In my last post I talked a bit about the slightly bewildering word potential – and what that might mean in Gods eyes for us. But what’s our part to play in stretching what we can do, and trying to grasp God’s perspective of that?
Ephesians 3 is all about the dreams the guy who wrote it – Paul – had for the Gentiles – that is non-jewish people who had come to know God. He’s clearly excited about who and what they could be and do. After all, he had experienced what God could do with him – he describes himself as ‘less than the least of all the Lord’s people’ (verse 8 NIV) but sounds amazed at what he has ended up doing. Check out the way the Message puts it: ‘It came as a sheer gift to me, a real surprise.. When it came to presenting the Message to people who had no background in God’s way, I was the least qualified of any of the available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities.’ (verses 7-8 The Msg).
Paul is passionate about the potential these new Christians had. He prays passionately for them, and concludes: ‘to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory’ (v20-21a NIV).
So, if God is able to do ‘immeasurably more’ than anything we could ask or imagine, how do we know what to aim for? How do we make the right decisions, have the right aspirations, follow the right roads? You may have heard people talk about ‘finding their calling’ – and its a similar thing. Reaching your potential is about finding that sweet spot where you are doing something God made you to do. But it isn’t just something you find and then sit with for the rest of your life. Reaching your potential is a lifelong journey – and one that may take you to some surprising places.
1. Its about FUTURE potential!
If you feel that you have a sense of something God might want to do through you, but find it largely alarming and/or daunting, don’t worry – you’re in good company. The bible is full of people who reacted in less than enthusiastic terms when called by God. Moses interrupted God to ask him to send someone else (Exodus 4:13), Abraham laughed in God’s face (Genesis 17:17), and Jeremiah felt he was too young and inexperienced to fit the job description (Jeremiah 1:6). We have to realise God looks at us and sees now what we are now but what we can be – what God could do working with and through us. It takes time. Abraham was 75 when God first called him and spoke of what he would become. When he was 99 even the tiniest first step was yet to happen. He was 100 before Sarah gave birth. That’s 25 years between calling and the very start of it being fulfilled.
Feel like you’re the kind of person least likely to show a lot of potential? In the book 1 Samuel, we read about what happened when Samuel was told by God to go and look for the man God had anointed as the next king. He knew it was one of Jesse’s sons, so he travelled to their house and asked Jesse to present his sons to him. The bible tells us that when Samuel saw the first he was pretty impressed. He liked what he saw! He thought that this man was definitely ‘it’! But God said no. In the end he saw all of Jesse’s sons but none of them were the man. No doubt a bit worried he asked if there were any more sons? Yes, there was one but he was the smallest – the ‘runt’ according to the Message translation. So David was brought before Samuel and straight away he knew – this was the man. As we read in the story, ‘Looks aren’t everything… God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart.’ (1 Samuel 16:7 Msg).
You may have heard this quoted before. But have you ever thought about David’s perspective? When this exciting moment was happening – Jesse’s sons meeting this holy man because he felt one of them had a huge potential anointing on their future, where was David? Not in the midst of all the excitement and attention, but sent to the fields to look at after the sheep. Those bigger and more influential than he felt he was so unlikely to have this potential that he was totally overlooked.
Ever felt overlooked? Left out? Invisible? Ignored? Don’t despair – God sees things differently.
2. God often uses past experiences
Slightly messy past? Worried it might not set you out for a significant future? You needn’t be! God not only takes into account our pasts, but often uses them in the plans he has for us in the future. Take Paul, for example. Paul was a guy with a slightly murky past. He was a Roman citizen, but also a Jew, and started out about as anti Jesus as it was possible to be. He was one of the ringleaders involved in hunting down and overseeing the killing of those who were early Jesus followers (we first hear about him, still named Saul, at the end of acts 7, when Stephen is stoned to death). In fact the reason he was on the road to Damascus where he had his dramatic conversion experience, was likely to be that he was hunting for more Jesus followers. But God turned him round, and he became one of the most prolific early evangelists.
Paul had many dramatic experiences in his journeys as a travelling evangelist, but one particular one is recounted in Acts 21. Paul had been in Jerusalem not even a week before He was attacked by the crowd, and then arrested. On his way to the barracks Paul asked the captain a question. Acts 21:39 tells the story: ‘Paul said to the captain, “can I say something to you?” He answered, “Oh I didn’t know you spoke Greek. I thought you were the Egyptian who not long ago started a riot here … Paul said “No, I am a Jew, born in Tarsus. And I’m a citizen still of that influential city..let me speak to the crowd.”’ (Acts 21:39 The Msg). Then on getting in front of the crowd, Paul changes language: ‘A hush fell over the crowd as Paul began to speak. He spoke in Hebrew. “My dear brothers and Fathers, listen carefully to what I have to say …” when they heard him speaking in Hebrew, they grew even quieter.No one wanted to miss a word.’ (Acts 21:40-22:1 The Msg). And so Paul’s background – and his language skills as a result – changed what happened to him. The story continues. Paul is taken for interrogation – and likely torture. But on the way he stops the captain again and asks if it is even legal to do this to a Roman Citizen: ‘The captain was impressed. “I paid a huge sum for my citizenship, how much did it cost you?” “Nothing” said Paul “I was free from the day of my birth.” That put a stop to the interrogation.’ (Acts 22:27 Msg). Again and again Paul’s past plays a significant role in what happens – and this incident sets in chain a sequence of events that end up with Paul speaking personally to the King – and then being sent to Rome.
God knows who you are, and what your past is – and he will use it. Be realistic – things you have been through may mean that some things are off limits for you – but that doesn’t mean God can’t use you. Remember Romans 8:28: ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ God will use your past – good or bad – for good in the things he has called you for.
3. Reaching your potential often begins with frustration
Here’s a tricky truth. Ever been to an event, service etc and been so utterly frustrated by something going on there that you cannot enjoy it – in fact you can’t wait to get out? Ever struggled with not wanting to be over critical, but experiencing something that to you feels so far from what it should be you can hardly bear it? Take a moment and ponder – is this something God is calling you to?
There’s a good history of frustration, passion and calling in the Bible. Take Moses for example. Here’s someone with an interesting past (note the previous point) – a Jewish baby who ended up brought up in an Egyptian palace. He survived where many Jewish boys didn’t – but as he grew up, he struggled with his frustration of how his own race were treated by the Egypians he lived alongside. One day this bubbled over – and after seeing him beating a Hebrew, he set upon and killed an Egyptian and then hid the body in the sand (Exodus 2:11-2). Woah, lets pause a moment – he killed him and hid the body in the sand?! Now your frustration may have led you to many places but I am guessing you haven’t committed murder and then concealed it. THAT’S how frustrated he was. It isn’t until many years later that God talks to him (Exodus 3:7), explains that he too shares this frustration and dissatisfaction with how the Hebrew people are being treated, and calls Moses to a key role in changing this for the better. It all began with that feeling that bubbled up in him long before.
The role frustration plays in motivating us is well documented in research. Studies looking at entrepreneurs – those who have seen opportunities and successfully changed things – recognises that what is called a ‘dissatisfaction with the status quo’ is a key stage in their development. But it is very important how they handle that dissatisfaction – it needs to drive them to positive things which can produce change, rather than isolating them and driving them away from the thing they care about.
Think about how you handle frustration. Do you go home and moan about the thing that drives you mad? Or do you get involved to help improve it?
Stop for a moment and think – is God talking to you through your frustration? You can’t change things from outside – so how can you get on board and become part of the solution?
4. Your potential often involves what you love doing
In fact I could have written here ‘what you cannot stop yourself from doing’! We all have something at the centre of each of us that is all about who we are – it is the thing we love to do, the thing we find ourselves doing wherever we are. So someone who is a born host will find themselves ‘hosting’ people wherever they go, even if it isn’t their own home. They might work in a field where their skill at hosting is crucial. They seek opportunities to ‘host’ wherever they can. Someone else might have a skill for finding order in chaos and find that most things they love to do involve this – whether its doing puzzles, someone else’s accounts or just planning how a huge event will run smoothly!
Not sure what your ‘sweet spot’ is? Here’s a fantastic verse to pray, from Psalm 119:73: ‘With your very own hands you formed me; now breathe your wisdom over me so I can understand you.’
Now here’s an important distinction – doing the thing you love doing because you can’t stop yourself is not the same as doing something because you fear what will happen if you don’t, or need to do it in some kind of basic way for your own emotional needs or self esteem. Be very aware of things that you need to do in order to feel secure, or confident, or happy, or to keep an unpleasant feeling or emotion at bay. Make sure your drive is positive rather than something about keeping something negative away.
Another important point is this – there are some things we should ALL be passionate about – the things that make everything else possible. These are things like serving coffee after the service, cleaning, hosting – the essentials that we have to have in order to do what we do. We should all aim to have an enthusiastic attitude to these things and help where we can. But that doesn’t mean they are our core passion. ALWAYS be willing to serve (see point 5) and also seek to grow with God in the things that really get you excited.
Similarly, some people think of certain things as ‘appropriate’ Christian pastimes – caring roles for example, and look down on others. Take some great advice from Romans 12:9 (from the message) – ‘Love from the centre of who you are: don’t fake it.’ Be the person God made you to be and rejoice in it. That’s the way to grow into your potential.
5. It’s ALL about serving
Whoever you are, a heart of service needs to be at the root of whatever you do. You see it is a lot easier to do things when they are glamorous, or prominent, or fun. It is much harder to do them when they involve hard work, long sweaty hours of slog, unglamorous hours or un-noticed behind-the-scenes stuff. But very often it is in this stuff that the real difference is made.
Matthew 23 :11-12 puts it brilliantly: ‘Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant … if you;’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.’ (from the Message)
Lets take a minute to think about how different this is from the way the rest of the world works.. There, to be successful, for your life to count for something, it must be measurable in something – money, followers on twitter/facebook, sales figures, papers written, grades achieved … But the things that matter the most in God’s kingdom are not measured in any of those things.
Here’s some interesting advice – if you think you might be called to something, start by serving at the lowest level that supports that thing.
So if you think God might have called you to preach, start by putting the chairs out, or working in the creche so the people speaking can be heard well. Want to be involved in the leadership of something? Start by serving the current leaders however you can – turning up reliably, answering emails promptly – little things like this can make a huge amount of difference. Our world teaches us to strive to work things, to market ourselves to achieve popularity and success – God asks us to hold the gifts he gives us much more lightly. Trust God to make it happen – you focus on serving and giving all you can at whatever level that is possible right now.
I’m going to finish with some more of those fantastic words from Ephesians 3:
‘My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.
God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.
Glory to God in the church!’
(Ephesians 3:14-21 The Msg)