October 15, 2000
 Thinking Big--
But Not Grandiose
Developing Vision
That Is Right for Your Life
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A woman I know, Sarah, struggled with crippling stage fright. The problem began when she was twelve and became tongue-tied giving an announcement at a church service. Her humiliation was so extreme that she went to great lengths after that to avoid any situation where she would have to speak in front of a group.

In her thirties she became involved with a large Bible study for women. As the members came to know her, they perceived that she had gifts for leadership and teaching. They saw her potential more clearly than she did. Through much prodding and encouragement, they finally persuaded her to try teaching at one of their weekly meetings. This was not a trivial task, as it involved giving a forty-minute lecture.

Though she was quite apprehensive as she began her talk, she was surprised to find that she quickly relaxed and was able to present her material coherently. Her presentation was very well received.

Most interesting is the observation she shared with me about the experience: "You know, I found I was putting as much energy into looking for ways to avoid public speaking as it took to finally go ahead and face the challenge."

Sarah is an inspiring example of someone who learned to think big in a manner that was healthy and right for her. With the help of friends, she identified an area of potential she had been neglecting, then took steps to develop and utilize it--in spite of substantial fears which long had held her back. When I last spoke with her, she had become assistant teaching director of the Bible study.

Sarah's comment that it took no more energy to do the thing she feared than to avoid it is especially interesting. Thinking big frequently involves turning the tables on our psyche in some way. As sincerely as we may wish to accomplish a particular goal, we may be giving far more energy to avoidance behavior than to constructive action. We're focusing more on explaining to ourselves and others why a goal can't be realized than upon finding ways to accomplish it. When we determine to devote our energy to finding solutions to the problems that stand in our way, we're often surprised at how the doors open for us.

Most of us are far more capable of setting significant goals and achieving them than we realize. Dreams that seem impossible may even be much more within our reach than we imagine. The secret lies in how we focus our thinking. Beginning with the premise that the problems we encounter can be solved, then dwelling on finding solutions, can make a radical difference. This approach to life is at the heart of what one writer has termed "the magic of thinking big."*

The Limits of Thinking Big

This isn't to imply that any dream we wish to achieve can be accomplished through such positive thinking. Thinking big has it limits, which are vital to respect. Sarah's step of faith succeeded because she truly had the potential to be an effective speaker, as hidden as that talent had been. The dreams we establish and the goals we set need to reflect the potential God has given us, and his unique design of our life. If we tread too far outside of this arena, we can end up thinking big in a manner that works against us. We can lock into goals that don't fit us well, and even devote considerable energy to attempting to reach them.

It's easy to fall into what psychologists term an "idealized self-image." Rather than base our dreams upon an honest understanding of how God has built us, we base them upon some glorified idea of what we ought to do.

This idealized self-image almost always springs from unfair comparisons we make of ourselves with others. We esteem someone else's talent, or success, or possessions or benefits they enjoy, and decide that we would be better off in their position. We may even stake our self-worth on our ability to match their success. Yet this grass-is-greener mentality is bound to frustrate us, especially if our gifts and potential differ significantly from theirs.

This past week I heard a song on the radio that melted me. It's an instrumental by jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, Someday We'll All Be Free, which he performs with only bass accompaniment. I felt immediately that this was a song I wanted to perform on guitar myself. I was encouraged by the song's simplicity: while I knew it would stretch me to learn it, I was sure I could do so with some effort, and that the challenge would be good for me. Although I had never heard of Hunter, I was pleased to find the CD in a record store the next day, and purchased it.

If you happen to be a Charlie Hunter fan, you're already chuckling, for you know where this story is heading.

I was surprised enough to find that Hunter plays an eight-string guitar, unlike the six-string model picked by most ordinary mortals. I was astounded to find that no bass player is listed in the album credits, even though I was certain I had heard one on the selection on the radio. Of course, Hunter could have dubbed in the bass part himself; but this album is produced by Blue Note, a purist jazz label that would never stoop to such trickery.

It couldn't be, I thought.

It was.

Hunter plays both the lead guitar part and the bass part on this song--as he does on every selection on the CD--at the same time! He picks the guitar portion on the high strings, the bass portion on the low strings. And he plays complex, nuanced lines which any guitarist or bassist would be proud to play as individual parts by themselves.

Hunter covers them both at once.

While I've witnessed many guitarists, like Chet Atkins, who can play multiple guitar lines at the same time, I've never encountered one who can play bass and guitar parts simultaneously--a skill I hadn't previously imagined feasible. I was delighted to discover Hunter's unusual talent, and his music is truly inspiring.

Yet this discovery also had a demeaning effect on me, for I knew that if I practiced a lifetime I couldn't come close to matching his remarkable skill. This realization dampened my enthusiasm for doing what I can do--which is to learn the guitar portion of the song I had enjoyed.

Finally it dawned on me that I was falling into the same rut I warn others to avoid. I was letting Hunter's talent be a benchmark by which I judged my own. This envious comparing led me to devalue my own talent, and in a way that went well beyond healthy humility, for it sapped my motivation to take a step of growth that is within my reach.

Embracing the Right Dreams

It was, of course, outlandish that I gave even a passing thought to how my musical ability stacks up against Hunter's. There are probably not a half-dozen people on our planet who can perform this musical feat. Yet this is how our psyche works. We instinctively compare ourselves with others at countless points where we have no business doing so.

One result of this insidious process is that we may establish ideals for our life--even major dreams--based on others' potential rather than our own. While it's commendable that we have vision, we're basing it on God's design of others' lives, not ours. This idealizing can leave us greatly dispirited if we are unable to live up to the accomplishments of others whom we esteem. It can rob us of the motivation to take our own potential seriously, and to work toward goals we actually can reach. It can also incite us to strive unreasonably hard to accomplish goals that aren't appropriate for us.

We each face a formidable challenge in reaping the potential we genuinely do have. Each of us needs to strive to understand as clearly as we can how God has fashioned us. We need a good grasp of our talents, capabilities, motivational pattern and energy level. In light of this understanding, we need to forge dreams and goals that move us toward God's best. Keeping momentum in our life is critical to our success; we must always stay in a growth mode.

Yet we can try too hard at any point as well. Establishing a pace that is right for us makes all the difference.

It can help to remember the dynamics of flight. An airplane needs to be moving at a reasonable speed to gain lift and become airborne. But if, once in flight, the pilot tries to raise the trajectory too high, the plane will lose its thrust and crash.

This is a good parallel to realizing our potential in human life. We need goals, and we need to be moving toward them at a reasonable pace to accomplish them. Yet if we raise the trajectory too high--by setting unrealistic goals, or by pushing ourselves too hard to reach them--we will "crash and burn." Keeping balance in the process is essential.

The secret to this balanced visionary thinking is to base our goals and our pace toward them upon the potential God has given us personally, rather than upon that of others. As simple a principle as this is to understand, it can be a challenging one to put into practice.

We face the challenge not only in career and lifestyle decisions, but with relationships also. Having ideals for our friendships, for dating relationships and for whom we would marry is extremely important. Yet these need to be based upon our genuine relationships needs. They should take into account not only our longing for companionship but our need for growth, remembering that God uses the rough edges of relationships to teach us how to better love and care for others.

We all too easily base our relationship ideals upon the experiences of others. We esteem certain relationships others enjoy, and long to imitate them. We should strive to understand where our own relationship needs are different, and to base our choices on what is uniquely right for our life.

Help from David's Example

Scripture offers us a wealth of insight and inspiration for this process of establishing personal ideals and vision. Some of the most helpful enlightenment comes from examples of those who either succeeded or failed at the task. The life of David, the Old Testament king, is especially helpful to consider, for he set many stunning goals and succeeded in reaching them. Yet he also overdid it at times and fell flat on his face. His life is an intriguing mix of both dimensions of thinking big.

David was, overall, an exceptionally gifted visionary thinker. His decision as a very young man to fight Goliath is one of the most impressive examples in Scripture of someone thinking big in a healthy manner (1 Sam 17). Although it was an extremely high-stakes venture for David, it was a suitable one given his gifts and experience. As a shepherd he had killed with a sling wild animals that had threatened his flock. He had developed a simple strategy for defeating a fierce opponent, and learned from experience that it worked. He had also discovered that he had the presence of mind to carry it out at those moments when he was under attack and his life hung in the balance.

While fighting Goliath meant taking on a new and greater challenge, David had good reason to believe that he had both the skill and temperament to do it (1 Sam 17:34-37). The rewards for succeeding were also immense: the glory of God was at stake, and a nation of people stood to benefit from his action. Some risk, then, was more than justified.

As grandiose as David's brothers thought his dream of fighting Goliath to be, it was in fact appropriate for him, and he proved it with the first shot of his sling. David's encounter with Goliath symbolizes his approach to life during his years as a warrior and his decades as king. He was an uncanny optimist and a master at thinking big. He had instinctively good judgment for recognizing good options for himself and his people, and took many ingenious steps that worked to bring them about. His example inspires us to see the bigger possibilities for our own life and to go for them.

Yet David didn't always get it right. He made some major blunders, at times, which sprang from thinking too grandiosely. In each of these instances David probably became too obsessed with trying to match the accomplishments of others.

On one notorious occasion he decided to take a census of Israel, a step that brought God's wrath upon the nation (2 Sam 24, 1 Chron 21). Although Scripture doesn't reveal precisely why taking the census angered God, it must have been that David was seeking more information than he needed to govern by faith. He undoubtedly wanted to know how Israel compared population-wise with other nations, and especially how Israel's military strength stacked up against that of other countries. Instead, he should have simply trusted in faith that God had given Israel exactly the people and resources needed to carry out his purposes.

Equally tragic was David's decision to seek a tryst with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11). However greatly his raw sensual desire may have drawn him to her, David also coveted in this case--a point that Nathan the prophet implied when he confronted him about the incident (2 Sam 12:1-9). David let himself think that he needed to be gratified through a provision which God intended for Uriah the Hittite alone.

Another grandiose misstep of David's was his decision to build a temple for God (2 Sam 7:1-2). David dearly desired to carry out this project, and spent considerable energy musing about it. Yet God explained to David that he did not have the right temperament for it, since he was a warrior at heart (1 Chron 28:3-7, 1 Chron 22:6-7). He should instead allow his son Solomon to accomplish it, during his reign.

David's motives were certainly more commendable in this case than when he took the census or yielded to temptation with Bathsheba. God, in fact, commended David for his desire to build the temple (2 Chron 6:7-9). Yet he may have been influenced by unhealthy motives as well. David had been mentored by the prophets Samuel and Nathan, and undoubtedly had frequent contact with other dynamic religious leaders whom he esteemed. He may have felt inferior to these people in certain ways. He may have desired to prove to himself and others that he also could make an important contribution to his nation's spiritual life. It wasn't enough merely to be a good political leader; he needed to accomplish something that would deeply influence his nation spiritually as well.

One thing is certain: David's desire to build the temple had become a full-blown obsession. His self-worth had become wrapped up in seeing it accomplished. "He swore an oath to the LORD and made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob: 'I will not enter my house or go to my bed--I will allow no sleep to my eyes, no slumber to my eyelids, till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob'" (Ps 132:2-4).

God certainly did David an enormous favor by relieving him of the burden of thinking that he had to build the temple. By revealing to him that the temple project wasn't his responsibility, God gave David a treasured insight into his calling as king. He assured him that it was okay for him to be who he was, to focus on tasks that fit his gifts and personality, and to leave the other responsibilities for those more suited to handle them.

Acceptance Takes Courage

In the same way God speaks to each of us, urging us to realize that he hasn't made a mistake in creating us as he has. He wants us to take great encouragement in the unique potential he has given us personally, even to feel exhilarated about it.

He wants us to be good stewards of our potential, too, and to take the wisest possible steps to invest it for his glory and the benefit of others. To do this effectively, it's essential that we be optimistic and hopeful, and think big about our possibilities. From time to time we will need to take a substantial step of faith with our life, to open ourselves more fully to the opportunities Christ has for us.

Again, the important thing is that such a step should result from our best understanding of how God has molded our own life. The danger is always that we may try to think too big, and embrace dreams that are out of line with who we are. It's our desire to look good to others that makes us vulnerable to such idealizing. Our craving to be appreciated, respected and loved drives us to strive for accomplishments we believe they will admire. While we can never let go of this desire completely, we are far happier not letting it control our destiny. Our greatest joy is found in living out God's unique design for our life.

We shouldn't underestimate, however, how challenging it can be to say no to opportunities that appeal strongly to our desire to be esteemed by others, but run counter to what is right for us. Choosing God's best often means letting go of our need to be liked by others to some extent--sometimes to the point of feeling like we're throwing caution to the winds.

My uncle Hunter Davidson was president of Chevy Chase Land Company for many years, until he retired in 1980 at 75. He brokered real-estate and oversaw development in one of the most prestigious communities of suburban Washington, D.C. He had many friends and associates who lived in large, ornate homes, and he had strong incentive to do the same. Yet when he was 60, he and his wife chose to move from their one-hundred acre farm to a five-room bungalow on a small lot in Washington Grove--a onetime vacation community of eclectic homes in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Freed from many constraints of house and property, Hunter turned his attention to tennis and became a dedicated player. He continued playing avidly into his 80s, developing a near-professional skill.

Hunter's passionate devotion to the sport probably added years to his life, and it certainly added life to his years, for he remained in excellent health until he was 91.

Hunter's decision to move to Washington Grove was ingenious and bold, for he went against strong social incentives to choose a living situation that was uniquely right for him. And, far from hurting his professional life, the move enhanced it, for it made possible a lifestyle that improved his health and vitality and motivation for his work.

I'm not suggesting that Hunter's step would be right for everyone or even most of us. Some people realize their potential more effectively through the benefits of a large home, and some use such a setting for significant hospitality and ministry. Canadian physician and stress expert Peter G. Hanson observes that some retirees actually do better to move to a larger home than to downsize. The bigger home provides them with a beneficial outlet for their creative energy, contributing to a level of challenge that promotes health.*

What housing arrangement is right for us personally is a highly individual matter. We simply need to be careful not to let self-esteem needs override the question of what will best enhance our potential for Christ. Choosing a home is one of those decision areas where we are easily swayed too greatly by the concern for others' approval. It can take courage to act against this inclination in order to do what is right for us. The important thing is to know ourself well, then to draw on Christ's strength to choose what is in his best interests for our life.

Our View of God Makes the Difference

As I'm finishing this article, a letter arrives from a friend, Carol. In it she shares about her own struggle to break the habit of comparing herself with others. The challenge for her, she explains, is that, in her unguarded thinking, she imagines that God is comparing her unfavorably with others and expecting her to live up to their standards. In reality, she knows God to be profoundly different. She knows that he loves her uniquely, has a distinctive plan for her life, and doesn't expect her to be a clone of anyone else. But she has to dwell upon this realization to be transformed by it.

Carol has put her finger on the heart of the problem for many serious Christians. It has to do with our view of God more than anything. We have a default impression of him--that he judges us in light of how well we live up to the lifestyle and accomplishments of other Christians whom we admire. Underneath we know that God isn't like this. We realize that he has made us to be individuals, and that we best honor him by respecting our own individuality. But this enlightened view of God doesn't come naturally to us. We have a chronic tendency to lose sight of it, for it runs contrary to much of what we've been taught in Christian circles.

We need a view of God that breaks us free from our tendency to compare ourselves unfairly with others, and infuses us with courage to be the individual he has made us to be. For this to happen we need to give time--generous time--to reflecting on God's distinctive love for us. We need to remind ourselves constantly that it is he who has given us our individuality, and that he takes it into account at all points in his plan for our life. This outlook on God will give us the heart to take the steps of faith so vital to realizing our potential for Christ. But it takes serious time reflecting on the picture of God presented in Scripture for this perspective to become part of us.

We should give devoted time not only to reflecting about God but to allowing him to guide our thinking. Investing this time can make a radical difference in our ability to recognize and carry out his will. To say it in the most positive possible way: private time with Christ benefits us in a multitude of ways--deepening our understanding of God; clarifying our perception of his will; giving us the motivation to be the individual he wants us to be and the courage to do it.

While our most important devotional need is for daily personal time with Christ, we can also benefit immensely from personal retreats--more substantial periods set aside for interacting with Christ. With the beauty of the fall season upon us, consider giving some special time to such an event. Block out a few hours, an afternoon, a day or more--to focus on the Lord and his direction for your life. Pick a quiet, pleasant setting for this get-away. Choose a time when you're not likely to be interrupted or to be preoccupied with other responsibilities. Ask God to make it an experience of spiritual and personal renewal at every point where you need it.

Give Christ substantial opportunity to influence your life--to shape your view of God and to direct your decisions.

Then take heart. He wants to shake the foundation of your life with opportunities that reflect his best intentions for you, with insight to recognize them and courage to pursue them.

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