June 1, 2013
 Tradeoffs Worth Making
Seven Shifts in Priorities
That Help Us Realize
Our Potential
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This article is adapted from Blaine Smith's The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships, Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions.

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In my last Nehemiah Notes article, 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 again.

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 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 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 accept.

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 applies.

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).

Getting Specific

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 and attention.

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 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 instance.

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 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, 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. 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 benefit.3

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.

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This article is excerpted with small changes from Blaine's The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships, Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions (Downers Grove Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

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