the last Nehemiah Notes I spoke about an experience of
burnout I had halfway through a graduate program. I noted that
talking with the dean of students made all the difference.
Through his counsel I gained the zeal to tackle my studies
The essence of his advice was simple: I needed to be
willing to make some tradeoffs. It was a reasonable tradeoff,
he said, to spend some dry time in exchange for the creative
period I had already enjoyed. Besides, I would soon finish the
program and could then begin to enjoy its benefits. When all
of the angles were considered, the tradeoffs were certainly
more than worth it.
As basic as this advice was, it hit a receptive chord with
me. It was the right thought at the right time and gave me
fresh heart. Once it dawned on me that it was okay to make
some tradeoffs in order to complete the program, I felt
comfortable doing so.
The concept of making tradeoffs has stuck with me and often
been the redemptive thought helping me over the hump in
difficult decisions. Not that getting beyond the hump is
always easy. As a perfectionist, I approach what I do
idealistically. I think in terms of maximizing my potential
and my fulfillment. Yet I always find that tradeoffs are
needed in any significant step that I take. Initially, facing
the need for them is a jolt to my idealism--a blow to the lie
I've absorbed from my culture that I can “have it all.” As
it gradually sinks in that these tradeoffs are not only normal
but desirable, they become easier to accept.
We instinctively resist the notion of making tradeoffs, for
it smacks of compromising. We fear “settling”--to quote
the term so often used today by those considering an
opportunity for marriage. We dread the thought of selling
short our ideals or acquiescing to less than God's best for
our life. As necessary as these fears are, we must be careful
that they don't dissuade us from tradeoffs that are actually
healthy and beneficial to make. Yes, following God's will
should never entail compromising. It should never involve
settling. Yet it often does require letting go of an
unreasonable ideal for the sake of a reasonable one.
Or a lesser ideal for the sake of a better one.
Or an ideal that no longer fits us well for one that now
Such exchanges of ideals are essential if we are to realize
our potential for Christ and experience the fulfillment he
offers. They are almost always needed in decisions for
marriage, parenting, career and other major steps as well.
They are at the heart of what it means to make choices that
reflect God's best for us.
Tradeoffs in St. Paul's Life
St. Paul was familiar with the need for making tradeoffs.
In Philippians 1, for instance, he speaks of his desire to die
and be with Christ. Far from having a suicidal urge, Paul
simply recognized that the blessedness of living in eternity
with Christ would be unparalleled by any pleasure that he
enjoyed on earth. At the same time, he saw advantages to his
homecoming's being delayed. Staying on earth would allow him
to invest his life in other people--to win some to Christ, to
disciple as many Christians as possible. “If I am to go on
living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. . .
. I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by
far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the
body . . . for your progress and joy in the faith” (Phil
This same capacity to think in terms of tradeoffs even
allowed him to experience considerable joy while in prison,
for he realized the remarkable way God was using his
internment to influence others. Not only was he having
exceptional opportunities to tell members of the palace guard
about Christ, but many Christians were gaining courage from
Paul's example to share their faith in challenging
circumstances (Phil 1:12-14).
Let's look at some common ways that the need for making
tradeoffs applies in our Christian walk today. While this list
is anything but exhaustive, it includes some perspectives that
are especially helpful to keep in mind when considering a
major change in our life's direction.
1. Trading affirmation for creative accomplishment.
We spend much of our energy trying to win the approval of
other people. The desire to be liked, accepted and acclaimed
by others is one of our central motives. For some it's the
primary basis for everything they do.
This has its positive side. It spurs us to move outside of
ourselves, to seek relationships and live a life that has
value to others. It also opens us to being influenced by other
people. Others sometimes see our potential better than we do.
Their encouragement helps us find the resolve to realize our
potential and to take important steps of growth.
But our desire for affirmation also has its negative side.
We cannot please everyone. And invariably there are
those--sometimes close friends or family members--who think of
us statically and don't wish to see us change. They feel
threatened if we grow, fearing that a piece of their own
identity will be lost in the process. Their influence is
deadening to our motivation, for we fear hurting them or
losing their affection if we move forward.
Fortunately God has so constructed our psyche that we find
fulfillment not only in pleasing others but in creative
accomplishment as well. This fact doesn't jump out and strike
us as quickly as the more obvious fact that it feels good to
be affirmed. Yet when we have the privilege of completing a
project or making meaningful progress toward a goal, we're
often surprised at how strong our sense of satisfaction
Which is to say that it's a reasonable tradeoff to
purposely decide to let go of some affirmation in order to be
more effective in areas where God has gifted us creatively. Of
course I'm not suggesting that you commit social suicide in
the process. Telling others where they can get off is not the
point. You will not benefit by snubbing nonsupportive friends
and risking the loss of their affection. Yet if you lose some
affirmation in the process of developing your potential or
moving toward a goal, that's okay. Your overall experience of
fulfillment will likely not diminish but increase.
And you'll undoubtedly gain new friends in the process, who
will appreciate you in your new role and affirm you in it.
2. Trading financial gain or lifestyle benefits for
creative accomplishment. A related point is that it's
worth letting go of material benefits in order to increase our
creative satisfaction in the work we do. This is not a natural
adjustment to make. The underlying current in American society
is that your personal worth is measured by the size of your
salary, the type of car you drive and the neighborhood in
which you live. And of course the implication is that as these
factors improve, your happiness will increase as well.
Whatever pleasure does come from
economic benefits pales in the face of the joy of using our
most significant gifts and doing work that we're truly
motivated to do. Still, as one psychiatrist observes, “It is
extremely unusual in this society to make purposeful decisions
to make less money.”* This can be
one of the most challenging and courageous steps we ever take.
Again, the tradeoff can be worth it, if in return you gain
the opportunity to do work which better reflects your gifts
and creative interests. While providing for your basic
economic needs is essential (2 Thess 3:6-10), don't let this
goal become all encompassing. If you have the responsibility
to provide for a family, remember that part of caring for
family members is encouraging them. Since you can best
encourage others when you're encouraged yourself, your work
satisfaction will make a difference in your ability to love
those in your family. This consideration should be weighed
carefully along with financial benefits in thinking through
any job option.
3. Trading professional activity for family life.
This brings us to another tradeoff that has critical
implications for those of us who are married. While it is
wonderful to be involved in work that is creatively
stimulating, we can become obsessed with work to the point
that our family life suffers. When this happens, the quality
of our work often deteriorates as well.
Canadian physician and stress expert
Peter Hanson notes that poor family relationships contribute
more to unhealthy stress than any other factor in our lives.*
Tension within the family easily robs us of the creative
energy we need for carrying out our professional work,
homemaking tasks and other responsibilities. The converse is
also true: good family relationships are a tonic inspiring
creative energy and freeing us to be productive in what we do.
For people who are not married, the same holds true: the
meaningful relationships in your life, whether with relatives
or friends, and particularly with the “family” that makes
up your household, can get crowded out by job or other
responsibilities. Both the people close to you and you
yourself deserve prime time and attention.
Time spent building my relationship with those closest to
me doesn't have to be a distraction from realizing my
professional aspirations. Indeed, it can be the most important
investment I make toward those goals. The key is to strike a
healthy balance here.
4. Trading immediate pleasure or accomplishment for
personal growth. Because we take pleasure from the
experience of personal growth, sacrificing immediate gains for
the sake of long-term growth is very often worth the exchange.
This is a vital point to remember when weighing educational
opportunities vs. immediate options for employment, for
Remember that our Lord himself spent thirty years of
preparation for a ministry that lasted only three. Paul, too,
after his dramatic call on Damascus Road, retreated for a
fourteen-year preparation period.
Billy Graham confessed at an evangelism workshop that if he
had his life to live over, he would preach less and study
more. He also remarked that if he knew he had but three years
to live, he would study two and preach only one.
The personal growth tradeoff is one of the most helpful
considerations to keep in mind in a marriage decision.
Unfortunately it is usually the most overlooked. I was
counseling an engaged woman recently who was having second
thoughts about going ahead with her marriage. For Lisa, the
concern was whether her fiancé would be able to meet all of
her needs and live up to all of her ideals. I suggested that
she give as much consideration to how he would help her grow
as she did to whether he would make her happy.
Each of us who is thinking about marriage will do well to
keep this consideration in the forefront of our mind. I'm
certain that God gives us marriage at least as much for the
sake of our development as for our fulfillment. We're talking
about a fifty-fifty proposition here. While he uses marriage
to meet our needs for companionship, he also uses it to
challenge us to grow into a more compassionate, sensitive
individual, by placing us in a lifetime relationship with
someone who is far short of perfect. Understanding this
dynamic can simplify a marriage decision, in some cases
considerably. It also can do wonders to help us value our
spouse once we're married--especially at times when it seems
that he or she is not living up to our image of the ideal
5. Trading ecstasy for
comfort. In his insightful book, Can Men and Women
Be Just Friends? André Bustanoby laments how many leave a
good, comfortable marriage in search of a new attraction. They
long for a relationship as electrifying as the one with their
spouse once was. They fall for someone new; all the moonstruck
sensations are there, and so they marry again. Within a year,
though, the romantic feelings have mellowed and the
relationship now seems, well, ordinary.*
In a long-term relationship, Bustanoby explains, it is
psychologically impossible to maintain the extreme romantic
elation often present in the early days of getting acquainted.
The initial exhilaration in romance--termed “temporary
insanity” by another writer--is sparked by newness and
mystery in the relationship, which by definition cannot last
indefinitely. But in its place can come a quality of
friendship that over the years continues to grow and offers
extraordinary support and security. Bustanoby argues that it's
well worth letting go of some ecstasy for the sake of this
more stable benefit.
This perspective is a redemptive one and, frankly,
indispensable for a successful marriage relationship. It's an
important outlook to keep in mind in choosing a marriage
partner, too, for usually we place too much weight on romantic
feelings. In the long run it's our friendship with the other
that provides the most enduring--and satisfying--basis for
Looking beyond marriage to our other relationships, here
too the exhilaration of a new friendship with a person who
seems to have much to offer us can lure us away from more
predictable but lasting friendships we already have. It's
important to nourish our ongoing friendships and not be quick
to drop them in favor of a new one that may or may not last.
6. Trading security for adventure. At the
same time, God does wish to bring a definite measure of
adventure into our lives. Psychologists recognize the desire
for new experience as one of our basic human needs. Contrast
is essential to our vitality. While this must not be the basis
for leaving a comfortable marriage for a supposedly more
enticing relationship, it's often a good reason for making
career or lifestyle changes. The tragedy is that as we grow
older and become more comfortable, we easily lose our
willingness to risk. We place security above adventure.
In his classic The Adventure of
Living, Paul Tournier points out that we have an inherent
need for adventure and stresses that this is a God-given
instinct.* I agree heartily with his
concern and recommend this book as the best treatment I have
seen of the role of adventure in human life. We each need a
certain balance between security and adventure. It's good from
time to time to take inventory to make certain that the scales
haven't tipped too greatly in one direction or the other.
7. Trading activity for time with Christ.
Finally, I cannot speak of tradeoffs in the Christian life
without saying something about our need for scheduling regular
devotional time with Christ. Most of us are busy enough that a
regular quiet-time simply can't occur unless we're willing to
put some other things aside. For many of us it means cutting
back on our professional work or curtailing our other goals a
bit. Here the greatest test to our faith often comes, for we
prove whether we really believe that time with Christ is worth
the sacrifice elsewhere.
Again, must I say it? The tradeoff is much more than worth
it. Regular time spent with Christ benefits us in a multitude
of ways--giving us increased vitality in what we do, building
in us greater confidence of his presence and guidance, and
opening us more fully to his work and provision in our lives.