surface it may look like laziness, fear is often at the root.
Passive disengagement can show up in many forms. It’s so easy to indulge a bit too much in some form of screen-based diversion, such as video games or endlessly bingeing on Netflix. In work and church spaces where we might have opportunities to serve or use our gifts, we may shrink back, not wanting to risk failure, to risk exposure. If we’re interested in a romantic relationship with a particular someone, we’ll talk to her in a group without ever mustering up the courage to actually, you know, ask her out. Because what if she says no? It’s risky business, after all.
In the face of fear, addictive and self-protective behaviors can also creep in because they seem to insulate us from the stinging possibility of failure. In more extreme cases, passively retreating might take the form of pursuing false intimacy instead of real relationships (as happens with pornography, for instance), or simply numbing ourselves with alcohol or other chemical addictions as an attempt to escape reality. Those choices are obviously more self-destructive, but at their core they remain deeply passive.
In the moment we might feel comfortably “safe.” But if we’re honest, we know we’re not doing well, that we’re avoiding risk. And a layer of quiet shame can settle down upon us, reinforcing those tendencies if we don’t actively deal with them.
So what does it take to stay engaged in the face of fear?
Facing our fears
In Mark 4:35–41, Jesus and the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm threatened to swamp their fishing boat. Fear paralyzed them: “Teacher! Don’t you care that we’re going to die?” (verse 38). And that’s what fear does, of course: It distorts our perspective. After calming the wind and waves, Jesus turned to them and said, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (verse 40).
Faith, of course, is the antidote to fear. Faith infuses us with the strength and courage to move forward, to take risks, to give of ourselves as men. And growing in an active, muscular faith with regard to our fears and passive tendencies involves several elements.
Dependence on God.
The first, and most crucial, step in facing our fears is asking for God’s help by acknowledging that we actually don’t have what it takes on our own. In John 15:5, Jesus told the disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.” Begin by telling God, “Father, I need your help to change. Please help me to recognize the ways that I’m tempted to disengage, and to change those habits. And help me to see the good things I miss when I choose disengagement.”
Hand in hand with dependence on God is growing in our self-awareness. Sometimes we’re all-too-aware of shameful ways we may passively try to cope with our fears, such as addictive behaviors. Other times, we need insight from others to help us see truths about ourselves that we may not be able to recognize, such as realizing that fear is at the root of some of our choices to disengage.
As we recognize our short-circuited responses to fear, we can confess those things to God. “Lord, I’m beginning to see that I do _________ rather than face the issues that are causing fear in my work or relationships. Please help me to cultivate courage in those moments, depending on your strength to change those patterns.”
Growing life-giving relationships.
Even though this one is pretty obvious, it’s still hard for most men. We especially want other guys to think we have it together, that we have what it takes. Personally, I have a tendency to want to solve problems on my own, to depend on my own strengths instead of admitting I need help. Once a close pastor friend told me, “Adam, you’re the most emotionally independent person I’ve ever met.” He didn’t mean that as a compliment. Instead, he was challenging my stubborn tendency to want to control things, to work it all out on my own. He wisely knew that I needed input and that I needed to grow in my ability to receive others’ love, acceptance and help.
Our fallen, fractured world has no shortage of stuff that might intimidate us as men. Passivity is a temptation that lurks no matter how old we are, how mature we are or how many times we’ve faced down the demon of fear. As we talk to God and others who love us, as we’re honest about our weaknesses and unhealthy patterns, and as we ask for help in prayer and in close relationships, God works redemptively in our hearts.
God can help us move out of crippling disengagement into purposeful, muscular contributions to the tasks and people in our lives. We can embrace and embody Paul’s promise in 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.”
Copyright 2019 Adam R. Holz. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Adam R. Holz has served as an editor and writer for Plugged In for 15 years. He also spent a decade working for The Navigators, mostly as associate editor for Discipleship Journal. Adam is the author of the NavPress Bible Study “Beating Busyness.” Adam and his wife, Jennifer, have three children and enjoy watching movies, playing board games and playing music together.