|December 15, 2008|
|The Greatness of
Toward a Goal Makes
All the Difference
|This article is excerpted from Blaine's book Faith
and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life
(formerly The Optimism Factor).
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
for a moment dreams or goals you’ve had that have been realized. Think
back on those accomplishments or successful experiences that are the
most meaningful for you to remember. I’m willing to guess that more
than one of them had a rather tentative, inglorious start.
When we look carefully at the path that led to a personal success, we often realize that it began with a modest step forward, that in time reaped a much greater harvest than we anticipated.
Such small first steps might include:
An awkward first visit to a church singles group, which led to meeting the person you married.
A hesitant phone call to ask someone out, or to inquire about a job opportunity, which received a much more positive response than you expected.
An application for a grant, written with a sense of futility, thinking you’d probably be better off spending your time doing something else. Yet to your astonishment, the grant was given, and significant doors have now opened through that one effort.
A business venture begun with a paltry investment that succeeded far beyond your expectations.
A book, picked up in a time of discouragement, which inspired you and gave you the perspective to pursue a personal dream.
A reconciled relationship, now going strong, which began with a simple request for forgiveness.
With the eyes of hindsight, we look back to such starting efforts with awe and gratitude. We realize there was greatness in that moment of small beginning that we didn’t begin to appreciate at the time. We may shudder, too, to think of how close we came to not taking that one initial step that opened such important doors.
A Reason for Optimism
Unfortunately, the benefit of the small beginning is often lost on us when we face the possibility of embarking on a new dream. The effort it would take to pursue it seems massive; we’re overwhelmed with the impossibility of it all. There seems to be little or nothing we can do to move forward.
To the eyes of faith, though, there is a world of difference between “little” and “nothing.” Often there is something we can do--some obvious first step we can take. This may be exactly what is needed to put the wheels of faith in motion.
For one thing, we shouldn’t underestimate the value that taking any initial step toward a goal has upon us psychologically. Suddenly our psyche is committed, and we become more alert to opportunities that will move us toward our dream. Others become more aware of our intentions as well and are more likely to try to help us.
Yet the spiritual aspect of taking the first step is even more important. The seemingly insignificant small beginning often gets much closer to the heart of the biblical idea of going forward in faith than we realize.
From Little Acorns . . .
We don’t usually think of it this way. The very notion of moving out in faith seems to imply taking a bold, extravagant step of some sort. We quickly think of the biblical prototypes: Moses parting the Red Sea, Joshua leading the Israelites to demolish the wall of Jericho with a shout, David marshaling his troops for battle, Gideon confronting the indomitable Midianite army with only three hundred soldiers, Esther going before King Ahasuerus knowing that her life hung in the balance, Peter preaching salvation to the large throng of Jews gathered on the day of Pentecost. It’s easy to conclude that if we’re not throwing caution to the winds, we’re not really taking a step of faith.
Yet Scripture also shows great respect for the small, subtle, unspectacular first step. Consider these examples:
In the parable of the talents, Jesus commended the two servants who invested their money, and upbraided the one who failed to give his one coin to the bankers (Mt 25:14-30). Few first steps are less inspiring than putting money in the bank. No one notices, there are no neon lights, and there is no immediate reward for this act of discipline. In fact, the period you must wait for any significant benefit can seem interminable. Yet with time, the incremental gains grow larger and larger, and the eventual profit is considerable.
It’s striking that Jesus paid such respect to prudent financial investment. Clearly, too, he intended the parable of the talents to be an analogy to other areas of life where we take risks for his sake. It conveys an unmistakable lesson--that we shouldn’t neglect the benefit of a small beginning in any venture of faith.
Ruth’s marriage to Boaz--one of the most celebrated in Scripture--resulted from a small, ignoble step forward. The marriage became possible because Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, moved from Moab to Bethlehem. This move, detailed in the book of Ruth, was anything but a triumphant one for these two women. Both went to Bethlehem as widows--Naomi returning grief-stricken to her homeland, and Ruth following along out of devotion to Naomi. The move was borne more of necessity than of vibrant vision for the future.
Yet at least they did something to break the inertia of their grief and make a fresh start. In time the move brought benefits that exceeded their wildest expectations. Ruth met Boaz and married him, then gave birth to a son who became an ancestor of David. Naomi also found new life in this family connection, and in the many friendships that opened for her in Bethlehem. An unglamorous step forward brought about a wellspring of life for Naomi, Ruth, Boaz, and countless others who enjoyed the family relationships that resulted in the succeeding generations.
Nehemiah is one of the great heroes of Scripture. Against all odds, he mobilized the remnant of Israel to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, then reestablished the city as the center of Jewish worship life. As spectacular as this undertaking was, it began with a quiet, unspectacular step by Nehemiah that no one else knew he had taken. He made an earnest prayer, asking God to bring about the restoration of Jerusalem, and committing himself to obedience in the matter (Neh 1:5-11). As the book of Nehemiah unfolds, Nehemiah’s prayer has far-reaching results.
Nehemiah’s example is one of the most helpful we find in Scripture showing the effect that merely committing ourselves internally to a goal can have upon reaching it. It demonstrates with equal force how a determined, heartfelt prayer can serve to inaugurate a goal. His example inspires us to see such private steps as crucial beginnings toward any purpose we wish to accomplish. Simply by setting our heart toward pursuing a dream and committing our concern sincerely to God, we are beginning from a position of strength.
We tend to glamorize the healing incidents in the Gospels and assume that those who came to Jesus for help did so boldly, with sublime confidence that they would be instantly cured. I’m certain, though, that many came in the same ambivalent, tentative spirit in which we often seek medical help today. The woman with the hemorrhage is a case in point (Mk 5:24-34). Terribly concerned that no one would notice her, and uncertain whether approaching Jesus was even appropriate, she decided merely to touch the hem of his garment. That one small gesture not only brought her healing, but also an effusive compliment from Jesus about her faith (v. 34).
As we see here, Scripture not only describes small first steps that brought results over time, but those that reaped a surprising harvest immediately. Virtually all of the healing miracles mentioned in Scripture fit this pattern. The “miracles of expansion” do as well. These include incidents in the Old and New Testaments where large crowds were fed with a small provision of food (2 Ki 4:42-44; Mk 6:33-44, 8:1-9), and the miraculous provision of oil that saved the widow of Cain from financial ruin (2 Ki 4:1-7). While we cannot presume that our own small first steps will immediately produce such astonishing results, we can never know unless we try.
And in time the results of a meager first effort often do surprise us.
The Challenge of Small Beginnings
While taking the small first step can make all the difference, there are two factors that can keep us from appreciating an opportunity to move forward that we actually have. One is that because of its apparent insignificance, we may not even recognize the small beginning that’s available for us to make.
I remember a friend who left a well-paying nursing job to enter a doctoral program. Though Nancy had long wanted to pursue this goal, she assumed it was financially impossible, since she was a single parent in her forties. Finally she faced up to the fact that there was a small beginning she could make, which was to apply for grants. She made six applications, assuming her prospects for success were minimal. To her astonishment, four of the six were granted. When Nancy shared this personal triumph with me, I couldn’t help but think of how many people there must be who need this same financial assistance--and would qualify for it--yet have concluded that it isn’t worth the trouble to apply. Nancy herself had overlooked this option for years.
Of course, writing a grant application means some uninspiring paper work, and this suggests a second factor that can keep us from recognizing the chance to make a small beginning--the fact that we may look with contempt upon what we have to do.
Such was the near-fatal flaw of Naaman the leper in the Old Testament. Naaman sought healing for leprosy from Elisha, who told him to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman’s response was one of anger: “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” (2 Ki 5:11-12 NIV). The text concludes, “he turned and went off in a rage.”
Naaman’s servants had the good sense to challenge him, saying, “if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed!’” (v. 13). Naaman, fortunately, repented of his obstinacy and followed the prophet’s counsel. Yet his example warns us that no matter how greatly we want to reach a goal, our disdain for some of the details may keep us from moving forward. The initial steps that we must take are particularly likely to seem distasteful to us.
We need, in short, a greater esteem for the small beginnings of life. “Don’t despise the day of small beginnings”--as Pat Robertson is fond of paraphrasing Zechariah 4:10.
Do you have a personal dream that has not been realized? To the best of your knowledge, is your dream in line with God’s best intentions for your life? Yet does it seem that there is little or nothing you can do to move toward your goal--that your hands are tied?
Remember that a small beginning is
sometimes the very step needed to open you to the provision of Christ.
Pray earnestly and look honestly at what you actually can do to start
moving toward your goal. Don’t look with contempt on the small
beginning. Think of it as the launching point for a journey of faith.
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This article is excerpted from Blaine Smith's book Faith and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life (formerly The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds).
Blaine Smith's Nehemiah Notes is available twice-monthly by e-mail!
|Copyright 2008 M. Blaine Smith.
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