Friday, April 4, 2014

The Problem of Potential

We humans are easily caught up in the promise of possibilities.

We give great respect to Potential.

That's why shows like American Idol spend so little time actually listening to people sing and so much time telling stories of the people who just might be able to fully use their talent and reach their dreams.  That's why sports fans read more articles about prospective college players and which professional team may or may not draft them than pouring over posts about actual games.  And that's why media, on both the left and the right, are so skilled at turning on the propaganda machines and generating interest for future presidential candidates.

Potential is highly revered.

Now certainly, recognizing one's own potential can have the positive power to encourage one make good use of the gifts he or she has been given. 

But there is a dark side of Potential.

Sometimes toxic relationships drag on too long because of a false hope in a boyfriend's or girlfriend's potential - "Sure, he or she treats me bad now, but we could be so great together."  Sometimes people hold onto investments or the dream of starting a new business or ministry too long because they've spent so much time and effort and... who knows, success might be just around the corner.

There is a quote that has been rattling around my brain for the last couple years.  Larry Osborne, in his book "Spirituality for the Rest of Us," says this:

"Potential is not a sacred responsibility. Potential is a harsh mistress - seductive, never satisfied, prone to exaggeration, nearly impossible to figure out.  Those who pursue her inevitably end up in the poisoned land of self-centered priorities and me-first decisions." (p.187)

Wow!  So, there are two main problems with Potential.

The first is that Potential can make us a slave to what would-be or could-be.  The unfortunate truth, though, is that we can never actually 'reach' our potential because being ruled by what seem to be our latent possibilities means we're chasing after a ghost that is always just beyond our grasp.  Having 'unlimited potential' means that we'll never be able to achieve it.  Potential is both unreachable and unmeasurable.

And as Osborne notes, a second problem with Potential is that it is often seen primarily in individual terms.  It can cause us to focus primarily on our own fulfillment and flourishing.

Our team is in the process of trying to figure out just how long to stay in Montepuez.  We've invested over ten years here on the ground (and another few years before that in preparation).  Churches in the United States have given a lot to help us learn language and culture and put us in a position to make a difference for the kingdom of God.  So now we're trying to weigh the different factors involved in staying or leaving at some point in the future.

But, as Rachel and I consider what to do with the next stage of our lives, I would hope that we would listen less to Potential and be more attuned to the biblical value of Stewardship. 

A steward is one who manages a resource for the benefit of another.  I think that looking at this decision through the lens of Stewardship would be a healthier way - one that is more measurable and more Kingdom or community oriented.

Maybe what our culture values as "Potential" is merely the warped, worldly version of the biblical value known as Stewardship...

...Anyways, these are just some initial thoughts - escaping the siren call of that goddess of Potential is surely more easier said than done.  But I think that framing our team's conversation (and other decisions like it) within the concept of Stewardship instead of Potential is a good place to start.

May our lives be informed by potential but guided by a desire to be good stewards for the good of God's Kingdom.

Grace and Peace,

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