When I was still in college, our Sunday School class took a turn, every month, to provide a service at the Cleveland City Rescue Mission. As class president and a moderately capable speaker (prior to attending seminary), I preached monthly for a period of time. During that time, I was struggling with some personal issues that I’d shared with a friend; I asked him, on our way to the mission service, one evening, if I should be preaching, given my struggles. He responded by asking if I knew anyone in our group who was better qualified, without struggles or with more skills.
Insecurity is a debilitating perspective. It can keep otherwise capable people from doing, well, anything! As a pastor, I frequently received complaints and criticisms suggesting I should be doing things I wasn’t doing, typically things I was not gifted to do. That’s human nature, to focus on what is lacking, but fail to notice and appreciate what is present. Other people do it to us, and we do it to ourselves.
To start, children are not duplicates of their parents, nor are they surrogates. Little Johnny is not a scoundrel, “just like your father!” Little Sally is not necessarily intended to become the dancer her mother never managed but wanted so desperately to be. In some cases, the child seems nothing like mother or father, yet time usually demonstrates similarities; in others, even strong resemblance may reveal sharp differences as well. This is the miracle of DNA by which each parent contributes a portion of qualities, creating a new mix uniquely different from any other individual, no matter how similar it appears to be to others.
Schools and teachers can be devastating at demanding performance where ability is lacking, and, while every person needs certain basic skills, the message can easily become one of failure. I recall learning long ago of boys who never forgot being called stupid or girls forever scarred by being called something other than beautiful. Today’s emphasis on self-esteem may lessen such damage, but it replaces it with a vapid sort of sameness, ignoring differences, especially those that distinguish one individual from others. Despite the forces that seem to want to press us toward sameness, we are uniquely designed by God to be individuals; more than mere ego, we have gifts he has given to us—strengths, assets, talents, and capabilities—all part of his grand design toward which each may contribute his own special piece. Ignored or suppressed, humans find themselves bored with a life that seems to hold nothing of interest for a given person.
Even our own human natures seem to compel us to worry over what we cannot do, what we do poorly, what seems to be our weaknesses. Admiration for another person—a parent, a favorite friend or relative, or a well-appreciated celebrity—may drive a person to seek to copy them, only to discover it isn’t possible. Disappointment wars with desire, while more viable possibilities remain unexplored. How many parents or teachers have learned to encourage a child to discover his or her own inclinations, to find a vision for their future that suits their unique predilections?
Good coaches know that they must use the talents available among team members if they are to win games. They may lack strong shooters but have players with quick hands that can steal. They may have several powerful hitters but few strong arms. Whatever the mix, coaches know they must play to their strengths, even as they may work to shore up their weaknesses. That should also be the plan for each individual, and for those who have authority over individuals, from schools to businesses and government. We do not get the most out of people by demanding a common generalized competency; we get the most by letting each one do what he or she does best, as much as possible.
For believers who know God gives gifts to each of us, we have no business obsessing over what we lack or what comes only with difficulty or demanding that other perform to our expectations regardless of the strengths of others. He gifts each person for the calling or mission he gives; to focus on weakness means that person is very likely not focused on his appointed task. Conversely, over emphasis on ungifted areas may lead to missing the work God wants done, work he has gifted the person to accomplish. Peter speaks plainly, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” Paul advises Timothy not to let people discourage him for being young and similarly not to “neglect” his gift, easy for a young pastor to do when elder saints start whining or criticizing.
Three cautions come to mind. First, circumstances sometimes require us to face a weakness, for a time anyway. I can’t sell “to save my soul” (and fortunately that has never been an issue!). I can think of a multitude of reasons why a prospect doesn’t need what I’m selling and certainly not at a premium price, and I have tried—knives, encyclopedias, vitamins, and soap! Ah, but what about the gospel? Is that sales? In a manner of speaking, it is, and the skills are somewhat transferable and necessary. No Christian should totally neglect them. Weakness or not, I cannot totally neglect this area; neither will I ever become an evangelist, in the gifted sense of the word. More on this in a bit.
My second caution is a warning: gifts are not for personal gain! While a strength may provide for one’s livelihood, perhaps even a generous income, a person must not use his gifts to control or oppress others. I fear more than a few pastors fall into this trap. Indeed, some become ministers because they seem appropriately gifted, only to become petty popes. Peter taught otherwise: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” Whatever the calling, believers are gifted to serve, and we are to serve in love.
This leads naturally to the third caution. We live in a self-absorbed time in a self-serving culture. Talk of weaknesses and strengths can easily lead to self-absorption. The correction for this is love. None of the spiritual gifts I possess or the strengths that have been identified (see below) naturally compel me to be kind or nice, but God does! This isn’t about gifts; this is about simple obedience: “(T)he entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
By whatever means we come to appreciate this, a person is wise to “play to his strengths.” This is the conclusion of Strength Finders, based on extensive research by the Gallup organization. Now, Discover Your Strengths illustrates its case with stories of real people in management situations, both for the idea of focusing on strengths and for the 34 themes which its “strength-finder” identifies.
The Biblical concept of spiritual gifts, however, seems to lead to a similar understanding. Even in the most basic of concerns, the struggle with sin, it makes sense to focus on strength rather than on sin. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” reminds us to trust God for what we have rather than worry about what we fear we lack…or will.
For nearly a decade, I have been tutoring refugees and international students. Though I have been a classroom teacher, I have freely admitted to be a better tutor than classroom teacher. I meant my statement only to state a preference, but my strength-finder profile identifies me as a “maximizer,” which is precisely what makes me a great tutor. I think I could be a great teacher, too, if every student wanted to learn; instead, a teacher must deal with classroom discipline and give poor grades for poor performance. Both those areas drive me crazy. I have a hunch that I’m weak in what strength-finders call “command,” which has no problem imposing its views, confronting, or taking charge (page 88).
So, what about what might seem to be a critical deficiency? Strength-finders offers 5 strategies as alternatives to obsessing over one’s weaknesses: design a support system, overwhelm weakness with an identified strength, find a partner who complements your strengths and weaknesses (and you his or hers), or just ignore the weakness. I wish I had been able to consider these, this past school year; I experienced one of the hazards of struggling with an area of weakness; I didn’t use my strengths nearly as well as I am capable.
I used to say that I was bright enough to do whatever I decided I wanted or needed to do. In a way, my strengths support that—strategic, intellection, ideation, input, and maximize. In other words, I’m pretty good at figuring things out and solving problems, and my life experiences show that to be true. However, certain kinds of situations can be difficult for me because of my areas of weakness or ungiftedness, just as they will be for any of us. No one, apart from God himself, can do anything and everything. For some, his provision comes with a corresponding interest matched by a lack of interest in what we cannot do. For others, time brings an opportunity to discover a new application of gifts not previously recognized, especially as the Lord directs us.
However things come to pass, a person needs to know his strengths and then work to function at his best by focusing on playing to them. This is the plan most likely to be effective, most likely to bring satisfaction and contentment, and most likely to please the God who has given us those very strengths in order to serve Him and his people.