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I have only a vague memory of him: he was an enormous man who dwarfed me. Of course, to a four-year-old, all adults are mammoth. He died that year, and that’s the memory I carried of him from that point on--my grandfather as a towering giant.
A huge photo portrait of him from the shoulders up reinforced the impression. His face is large--Ralph-Friedgen-like--and you assume a substantial body lurked below.
I knew my grandfather was a career policeman, highly respected on the D.C. force, who rose to the position of assistant chief. My parents spoke of his love for police-work, his success as an officer and his toughness with criminals--a stature in life that magnified my impression of him as a Big Man.
I don’t recall them ever speaking specifically of his physical stature, though. Why, I’m not certain; I can only guess it wasn’t relevant to their impression of him.
It was relevant to many others, I was fascinated to discover just last year. While Evie and I were cleaning out the attic of my mom’s home, to prepare it for sale, we came across a scrapbook of news articles related to my granddad’s police work and personal life. Many mention him by name; others detail events that were important to him. The collection is huge--several hundred pieces, spanning about twenty years, beginning with several on his wedding in 1909.
The articles confirmed my assumption about his character: he was a courageous policeman who tackled the tough assignments.
The first indication it needed adjusting came in an article early in the scrapbook describing my grandfather’s efforts to toughen D.C traffic legislation. The title: “Shorty Smith: Least of Cops in Size, Away Up in Traffic Laws.”
So much for my image of Hulk Hogan.
There are photos with captions noting his status as the smallest cop, and references to it in various articles reporting his activities. The distinction finds its way into article titles, too, such as one describing a motorcycle accident he suffered: “Smallest Cop on Force Laid Up for Repairs.”
And one describing a scuffle with intoxicated drivers: “Smallest Cop, Making Arrest, Jails 2 Out of 3.”
And my favorite: “Smallest of City’s Cops Arrests 4 at Once.”
I was stunned enough to find that a mental picture I had carried of my grandfather for more than fifty years was about as skewed as it could be. What was most interesting was to realize how greatly he had benefited from being a small man. It lent an intrigue to his life and magnified his achievements in the eyes of others, who were impressed with what he was able to accomplish in spite of this apparent limitation. The media loved him, and Washingtonians loved reading about him.
It’s clear my grandfather had certain character traits that helped him. He was a brave man, determined to prove himself, willing to take on challenges from which others twice his size would have shied away. But, especially important, he didn’t carry a chip on his shoulder about his size. He was clearly comfortable with it and saw it as a positive factor in his life. It’s evident in how people treated him that he had the sort of healthy self-esteem that wins others’ affection. His colleagues not only promoted him to assistant chief but elected him president of the Washington Police Association.
What emerges from the scrapbook is the picture of a man who throughout much of his adult life benefited greatly from a factor that many men would consider a deficit. I’m sensitive to how height can affect self-esteem, measuring in myself at 5 feet 6-½ inches (don’t forget the one-half inch). Like my granddad, I’ve long come to view my stature as a benefit and am grateful for it. Yet walking through life in this particular shell has made me conscious of how it can affect you when you’re more often looking up at people than looking down. Many smaller men feel inferior about their size, and some feel that life has dealt them a substantial blow. One young man remarked to me in all honesty that, when he gets to heaven, the first thing he’s going to do is ask the Lord why he made him “so blasted short.”
It was so refreshing to discover that an ancestor of mine--a respected patriarch in our family--had drawn such advantages from this feature, perfecting self-acceptance of it to an art form. What’s most inspiring is that he turned a potential limitation into a major strength.
Our tendency as humans is to do the opposite--to berate ourselves for our limitations, and to dwell on them to the point that they truly do hinder our success. We desperately need examples like Shorty Smith’s, which by their inspiration and (so often) their comic relief help us to break our fixation on our limitations and to focus on God’s bigger picture for our life.
The areas where we may feel life has disadvantaged us are countless and can include physical features, personality traits, family background, lack of education or experience, shortcomings in our abilities, financial limitations and endless circumstantial factors that we see as major restrictions.
It may be argued that Milton Smith’s short stature wasn’t a serious obstacle to him in the way that a major physical disability would have been. Yet physical features that we disdain can hinder us greatly because of the effect they have on our self-esteem. We expend vast energy worrying about them, robbing our attention from more important concerns. And, because we imagine they pose limits to our success, we don’t try as hard, and our belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perceived limitations can restrict us as greatly as genuine ones.
I’m not suggesting we can transcend every limitation and accomplish anything we wish in life. Yet this much is axiomatic: When God wills our success, he almost always works through a combination of strengths and limitations on our part. He uses our strengths to deepen our sense of purpose and partnership with him in his work. He uses them to guide us as well; through understanding our gifts and natural potential, we gain vital insight into his intentions for our life and important directions we should take.
He uses our limitations and weaknesses to strengthen our trust in him--that he will do what we’re not capable of accomplishing, to build humility in us, and to increase our sense of adventure in taking steps of faith.
Because of this double dynamic in how God works through us, it’s critical that we give far more attention to our strengths than to our limitations in embracing dreams and setting goals. We ought to base our important choices upon what we’re most gifted and motivated to do, and only as a secondary matter consider how to meet any challenges our limitations present.
Too often we
reverse the process. We focus so greatly on our limitations that we
become convinced God has closed doors that he would open for us if we
moved forward. We need to make it a matter of lifestyle and daily
discipline to shift our attention away from our limitations to the
positives--to God’s grace and infinite power in our life, and to the
gifts he’s given us to be productive--much in the way that John Nash
learned to focus out his hallucinations in A Beautiful Mind and
to concentrate on matters that were important in his life’s mission.
In not a few cases we find that obstacles we thought were genuine have
as much reality as Nash’s imaginary friends did.
Nine Ways Our Limitations Can Help Us
There is fortunately much we can do to change the way we think about our disadvantages and to keep them from having a negative impact upon our life. Nothing helps us more than if we can turn the tables on a limitation and come to see it as a benefit. This can be done in a surprising number of cases; in not a few, we can turn a weakness into a genuine strength.
It helps us to be aware of as wide a variety of ways that limitations can benefit us as possible, and to bring these possibilities to mind whenever we’re tempted to think life has short-changed us. There are at least nine ways this positive effect can occur.
1. Others root for us. We see it all the time in sports. People cheer for the underdog. They do if the under-advantaged person or team sincerely strives to win; there’s no cheering if the underdog takes on a loser mentality and fails to make an earnest effort.
This same dynamic that works for athletes can work for us in areas of life where succeeding means prevailing over an obvious limitation or disadvantage. Others will support us if we give it all our heart.
greatly from this factor during his period of persecution by Saul. The
image of the little guy against the bully carried forward from his
fight with Goliath to the way people saw his effort to stand firm
against Saul’s oppression yet still serve Israel. People loved him
dearly and wanted him to succeed. And they literally cheered
for him: “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of
thousands” (1 Sam 18:7).
2. Others are drawn to us. In a similar way, people are attracted to us on a personal and friendship level more typically by our weaknesses and limitations than by our strengths. Our inadequacies convey to others that we share a common humanity with them and are not above them.
Timothy, the New Testament pastor, was well liked by others (Acts 16:2), and Paul himself “wanted Timothy to accompany him” (Acts 16:3 RSV). Timothy was also a shy individual, who had to be exhorted at times not to let his fears discourage him from carrying out his ministry (1 Tim 4:14, 2 Tim 6-7). His shyness seems to have worked positively for him in relationships, though, helping others feel he was on their level and approachable.
3. The advantage of lowered expectations--the “in spite of” factor. A particularly interesting benefit of our limitations is how they increase the intrigue people have when we succeed, and their admiration of our accomplishments. In this way our limitations can actually increase our potential for success.
The members of the Jewish council, for instance, were impressed with how boldly and effectively Peter and John spoke to them about Jesus in spite of the fact that “they were unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13).
This in-spite-of factor also worked for the woman at the well, whom Jesus encountered while traveling by Samaria (John 4). It's evident that her fellow Samaritans regarded her as morally loose and disliked her, for she sought water at a well outside the city and in the heat of midday--an obvious attempt to avoid contact with people. Following her discussion with Jesus, she returned to Samaria, urging her townspeople, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” Their response was so remarkable, that Jesus was inundated with visitors. He felt compelled to stay in the region two more days, and “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Many scholars credit her with being the most effective evangelist in the Gospels, inspiring more conversions to Christ than any other person.
What made her testimony so effective was that, because people had such low expectations of her, they listened intently when she suddenly had something important to say. They were astonished that she found the courage to speak to them, and that she spoke so persuasively about Jesus being the messiah.
4. Limitations can inspire us to higher achievement. The in-spite-of factor can be a powerful motivating force in our own life as well. When we look at what has spurred us to accomplish a goal, we often find that an important part was our desire to prove we could do it in spite of certain disadvantages. In the end we have to admit that our limitations were a beneficial, if not necessary, factor in finding the heart to succeed.
When Paul stated, “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle,” he wasn’t espousing false humility but was lamenting that he had persecuted Christians so severely (1 Cor 15:9). Paul was stricken by his past and saw it as a permanent blight upon his life. He could have caved into despair and made no effort to redeem himself. Yet, far to the contrary, he declared, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them” (1 Cor. 9:10). The knowledge of how greatly he had opposed Christ’s mission was a potent stimulus to try as hard as he could to reverse the process during his remaining time on earth. What Paul saw as a glaring limitation also gave him extraordinary incentive to do his very best in serving Christ.
5. A limitation becomes a strength. More often than we imagine, it’s possible to overcome a limitation completely. The motivation to do so runs so strong that, through determination and focus, and special grace that God provides in such an effort, we become proficient in an area where we had felt inferior. We may even convert a significant weakness into our greatest strength; no accomplishment in life is more gratifying.
We see a profound biblical example of such a transformation in Moses’ odyssey with public speaking. Moses was so certain he was incapable of effective speaking, and so frightened of trying, that he nearly turned down God’s call to deliver Israel. God graciously worked with Moses to wean him of his fears, allowing his brother Aaron to be his spokesman.
Throughout the remainder of Aaron's life, he remained Moses’ constant partner in leading Israel. Yet Moses soon was handling many speaking responsibilities himself. We don’t find a single reference to his being uncomfortable with the role once he began to get his feet wet, and he grew competent enough to take the task over completely after Aaron’s death (Num 20:23-29). He become such a capable speaker that he moved multitudes with his words, and through his verbal ability lead his people on a massive mission that succeeded against the strongest possible odds. His greatest weakness (or what he perceived as such) became a supremely effective skill.
6. Because we’ve got it, we flaunt it. In some cases we can do little or nothing to change a limitation; yet by revising the way we think about it, we transform it into a strength. Our physical attractiveness is affected far more by how we feel about our appearance than by any particular characteristic. Simply deciding to esteem a feature we had disliked can make a world of difference in how others see it.
There are many areas of life where choosing to think of a disadvantage as a benefit unleashes our potential considerably. Paul was a master at viewing the most constraining circumstances positively. When he was slammed in prison, he simply assumed it was a benefit to his ministry to be there and began looking for the best ways to be productive (Phil 1:12-14). Some of his most important writing occurred while imprisoned, and it’s doubtful this unshakable extrovert would have found the time to write so prolifically and effectively apart from forced confinement. Whenever we draw help from his epistles today we are benefiting from the fact that Paul was able to maximize the potential of difficult circumstances so well.
Call this the survivor spirit if you will. It works to our benefit at numerous points in life.
7. Polishing the rough edges makes all the difference. In other cases a factor in our life that has worked against us suddenly starts to work for us, once we learn to manage it better or make some modifications. Personality characteristics are often like this. Peter’s impulsive temperament frequently got him into trouble during Jesus’ earthly ministry. He would talk before he would think--blurting out inappropriate statements at the worst times. Yet after Pentecost this inclination became a strength, for he was able to rise quickly to occasions that required immediate action without fear of the consequences.
He seized the moment on the day of Pentecost to stand up and address the curious crowd of diverse nationalities. Others would have seen this challenge as too daunting to take on without careful preparation, missing a golden opportunity that was there only briefly.
Three years of discipleship under Jesus had fine-tuned Peter’s instincts so that he was able to pick his battles more wisely. With better judgment, his tendency to act on impulse became a positive trait in his leadership of the early church.
8. The empathy factor. Regardless of other benefits a limitation may provide, every one has the potential of deepening our empathy for others who experience the same disadvantage. This is a point Paul exalts over in 2 Corinthians 2: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (vv 3-4).
Remembering how God uses our personal struggles to help us better understand and encourage others facing the same challenges helps us find purpose in every trial we experience. We’re able to see benefit also to disadvantages that otherwise seem a broadside to our life. Over time we find they have improved our ability to love others for Christ and have strengthened bonds of friendship.
9. We experience God’s grace more fully. Paul experienced a problem that he termed, metaphorically, “a thorn in my side.” While he never clarified specifically what the irritation was, it was obviously a major hindrance in his life. After Paul prayed earnestly on three occasions for God to remove the thorn, God responded, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then concluded, “when I am weak, then I am strong,” suggesting a principle relevant to all believers (2 Cor 12:7-10).
Paul clearly saw this principle as applying to genuine weakness, for he indicates that he continued praying until God made it unequivocally plain that the thorn wouldn’t be removed. We are always responsible first to look carefully at whether a weakness is real or imaginary, at whether it can be transformed, and at whether there are benefits to it we’re overlooking. To the degree we find it is a true obstacle in our life, we may then count on special compensation from God and a fuller experience of his grace than we would otherwise enjoy.
I’ve mentioned this point last, even though it’s the most important, for unless we consider it in light of the other possibilities we’ve mentioned, we can apply it irresponsibly. We can be too quick to assume God will bless us in spite of a handicap that he actually will give us the ability to overcome. But when we know that a limitation is permanent, or that a problem absolutely, positively cannot be solved, we can then bank on an experience of God’s grace so exceptional that we’ll see our weakness as strength. We’ll gain the right to say with Paul, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” This is the most revolutionary insight Scripture offers into how a limitation or weakness can work to our advantage.
Great Expectations of Limited Circumstances
Appreciating these many potential advantages of limitations expands our ability to recognize how specific ones we experience personally may be a benefit to our life as God intends it. His hand in our life is so infinitely creative that there is almost always a fortuitous side to personal challenges that we’re missing.
One further point. In revising the way we think about our limitations, it’s important not only to work on how we view our personal characteristics and the broad circumstances of our life, but the possibilities for each individual day as well.
I made another fascinating discovery about my grandfather while reading the scrapbook. He met his wife Kitty under the most unlikely circumstances. The story is detailed in several articles, including one titled, “Arrests Girl for Speeding: Weds Her.” He stopped Katherine M. Horton for exceeding Washington’s eighteen-miles-an-hour speed limit as she spun around Dupont Circle. The chance meeting led to a friendship, a relationship, then marriage.
I was moved (and not a little amused) to discover that my granddad met the love of his life through the most routine of police responsibilities--a traffic stop. The story reminds us that God sometimes presents us with unusual opportunities in the midst of mundane activities of daily life. It speaks to a principle that I’ve longed felt is at the heart of successful living: We ought to begin each day with high expectations for what is ahead, and stay alert to the possibility of God’s doing the unexpected. Without the right anticipation, we can miss golden opportunities that so often present themselves in the form of small beginnings.
I’m impressed with the fact that my grandfather had this alertness and seized an outstanding opportunity that unexpectedly presented itself. It wouldn’t have taken much skepticism (“Happy surprises never happen to me, so why expect them?”) to blind him to the possibilities in an otherwise aggravating situation. I’m equally impressed that he found the courage to pursue a relationship with Kitty, and especially the humility--for it meant swallowing his pride, casting his police authority aside, and admitting that someone he had stopped for breaking the law might be a special gift of God for his life.
I must say that the more I learn about my grandfather, the more I realize he was a truly amazing man. He lived life courageously, and saw it as presenting opportunities, not problems. He had an uncanny sense for recognizing the special ones that came his way, and excellent judgment in responding to them. And he was a master at turning limitations into strengths.
It all makes me realize I wasn’t deluded; that image I had of him as a four-year-old was correct after all.
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