December 15, 2002
Your Life's Long-Range Impact
Respecting the Multiplier
Effect--And Enjoying
Its Benefits
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A man once took four boots with the soles falling off to a cobbler for repair. The cobbler told him it would take eight nails to reattach each sole. The charge would be $2.00 per nail--a total of $64.00.

When the customer replied that it was outrageous to charge so much for hammering just thirty-two nails, the cobbler offered a different arrangement. “Pay me one penny for the first nail, two for the second, four for the third, eight for the fourth, and so forth,” he said. This sounded like an excellent deal to the customer, so he agreed. But when he came to pick up his boots the next day, he was mortified to find that he owed the cobbler over $20 million. Never in a lifetime could he pay even a small portion of that debt.

I've long been intrigued with the geometric progression in mathematics. When you double a small number, then continue doubling the results, you soon have an astronomical figure. The total is indescribably greater than that obtained by arithmetic progression, where you merely add a number to itself a succession of times.

There is value in meditating on the geometric progression, for it deepens our appreciation of how the multiplier effect works in many areas of life. Take God's influence in history. Time and again Scripture shows that a small beginning, or seemingly insignificant event, had greatly magnified results over time.

What the Christmas Story Teaches Us

This was clearly the case with Christ's entrance into the world. Only a handful of people had any idea that the birth of a peasant child in the stable of an overcrowded hotel had eternal significance. During the next thirty years, his life had little obvious impact. Then he entered a public ministry that lasted only three years. At the time of his death, it’s estimated that his sincere followers numbered only around 500.

In time, of course, his influence was felt universally. No other individual has so altered history. Billions of lives have been changed and challenged by his. Your own life very possibly has been more affected by his than by any other.

Were a modern public-relations firm to plan Christ's entrance, their approach would be far different. Newspapers and magazines worldwide would announce his birth in bold headlines. Television and radio would give up-to-date information through satellite transmission, echoed on a major Web site. Vendors would sell many trinkets to celebrate the occasion. Massive media coverage would follow his ministry from beginning to end.

Yet the mass-publicity approach so often produces only an arithmetic effect. A star is born and loved by millions for a time, then quickly forgotten. It seems only a few years ago that my boys were enthralled with the likes of Hannibal Smith, Michael Knight, and Bo and Luke Duke. Now help me remember, please, just who were these men? . . .

While God could have used such a method to bring Christ's influence to bear on the world, he in fact chose a much quieter, subtler approach. Jesus' ministry succeeded not because of the quantity of his actions, but the quality. Everything was accomplished perfectly. He was born at exactly the right time. While he ministered to a relatively small number of individuals, they were exactly the right ones, touched in exactly the right way. Throughout history the Holy Spirit has continued to apply his influence to exactly the right people, as the circle of his impact has grown larger and larger.

God's influence on human life should be understood not in arithmetic but geometric terms.

Thinking Broadly About Your Life

This perspective not only deepens our appreciation of God's influence in the world, but of our own life and the impact we can have. We grow discouraged with ourselves and our accomplishments, so often, because we judge our effectiveness in linear, arithmetic terms. We measure our worth by immediate results we can see--how much money we've made during the past year, how quickly we're advancing in our job, how many important positions we hold, the number of friends we have, how many people we’ve recently won to Christ. God sees our lives in a much more far-reaching way. He's concerned not nearly as much with immediate results as with the long-range effect of how we live--including our influence on generations after us.

If you're a parent, consider this statistic. If you raise two children, who by age twenty-five each marry and raise two children, who by age twenty-five each marry and have two more children--by the time this pattern repeats for only ten generations, or 250 years, you'll be the ancestor of over 1,000 offspring! And they will all in some way be a reflection of you. It may seem hard to appreciate the value of time spent with your children. There are so many other things to do with your time, so many others you can help. Yet given your children's dependence on you and the respect they have for you, the benefit of time spent with them far exceeds that of most other relationships. If your influence on them is positive, it will be felt for generations to come.

Here Scripture makes one its most extravagant promises. If we teach what we know of God to our “children and to their children after them” (Deut 4:9), we’re assured that God will keep “his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands” (Deut 7:9). The ripple effect of our lives upon future generations is beyond comprehension! It's to this end that Malachi urges us to take the marriage covenant seriously, for the sake of producing “godly offspring” (Mal 2:14). Time spent building a healthy marriage comes back to us in the effect upon our children, and upon the generations beyond.

The geometric principle also applies to our witnessing for Christ. While we should be alert to every opportunity to tell others about him, in the long run the quality of our interaction with people has far greater impact for the gospel than the number of people to whom we witness.

Some find they can persuade many to accept Christ through an evangelistic method or routine. Evangelistic methods have value in some cases and help some have clearer focus when they share the gospel. Yet when we become too concerned with goals or quotas in witnessing, the conversions that result are often superficial, and don't hold firm over time. We are usually most effective for Christ when we spend our time building solid relationships with a few people, with whom we share our faith naturally. Conversions that result from such friendships are more often genuine, and prove to be the seed sown in rich soil that Jesus spoke of in the parable of the sower (Mt 13:3-9).

Taking Time to Gain Perspective

It is important for us to think geometrically about our professional life and other roles as well. Over time, it's the excellence of what we do, rather than the quantity of our output, that makes the greatest impact. While our job may not allow us the luxury of emphasizing quality over quantity, there are often golden opportunities outside of our professional work for doing so, where we can use our best gifts and meet critical needs of people. And with careful long-range planning, we can usually make improvements in our career that help it better reflect our potential for excellence, and allow us a more meaningful opportunity to help others.

This is the time in the calendar year when we’re most inclined to reassess our life and consider new directions we should take. The fact that a new year is about to start inspires us to make resolutions, and the holidays provide many of us leisure to reflect on our life as well. More than anything, let us take time during this season to meditate on the Christmas story, and how it reminds us of God's concern for quality over quantity. And let us determine that this same spirit will be ours at every point as we follow Christ--that we might enjoy the wonderful benefits of the multiplier effect, and inspire others to do the same.

The kingdom of God . . . is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade” (Mk 4:30-32).

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