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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.