Processing and profiting from failure: Dare to re-engage (pt 2)

In 1965 I endangered my family, jettisoned my calling and career, and dis-engaged from the life I envisioned and for which I was preparing.

Wallace Henley
Wallace Henley, former Senior Associate Pastor of 2nd Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. |

I described in Part I how I abruptly disrupted my graduate education to accept the pastorate of a church in Nuremberg, Germany, despite the efforts of godly family and friends to dissuade me, and how I sold almost all we possessed and moved my young wife and year-old daughter across the wild December Atlantic on a freighter.

I dreamed of finishing my graduate degree at the prestigious (to me at that time, at least) University of Erlangen under its then-famous theological faculty. However, within four months, the Nuremberg church could no longer support us because the American military personnel who comprised ninety percent of the membership were being sent to Vietnam and other duty stations related to that war.

I had to find a way to get the three of us home. The best rate I could get was on Icelandic Airlines, which meant a stop at Reykjavik in the middle of a bitterly cold night, then across the Atlantic aboard a propeller aircraft.

Somewhere over the dark ocean I looked at our sleeping baby daughter wrapped in a reindeer skin blanket that a thoughtful flight attendant had loaned us and felt anger and despair. Confidence that had turned into arrogance and then hubris and then humiliation hemorrhaged out of my aching soul.

Mostly I hated myself. My ego had driven me to seek the European degree. I had failed to do what a good husband and father should, and carefully assess the implications for my wife and child. I had let down a lot of people, claiming God’s approval and leadership.

On the airplane that night I vowed I was through with the ministry, which I had pursued passionately from age fifteen. The questions from my “Nuremberg trial” burned as I realized I was confused about the will of God and especially my ability to hear Him clearly.

Little did I know that in the months, years, and decades ahead God would teach me the most valuable of lessons. I wince at memories of my “Nuremberg trial” but also thank God for it.

Here are a few lessons I learned (with more to come in Parts III and IV):

  • Self-honesty is vital for your healing, but self-hate is destructive of your spiritual and psychological health.

I began to see self-hate as penance. I relentlessly whipped myself mentally and emotionally. In the process, I was merely bringing more grief to loved ones who wanted to see me positive and strong again. I learned that self-honesty is an important facet of true grace. Without it, what meaning does grace have? The enormity of God’s grace becomes evident as we frankly acknowledge the failures but simultaneously receive God’s restorative grace and forgive ourselves. This takes us through the entire process of restoration from hubris to humiliation to honesty to honing, and finally arriving at hope.

  • Don’t let a catastrophic failure redefine the rest of your life.

Michael Jordan, among the greatest of basketball players — if not the greatest — refused to allow failure to define himself. Jordan said: “I have missed more than nine thousand shots in my career... lost almost three hundred games... On twenty-six occasions I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I missed... I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”[1]

  • Failure may drive you into a wilderness for a season, but you must re-engage.

First, I had to re-engage with what I believed about God and His will.

I pondered atheism until I realized that to believe there is no Something, one must know everything lest the Something might exist in that knowledge-gap. Agnosticism wouldn’t work because of “Pascal’s Wager”: If I die as a believer in God and I was wrong I will never know it; but if I die as a non-believer and was wrong I will know it for all eternity. Therefore, I would continue believing in God intellectually in some broad deistic sense, but not as a Person with whom I was in relationship. I drifted briefly toward a “Star Wars theology”: God was more a transcendent “force” than loving Person.

That attitude did not hold. The longing for relational interaction with God intensified.

Finally, I came to the place at which we all must arrive if we are to know Him intimately. I cast myself, my mistakes, and failures on His extravagant grace. Slowly I began to experience the reality that when we repent God “removes our sin from us as far as the east from the west... and remembers them no more.” (Psalm 103:12; Isaiah 43:25)

As that sense of His presence intensified, I realized I must re-engage with my calling. I had become a newspaper journalist and loved it, and ultimately a White House aide. But my hunger for church ministry grew more compelling.

One day in 1973, seven years after our return from Germany, and three years after becoming an aide to the president at the White House, God dramatically renewed my call to give myself to preaching the Gospel.

Among other things I had to re-engage with my graduate education, so I enrolled in seminary and earned a master’s degree in pastoral ministry and leadership.

In my processing of failure, I discovered that re-engagement is the key step in moving from process to profit. Dare to take that step and walk it out all the way to hope realized.

[1] Cited at

Wallace Henley was born two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 5, 1941. After serving as a White House aide during the Nixon administration, Henley went on to become an award-winning journalist for the Birmingham News in Alabama. He is the author of more than twenty books, including God and Churchill with Jonathan Sandys, Winston Churchill’s great-grandson. Henley has led leadership conferences around the globe. He has been married to his wife, Irene, for more than fifty years. They have two children, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. His latest book, Two Men from Babylon: Nebuchadnezzar, Trump, and the Lord of History, is available wherever books are sold.

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