Permission to Fail

The original version of this article was written for Through the Roof ( and is reproduced here by kind permission.

I was talking to a friend recently about the difficulty she has in finding people willing to get involved and take leadership roles in groups and church activities. “People don’t want to do it,” she told me, “because they’re afraid to fail. I wish I could get them to see that it’s better to have a go, even at the risk of failing, because they will grow through the experience and others will step up to help them.”
That started me thinking. Is failure really the worst thing that could happen? Sure, it can be embarrassing and dent one’s pride, but is that such a bad thing? I remember when I started a community service from our church, giving practical and emotional support to families with seriously ill and disabled newborn babies in our local hospital’s Special Care Baby Unit. I woke up in a cold sweat one Sunday morning as the realisation hit me that if I messed up on this it wouldn’t just be personally embarrassing, it would tarnish the church’s reputation in the whole community. Self-doubt crept in: could I really do this? And then I went to church and that morning someone got up to share a quote he had just read: “Attempt something so big that it’s bound to fail unless God intervenes.” It was God’s answer to my self-doubt. I set up the project, and God did intervene. Over the next seventeen years until it closed it became a lifeline to almost 100 families in our community.

When you look at the stories of the great people of God in the Bible, many of them arrived at their greatness via the route of failure. Moses allowed his fear of public speaking to cause him to refuse God’s assignment for his life, to the point where he really tried God’s patience: “Then the Lord became angry with Moses. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he speaks well. And look! He is on his way to meet you now. He will be delighted to see you. Talk to him, and put the words in his mouth. I will be with both of you as you speak, and I will instruct you both in what to do. Aaron will be your spokesman to the people. He will be your mouthpiece, and you will stand in the place of God for him, telling him what to say.’” (Exodus 4. 14-16).

And what about Elijah? Even after his defeat of the prophets of Baal he allowed himself to be overcome by fear and fell into a deep depression (1 Kings 19). When Mordecai asked Esther to plead with the king for her people, she at first refused, fearing that she might be killed. It was only when Mordecai pointed out that unless she persuaded the king to change his mind she would be killed along with all her people anyway, that she submitted to Mordecai’s words and God’s plan for her life (Esther 4. 7-13).

Joseph confidently followed God’s will; once in Egypt, he didn’t put a foot wrong. And yet he had to go through unjust accusations, a long imprisonment and being forgotten by those he had helped until he saw the fulfilment of God’s promises for his life (Genesis 40). Hot-headed David would have wiped out all of Nabal’s family and incurred bloodguilt, if it hadn’t been for the pleading of a wise lady who dared to challenge him and cause him to turn back from the course he had set out on (1 Samuel 25).

Martha misunderstood the heart of following Jesus, and blamed her sister when she should have been following her example. Jesus had to correct her publicly, in front of her sister and the disciples (Luke 10. 38-42). Peter denied Jesus out of fear for his own life, and came to bitterly regret it (Matthew 26. 69 – 75). Paul made a mistake about the character of Mark, assuming that if he had blown it once, he could not be trusted. But Barnabas, whose name means son of encouragement, gently showed him that God had a better way. (Acts 15. 36-39)

Even Jesus had his own experience of failure, both in private and in public. He reached out in love to the rich young ruler, only to see him turn his back and walk away (Mark 10. 17-22). He preached in his home town and far from receiving a standing ovation, the crowd tried to kill him. (Luke 4. 16-30)

So if you have ever thought about starting some venture for God (see here for some suggestions if you’re stuck for ideas), but you’ve stepped back because you’ve thought, “I’m not good enough” or “What if I mess up and look a fool?” I would encourage you to think again. Many of the people we now honour as having served a vital role in God’s purposes arrived there via the route of failure. In some cases, God used them in spite of their failures; in other cases, the journey through failure was an essential part of their spiritual growth and character development.

What if God is challenging you to trust Him in spite of your self-doubt? What if He plans to intervene in your venture so it doesn’t fail? What if failure is one of the ways He intends to grow your character? Would you turn down the chance of being schooled by Him into someone who can make a difference and bring about change in the world? So I would encourage you to think again, dare to step out and see what God will do with you and through you.

Playing with fire

This is a transcript of the talk I gave to the ladies of the church while I was in India.
How do you know, when you start something, if it will become an addiction? Answer: you don’t. Some people smoke a bit of cannabis when they’re young and never touch it again. Others get so attracted to the “high” it gives them that they have to go on trying ever stronger drugs in search of a higher high until they are hopelessly addicted and end up ruining their entire lives and all their relationships. Some people can have the odd alcoholic drink on social occasions and go weeks without a drink quite happily. For others, the first drink they try becomes the first step on a path to alcoholism which can in turn lead to losing their job, becoming homeless, losing their relationships and destroying their liver. Some people can glance at a few pornographic magazines or online videos and think, “That’s not for me”. Others get hooked and sucked into a trap from which they never escape.

It’s a bit like holding a paper to a flame. You might think, “I don’t want to burn this whole piece of paper, I just want to singe the edge.” But before you know it, flames are licking over the whole paper and it is consumed until nothing but ash remains. (I demonstrated this by lighting the corner of a piece of paper – before long it was entirely in flames.) Psychologists who treat porn addicts say there are two things they all have in common: they hate using pornography, and they can’t stop.

Effects of pornography use:
Pornography depersonalises. Watch any porn video and you will see it is the woman who is being treated as a throw-away commodity. Even if a woman starts to look at pornography in order to take some pleasure from the male actors, if she looks carefully she will notice that the only function of the woman in the video is to give the man what he desires. Not only are her desires not attended to; it is not even acknowledged that she has any desires. Her sole reason for existing is to serve his pleasure.

Women who feed their minds on this will come to have a low estimation of themselves – because God did not create women solely for the sexual pleasure of men, and God does not want women to see themselves in those terms. Men who feed their minds on this will come to despise the women in their lives and will treat their wives, sisters and daughters with disrespect.

Pornography causes brain damage – it changes the part of the brain which is called the striatum. This part of the brain is affected by the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical that makes us feel good when we have worked hard and achieved something. Pornography gives that dopamine boost without doing anything to work for it. Because of this, it damages the system in our brains which produces a good feeling as the reward for hard work. We are no longer motivated to work for a reward because we have found a way of getting the reward without the work. Neurological studies have shown that the striatum – the part of the brain that controls motivation – actually shrinks with regular porn use. Someone who regularly watches porn is not just lowering their motivation, they are actually causing physical damage to their brain. In fact, it has been shown that masturbating to pornography floods the brain with more feel-good chemicals than snorting cocaine does. Pornography is more addictive than narcotics and can be a harder addiction to break.

Why does this matter? Studies of the effects of pornography have mainly focused on men since most users of pornography are men. Men who experience this change in their brain find 2 effects: firstly, they begin to compulsively seek out the substance (pornography) which gives them this reward, to the point that pornography addiction becomes the only important thing in their life. Secondly, because they have dismantled the brain’s motivation and reward system, they lose motivation in all areas of life. This is why successful, high-flying businessmen wreck their careers and relationships, because they can no long be bothered to put in the effort that such attainments require.

Then there is loss of libido – pornography use is now believed to be the leading cause of erectile dysfunction in men. When a man becomes used to the instant gratification of masturbating to a porn movie or image, he becomes incapable of responding to the real-life interaction with an actual woman. Wooing another person takes time. It takes unselfishness. One of the main pleasures of marital love comes from giving enjoyment to the other. This whole aspect of pleasure is absent in pornography use – self-gratification is the only thing that matters. And after a while the person becomes actually incapable of responding in love to another human being.

I wish 15 year old boys at school could be taught that pornography results in erectile dysfunction. If you get into this habit now, by the time you’re 20 or 25 you may be impotent. If you meet someone and fall in love you may by then be incapable of having sex with her. I wonder how many would want that to be the pathway of personal relationships stretching out before them if they knew. But this doesn’t only affect men. Self-gratification always renders you incapable of normal loving relationships.

Sociological studies have shown that, once your basic needs are met, what makes you happy is not having lots of material wealth or lots of sexual partners. What makes you happy is having loving, trusting relationships. Pornography makes you incapable of love. It is focused on me, my needs, my desires, getting what I want now, no matter who gets hurt in the process. Such a person cannot enter into loving relationships. Pornography also destroys trust. It is a secretive occupation. It causes shame, and so people conceal what they are doing. They lie to their partners; they delete their internet history. Partners of porn addicts often feel a deep unease, a sense that all is not well in the relationship, but because of the secrecy and lying, they cannot point to anything that is at the root of their feeling, and they may come to mistrust their own judgement or even doubt their own sanity. It is a deeply disturbing way to live, and eventually leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, in the UK divorce lawyers are reporting that pornography addiction is increasingly being cited as a cause of marital breakdown in divorce cases.

Pornography users develop tolerance – the more we are exposed to something, the less effect it has on us. We need ever more extreme stimuli to achieve the same effect. This is why pornography addiction always escalates. I knew one person who started out by looking at a few nudes in magazines. The person saw nothing wrong with this, and thought it was harmless. This person would have been horrified at the thought of watching something that harmed other people. But a number of years down the line, this same person was addicted to watching sadistic abuse of women and even children. Eventually, things that would have appalled and horrified this person at the outset became the minimum necessary for their stimulation. This is always the pattern with addiction.

Pornography is a gateway drug. If you examine the case of any sex offender in jail you will find that they started out by looking at pornography. Eventually merely looking at it is no longer satisfying. The person has to act out what they have been watching in order to achieve the same level of satisfaction.

Pornography use fuels and funds the people trafficking racket. As long as there are consumers of pornography there will be a lucrative market for women and girls. If you are looking at pornography online – whether or not you are paying for it – you are in some measure responsible for the trafficking of girls. If you think the women in these online videos are acting freely and of their own volition, listen to these quotes from female porn stars who left the business when they met Jesus:

“Guys are punching you in the face. You get ripped. Your insides can come out of you. It’s never ending. You’re viewed as an object—not as a human with a spirit. People do drugs because they can’t deal with the way they’re being treated.”

“We all took drugs. It was the only way we could get through what we were being forced to do. The drugs we binged on were Ecstasy, Cocaine, Marijuana, Xanax, Valium, Vicodin and alcohol.”

“My career ended in violence, fear, abuse, drugs, heartbreak, and almost death. From cutting my arms up to being choked in my own house, to a nervous breakdown that led me into a car accident from almost overdosing on prescription drugs.” (Quotes from

When you become a consumer of pornography, you are personally responsible for women being trafficked into that kind of abuse.

God’s original design
We were created for relationships. How could it be otherwise, when we are made in the image of the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Anything that inhibits our capacity for relationships diminishes us and damages the image of God in us. The only things we can take into eternity with us are our relationship with Jesus and our relationships with the people He has given us in this life. If we have destroyed those relationships, what will eternity hold for us?

It’s interesting that Paul opens Ephesians chapter 5 by contrasting God’s way of love with a life tainted by impurity, as if the two are completely incompatible. He writes, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” A wise man once said, “The devil’s plan is to get couples to have sex before marriage and to have no sex after marriage.” Pornography is one of the tools he uses to achieve this.

Any addiction is an idol. It comes between us and God, and takes a place in our lives that only He should have. And as Jesus said, you can’t serve two masters. If you are giving yourself in secret to sexual impurity, you can’t have an open, trusting and worshipful relationship with Jesus. And you will become miserable, because we are designed to find our happiness and fulfilment in God, not in the things that draw us away from Him.

Pornography makes women not simply subordinate but worthless, a commodity to be used and thrown away. But God didn’t make women less than men. Eve was taken from a rib in Adam’s side, not from his head to be his boss, and not from his feet to be his slave but from his side to be his equal and companion. Jesus gave women great honour. He allowed Mary of Bethany to sit and learn from him along with the men – something no other rabbi would do. He told Martha, who was busy with so many things, that few things were needed – in fact, only one, and that was the one her sister had chosen – to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from Him, alongside the men. He didn’t believe a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and He certainly didn’t believe women existed only to be used and abused by men.

Pornography gives you unreal expectations about how your husband should treat you. It tells you that you are of less worth than men, that you deserve nothing, that your needs and desires don’t matter or don’t exist. But the Bible tells us that a husband should live with his wife as joint-heirs of God’s grace. Peter even says that if a man doesn’t treat his wife as an equal co-heir in this way, his prayers won’t get anywhere. Paul says that a man should love his wife the way Christ loved the Church – and then he goes on to spell out what that means. Christ gave Himself up for the church – so a husband should give himself up for his wife. That means laying down his own desires and preferring hers. Christ washed the Church by the water of His word – so a husband’s words should have a purifying effect on his wife, cleansing her of the negative images the world tries to put on her. When you go out and see all those adverts that demean women, when you get insults shouted at you in the street, when someone at work loses patience with you and says mean things, you should be able to come home to your husband and his words should wash all of that off you and remind you of who you really are, a precious child of God, and beautiful and precious to him, too. Christ treated the Church in a way that made her radiant, holy and blameless – so a man should fill his wife with joy and enable her to lead a godly life. A man should care for his wife as much as he cares for his own body. He does not hate his body, but feeds and clothes it, and so he should show the same love and care for his wife as he does for his own body. This is the exact opposite of how pornography tells women they deserve to be treated, but we should base our view of ourselves on the Word of God, and not on what the godless world wants us to believe.

What can we do?
If you have already dipped your toe into the world of pornography, get out again as fast as you can. Don’t wait till the flames have completely consumed the piece of paper. What puts out flames? Water. (Here I again ignited the corner of a piece of paper , but before the flames could consume it, I put it out by pouring water on it.) Paul talks about the water of God’s word. Fill your mind with the word of God. Every time you are tempted to watch porn, pick up your Bible instead. Jesus is the living water. Draw near to Him – start with repentance for having been drawn into pornography and allow Him to cleanse you and give you a fresh start. Pornography causes shame, and shame always drives you away from God. Let your repentance and His forgiveness draw you right back into the heart of His loving embrace.

Remember that when Jesus first revealed that He was the living water, and that whoever drank from Him would never thirst again, He was speaking to a woman who had a string of broken marriages and was living in sin with a man she wasn’t married to. He had nothing but love, acceptance and cleansing for her. She didn’t fear his reproach – instead, she brought her whole village to Him so they could also receive His love and find the living water. When you turn to Him in repentance He won’t reproach you or tell you to go and do some penance and clean yourself up before you come to Him, He will just accept and welcome and cleanse you. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

What are people searching for when they turn to pornography? For men it may be a quick fix, but for women it’s more probably a fantasy of romance and a happy ever after with a handsome hero. But these things are like a leaky well that very soon dries up. Deep down, every woman is asking two questions: am I loved? And am I beautiful? And in the arms of Jesus you hear those whispers you are longing for – yes you are loved, and yes you are beautiful. The buzz you get from pornography doesn’t last. It soon goes away, and you have to watch ever more extreme stuff to try to get it back. But Jesus is the living water that never dries up. Because He lives in you, you never have to go somewhere in search of something more to satisfy your thirst. He becomes in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

Perhaps you have never been tempted by pornography. Perhaps you loathe and avoid it. But you are married to a man who has been ensnared by it. What can you do? You can’t handle this on your own. He isn’t going to listen to you. You probably already know he has started to disrespect you because of what he’s feeding his mind on. So he isn’t going to take notice of what you say. I know it’s embarrassing for a woman to discuss such things with a pastor. But you are going to have to swallow your embarrassment and talk to a pastor. This is the first step towards getting help. Your husband is going to need men he respects who will challenge him and hold him to account. So please don’t suffer in silence, and please don’t wait until this rips your marriage apart. Go and talk to a pastor you trust before it’s too late.