May 1, 1998
 The Availability

When Just Being There
Makes the Difference
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When our son Ben announced that he was running for student council vice president, I thought, What chance does he have to win as a fifth grader in this large elementary school, with a number of six graders also vying for the spot? Yet he waged a good campaign, and to our surprise and delight he won. Then, on the strength of that gain, he ran for president the following year and again was successful. I'm certain that there were other students at least as well qualified as Ben who would have liked to serve in these positions. Yet there was one critical difference: Ben ran and they didn't. He was optimistic enough to think he could win, and in the end his availability was the deciding factor.

I'm often intrigued with what a potent role our availability plays in what we accomplish. "Fifty percent of success is showing up," as it is said. This isn't to say that ability, potential and social skills are unimportant in success. Yet when we consider God's working in human life, it seems that he uses our availability at least as much as these other traits in opening doors.

This point is helpful to remember when we feel hesitant to take steps of faith. Because of inferiority or a sense of insignificance we may fail to knock on doors which actually would open to us. We're especially prone to hold back if we know that many others are available to meet a need or interested in the same goal we want to pursue. We assume that our efforts won't be as successful as theirs or that what we have to contribute isn't really needed.

In our modern densely populated world it's all too easy to fall into such futility about life itself. What can I possibly do that will make a difference?

How Availability Enhances Our Potential

Yet three points are critical to keep in mind. One is that others often are not nearly as available for opportunities or as alert to them as we think. This point is shown in a surprising observation by sociologists. They note that someone with an emergency need in public is less likely to receive assistance if a crowd is present than if only a few people are nearby. The reason is that in a large group each person assumes that someone else will take responsibility--so no one does. The sense of individual accountability is greatly reduced. This explains those bizarre news stories we sometimes hear about someone being assaulted in front of a crowd while no one offers help. Merely making an anonymous phone call for help might have made the difference for the victim.

The second point is that God--again to cite the popular expression--can do a lot with a little when he has all there is of it. This principle is graphically demonstrated in the feeding miracles of the Gospels. In John's account of one of them (John 6:1-14), he mentions that a young boy actually made several fish and loaves available to Jesus to feed the vast crowd, by letting Jesus' disciple Andrew to offer them to Jesus. Through his availability this boy helped feed a multitude of thousands.

Of course, our hesitancy in the face of opportunity is often like Andrew's, who when presenting the boy's provisions to Jesus, complained, "but what are they among so many?" (v. 9 RSV) The incident reminds us, though, that Christ's power is manifested through our mere availability in ways that far transcend our potential or meager resources.

The third point is that God has put each of us on earth to accomplish certain purposes and carry out certain work for which no one else is as well equipped. As we carefully seek his direction, we can know that our efforts are distinctive and significant to the work Christ is doing in the world.

We may trust, then, that through our availability alone we are beginning from a position of strength in what we do. By being available we open ourselves to the miraculous working of Christ.

Three Areas Where Availability Helps

Let's consider further how the availability factor relates to several major areas of life.

 Seeking opportunities to use our gifts. When looking for professional opportunities or other ways to employ our gifts, we easily become discouraged, thinking, "The best opportunities won't be open to me" or, "What can I do that others can't do just as well?" Yet the availability factor suggests that unmet opportunities may be far more plentiful than we think, and God's willingness to work through us at these points may be much greater than we realize.

Consider David's decision to fight Goliath. His conviction that he could tackle the giant sprang from recalling his success as a shepherd fighting wild animals with a sling (1 Sam 17:34-37). Since God's glory was now at stake, David assumed that God would give victory through this skill already so evident in his life. Yet thousands of Israelite soldiers had also been shepherds or hunters and had confronted ravenous animals just as David did. They had the identical basis for concluding that they could successfully battle Goliath. But none of them made this connection. Not one. David alone was able to see the situation with the eyes of faith.

David's example suggests that exceptional opportunities for using our gifts can exist which others simply don't recognize. We're given a basis for hope and optimism as we seek to realize our potential for Christ.

 Seeking relationships and marriage. The availability factor also gives hope to those of us who are eager for a serious relationship or marriage. I speak with many singles in their twenties, thirties or beyond who fear that marriage has passed them by. "Anyone whom I would want to marry is surely spoken for already," someone will say. Yet I'm convinced that the options for finding marriage are much greater than many realize.

Studies show, too, that most people end up marrying someone in close proximity to them. It may be a person with whom they work, attend school or come into contact frequently in church or another social setting. There is little basis for the notion that "absence makes the heart grow fonder." It is naive, too, to assume, "My prince/princess will come to my doorstep even though I make no effort to find this person." It is proximity that contributes to the growth of a relationship.

Understanding the role which proximity plays in relationships presents me with a challenge if I want to be married. It suggests that I need to put myself in settings where I'm likely to meet someone suitable. Yet I may take encouragement in knowing that if a relationship does develop, my availability will be a prime factor allowing God to arouse that person's interest in me. Simply being available is a step in the right direction if I want to find a partner.

Consider the example of Ruth in the Book of Ruth. She had a lot going against her in her relationship with Boaz. She was a foreigner, a widow and not well off financially. Yet she was available for marriage, and she discreetly but clearly let him know (Ruth 3:1-13). The rest is history.

 Praying effectively. While much more could be said about the role of availability in using our gifts and seeking relationships, it's the area of prayer where I find this phenomenon most interesting. We easily become discouraged about the potential of our own prayers. With so many Christians praying about so many matters, what difference will my prayers make? or, I've prayed about this for two years--if God hasn't answered by now, I might as well give up.

We tend to regard prayer much as we do the right to vote. While we consider it a great privilege, we doubt that our individual effort has much consequence. But while the voting analogy may accurately describe how we feel about prayer, it doesn't depict the actual potential of prayer well at all. Scripture emphasizes that the effect of one person's prayer can be far-reaching.

This point impressed me forcefully some years ago while I was studying an unlikely portion of Scripture--1 Chronicles. I began my study of the book dutifully plodding through the seemingly endless genealogies which make up the first nine chapters, not expecting any deep inspiration or exceptional insights. I decided to read these chapters carefully, though. They are part of the history which the Holy Spirit has recorded, I reasoned, and I may miss some critical insight if I merely peruse them.

This scrutiny paid off, for in chapter four I encountered a remarkable statement which I had never noticed before. The writer notes that a woman gave birth to a son and named him Jabez, which sounds like the Hebrew word for pain, because his birth had been painful to her. This man "was more honorable than his brothers." One further detail is added about his life: "Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, 'Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.' And God granted his request" (1 Chron 4:9-10). He whose name was Pain wanted God to protect him from a life of pain.

I was fascinated that the author thought it important to note that a man who is not mentioned elsewhere in Scripture prayed to God about a personal need. Why does he document this detail about Jabez's life, when he lists most of the other multitude of names in his genealogy without editorial comment?

The answer, I concluded, is that it is unusual for someone to petition God seriously about a need. It is history when one does so. Prayer itself is a miracle in the biblical understanding. The miracle is not that God answers the prayer--God is in the business of answering prayer. "And God granted his request." The miracle is that a person prays in the first place! Jabez was out of the ordinary.

When we have given serious attention to praying about a matter, we can trust that our prayer is effective and that our effort to pray is truly distinctive. We have done something few make the time to do earnestly. And we will receive benefits few position themselves to enjoy. While we cannot predict precisely how God will answer our prayer, we can be confident that things will be better because we have prayed and have opened ourselves more fully to his provision.

Here is a way in which each of us can have significant influence not only on the affairs of our own life but upon the movement of Christ in the world. As nineteenth century African pastor Andrew Murray expressed it:

It is in very deed God's purpose that the fulfillment of His eternal purpose, and the coming of His kingdom, should depend on those of His people who, abiding in Christ, are ready to take up their position in Him their Head, the great Priest-King, and in their prayers are bold enough to say what they will that their God should do. As image-bearer and representative of God on earth, redeemed man has by his prayers to determine the history of this earth.*

Our availability for prayer makes the difference, not because there is power in prayer per se but because God has chosen to honor this effort. Let us take advantage of this unparalleled opportunity, which one writer has termed "life's limitless reach."

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This article is adapted from chapter thirteen of Blaine's The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds (Downers Grove Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

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Copyright 1998 M. Blaine Smith.
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