a recent Nehemiah Notes, I mentioned a burnout
experience I had halfway through a graduate program. I noted that
talking with the dean of students rekindled my zeal to tackle my studies
The essence of his advice was simple: 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
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 Iíve absorbed from my culture that I
can ďhave it all.Ē As it gradually sinks in that these tradeoffs
are not only normal but desirable, they become easier to
We instinctively resist the notion of making tradeoffs, for it
smacks of compromising. We fear ďsettlingĒ--to quote the term so
often used today by those considering an opportunity to marry.
We dread the thought of selling short our ideals or acquiescing
to less than Godís best for our life. As necessary as these
fears are, we must be careful that they donít dissuade us from
tradeoffs which are actually healthy and beneficial to make.
Yes, following Godís 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 which no longer fits us well for one that now better
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 to marry, to have
children, to choose a career or take any major step with our
life. They are at the heart of what it means to make choices
that reflect Godís best for us.
Tradeoffs in St. Paulís 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 homecomingís
being delayed. Staying on earth would allow him to devote his
life to others--to win some to Christ, to disciple as many
Christians as possible. ďIf 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 faithĒ (Phil 1:22-25).
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 imprisonment to
influence others. Not only was he enjoying exceptional
opportunities to tell members of the palace guard about Christ,
but many Christians were gaining courage from Paulís example to
share their faith in challenging circumstances (Phil 1:12-14).
Letís 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 lifeís 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 itís the primary basis
for everything they do.
This drive has its positive side. It spurs us to move outside of
ourselves, to seek relationships and live a life which 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 donít 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 us psychologically that we
find fulfillment, not only in pleasing others, but in creative
accomplishment as well. This fact doesnít 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, weíre often
surprised at how strong our sense of satisfaction actually is.
Which is to say that itís 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, Iím 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, thatís okay. Your overall experience of
fulfillment will likely not diminish but increase.
And youíll 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 itís
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 which weíre truly motivated to
do. Still, as one psychiatrist observes, ďIt is extremely
unusual in this society to make purposeful decisions to make
less money.Ē* This can be one of the
most challenging and courageous steps that we ever take.
Again, the tradeoff can be worth it, if in return you gain the
opportunity to do work that better reflects your gifts and
creative interests. While providing for your basic economic
needs is essential (2 Thess 3:6-10), donít 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
youíre 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 ďfamilyĒ 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
Time spent building my relationship with those closest to me
doesnít 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
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
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 fiancť 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. Iím certain
that God gives us marriage at least as much for the sake of our
development as for our fulfillment. Weíre 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 weíre married--especially at times
when it seems that he or she is not living up to our image of
ďthe ideal mate.Ē
5. Trading ecstasy for comfort.
In his insightful book Can Men and Women Be Just Friends?
Andrť 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,
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.
This initial exhilaration in romance--termed ďtemporary
insanityĒ 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
which over the years continues to grow and offers extraordinary
support and security. Bustanoby argues that itís well worth
letting go of some ecstasy for the sake of this more stable
This perspective is a redemptive one and, frankly, indispensable
for a successful marriage relationship. Itís 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, itís our friendship with the other that provides the
most enduring--and satisfying--basis for marriage.
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. Itís 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 quest for new adventure
must not be the basis for leaving a comfortable marriage for a
supposedly more enticing relationship, itís 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 he 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. Itís good from time to time to take inventory of our
life, to make certain that the scales havenít 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 such a time simply
canít occur unless weíre willing to put some other things aside.
For many of us, this 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.