Wednesday, April 06, 2016

I’ve Got What It Takes — Relatively Speaking

I can’t tell you what sort of ideological programming a child in Ukrainian or Polish or Argentinean or Nigerian society may be exposed to, but for years kids growing up in the Western world have been hearing that we can do or be anything we want.

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” Walt Disney is purported to have said. “If you think you can do it, you can,” confirms John Burroughs. “I don't think anything is unrealistic if you believe you can do it,” agrees Richard Evans.

In the absence of a plausible counter-narrative, children bombarded with such sentiments may absorb them uncritically.

The Road to Contentment

Now it may just be my naturally dour disposition or it may simply be age, but I’ve never been able to swallow the idea that lack of self-esteem is the biggest problem most children face. It seems to me that a child programmed to believe all he or she needs to do in order to succeed is work really hard, or dream bigger — or worst of all, just show up and be the special snowflake he was born to be — is being set up for a hard fall somewhere down the line when reality sets in.

You can do it all, we tell our kids. Except some people can’t.

Your five-foot nothing daughter will never be an NHL goalie no matter how much effort she puts in. Even with all the right music industry connections, your tone-deaf son will never be a pop star. Some things are simply outside the range of possibilities for each of us. Acceptance of this truth and of one’s place in the grand scheme of things is a big step down the road to contentment.

Christianized Self-Esteem

Still, Christians often buy into society’s message unwittingly in the interest of being positive, “encouraging” or “having faith”. The most notable Christianized variant of the Disney mantra involves the out-of-context appropriation of this verse:
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Never mind that far from laying down some kind of universal truism, the apostle Paul is really talking about learning to be content in any and all circumstances while in the service of God, we find the verse quoted as inspiration for everything from playing basketball at a high level to overcoming writer’s block.

To suggest that Steph Curry’s 286 three-pointers in a single NBA season are primarily the product of his faith would be ridiculous. They are primarily the product of a one-in-a-million set of physical attributes bestowed at birth, and secondarily the product of a lot of hard work and practice. Twenty years from now, Curry may have developed a more robust and seasoned faith in Jesus Christ than he has today — his fellow believers certainly hope that is the case — but he will assuredly not be playing at the same dominating level. Some currently-unknown pagan will be doing that.

Noble Aspirations

In the interest of applying this sort of realism to our daily Christian walk, I quote Perry Noble. In a blog post called “You’ve Got What It Takes”, Noble asserts:
“In Christ you've got what it takes to be an incredible spouse, to be the best at a job, to follow Jesus in such a way it causes others to begin to ask you questions about your faith.”
Noble’s third statement is absolutely true. The first two are very much in doubt. Some Christians will never be “incredible” spouses. Some Christians will never be the “best at a job”. Wishing is not being. We do not all have what it takes.

After all, what exactly does “incredible” mean anyway?

The Incredible Spouse

Diligent Christian living and everyday dependence on the Lord will absolutely make you a notably better spouse than you are currently, no doubt about that. And thank the Lord for it, or the divorce rate in the Christian community would be higher than the 15-20% currently estimated. But will it make you “incredible”? Not by any kind of objective standard. If the guy across the aisle at church is a better husband today, perhaps he will be tomorrow as well, and maybe even ten years from now.

But he didn’t start where you started. Maybe the guy across the aisle had off-the-charts role model parents and has been walking with Christ and diligently reading his Bible and acting on it daily for thirty years. If you grew up with an absentee father and an alcoholic mother and just happened to get saved a month or two back, your chances of competing with him in the “incredible husband” department are slim indeed. No amount of happy talk and feel-good bromides can fix that.

But diligent Christian living will surely make you the best “you” you can be. A concerted, long-term effort to love your wife as Christ loved the church may not ever put you in “incredible” territory, but it will not go unappreciated, I assure you.

The Best There Was, The Best There Is ...

Likewise, I may not have what it takes to be “best at a job”. Objective reality rears its ugly head and points out that I work with a number of smarter, better educated go-getters that are simply in another league where technical expertise is concerned. They grasp things that are impossible for me to figure out, and work with a speed, efficiency and dexterity I can only dream about. No amount of faith is likely to change that. For me, “best” is not a reasonable aspiration.

What I can be is notably better than I am now. What do I bring to the table as a Christian, even with my more limited skill set? Well, I can be on time every day. I can put my nose to the grindstone like nobody’s business. I can make myself available when needs must. I can ignore office gossip and treat everyone well. I can be honest, loyal and look for every opportunity to help out. I can keep confidences. I can commend others for their hard work. I can watch others and learn to do my job better, even if I’ll never be Top Ten.

If I work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, I may not be the best at the job, but I’ll have done the very best I can do.

Funnily enough, as a manager trying to figure out who to lay off in bad times, some of the “best there is” at their jobs are among the first out the door.

What It Takes

The world (and even many Christians) will tell you that you have what it takes. They may well be spouting utter hogwash. All the desire and good will in the world cannot replace physical size, talent, strength, experience, intelligence, stamina or skill in certain situations.

For the Christian, a more modest, realistic perspective is appropriate:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Do you have what it takes? Sure. You have the measure of faith God has assigned you. You have the ability to do precisely those things for which he made you and equipped you in the exact way he made you to do them. I do too.

We all have what it takes. Relatively speaking.


  1. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to discover how to be grateful for what God has given you, and to be free to stop being jealous of what He has not. The latter, freedom from envy, is only possible if you've achieved the former, gratitude to God.

    A clear mark of a wicked disposition is given us in Romans 1:21 -- "...neither were they grateful." Learning to be grateful both for what has been given to us and also for what has not, is a matter of spiritual maturity.

    The sort of "possibility thinking" the world advocates is its dead opposite.

  2. ?? "possibility thinking", could you clarify? Thanks.

    1. Sure. "Possibility thinking" is what Tom is talking about at the start of the article. See also 1 Tim. 6:6.