We go to the gym to get stretched. I know it seems like it’s the place to take selfies in the mirror these days, but that’s not the point!
For the athlete and the trainer, the goal is to find the sweet spot where the muscles are stretched beyond comfort but before injury. That spot lies somewhere between endurance and exhaustion.
My wife works out with a personal trainer most Saturdays. Regularly (including this past weekend), she wakes up on Sunday and Monday slowly moving one area of her body because of the intensity of the workouts. She jokingly talks about how much she hates her trainer in those moments. At times, I have to remind her how the stretch they pursued is leading her to a greater level of fitness and strength.
In reflecting on her slow movement this weekend, I remembered how much we grow when we’re stretched. Growth comes through stretching and overloading our muscles, on a regular basis. The muscles we exercise are often physical, but not just athletic muscles. Some muscles are emotional, attitude and even worldview-oriented. We can stretch our patience, gratitude, loyalty, courage and compassion muscles too.
With all of these muscles, the truth is this…
If you never push your limits, you’ll never grow.
Last month, I got to spend time with one of my college mentors and some students he’s currently mentoring. Jeff Jimerson gave me a chance to lead within our campus ministry as an inexperienced 18 year-old freshman. The initial opportunity led to more opportunities, growing in size and influence. Within two years, Jeff “gave me the keys” to a large area of responsibility as a 20 year-old junior. In the areas I was leading, I would inform Jeff of decisions other leaders and I had made together. I had reached the point where I was not only trusted but empowered to lead. When Jeff moved a year later, the ministry was “my car” to drive.
Looking back, I know Jeff must have seen potential in me early on because I had no experience to warrant the opportunities I initially received! Repeatedly, Jeff gave me a chance to stretch and grow. He continually pushed me to develop, beyond what I thought I could do and definitely past what I had done before that time.
We all need people in our lives who nudge and push us beyond what we’ve known.
We need people to help us get to the place where we can grow and develop. We also need to be those people for others.
In 2006, I was invited to become a regular teaching pastor at Crash, a Sunday evening service at my church. Up to that point, I had preached 3 or 4 times. The opportunity quickly moved from one sermon a month to 20-25 per year. Within a few years, I was the primary teaching pastor at that service, preaching more than 40 times per year.
In that season, I gave a lot of bad sermons. Terrible ones! I mean, so bad that I cringe as I think about them. Many were way too long, with far too many points and not nearly enough focus. However, the couple hundred sermons from that era took place in a smaller setting (normally in front of 100 people or less), which gave me a chance to grow and develop as a communicator. I wouldn’t be where I am today as a speaker, teacher and pastor without that time.
The opportunity to make mistakes without fatal consequences is a gift.
Some skills are only developed over time, by repetition, through perseverance, and with feedback. Being able to workout and stretch yourself in a gym is far better than being thrust into the CrossFit Games without much training.
When I was in college, in that phase I described earlier, my friends decided my life theme song was Over My Head (Cable Car) by The Fray. They were correct – I was in over my head. But being in over my head didn’t impact my leadership negatively.
The seasons where I’ve been in over my head have been the scariest…and most transformational.
As a writer, I regularly encounter inspiration – book ideas, sermon concepts, sparks for blogs, etc. One of my favorite ideas is a book entitled, America’s Top 10 Bible Verses…Which Don’t Actually Mean What We Think They Do. Many American Christians are ridiculously talented at turning a verse into a cliché which in no way resembles an accurate interpretation of the writer’s original meaning.
If you’re not a regular Bible reader or a follower of Jesus, stick with me here!
In the book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 10 verse 13, the Apostle Paul writes,
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Many people, when describing this as their favorite verse, summarize it in the form of a cliché. They say, “Well, God never gives us more than we can handle.”
The trouble is 1 Corinthians 10:13 does not mean God is not going to give you more than you can handle. In fact, read in context, this verse is more about temptation that comes from becoming involved in idolatry.
Regardless of context, you will always have more than you can handle if you factor God into the equation. You’re regularly going to be in over your head if you’re following God.
I think some later writing from Paul clarifies our questions.
Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 shares about what happened when he was overwhelmed.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
Paul writes about how God leads us to places where we’re in over our heads, in order that we might depend on Him more fully. The thing God calls people to do actually requires God’s involvement and work to happen.
This theme is a major one in the teaching on Jesus. Jesus taught his disciples to imagine their relationship like the one between a grape vine and its branches. John 15:5 records his words. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” Jesus said. “If you remain in me and I remain in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
[One caveat – we often get stretched by saying yes to too many things. That’s another kind of overwhelmed (which I have tackled in a previous post about how to use your yes and no). If you’re overwhelmed by the amount you have to do because you’ve not managed your time well, then that’s another conversation. If you’re overwhelmed because you misunderstood the difference between something important and something urgent, check out my post on the two most important words in your vocabulary.]
Steven Furtick recently said, “For God’s purposes to expand, God’s people have to stretch.”
In other words, we grow when we’re stretched.
But, we often listen to the voice of fear in those moments.
Fear tells us to avoid being stretched.
Fear says, “Stay where it’s safe, comfortable and familiar.
Fear calls us to avoid the risky places where we could be wounded or disappointed. There’s another word for that place – boring!
I’m not suggesting we have to switch jobs, move cities or change churches to grow. Running away from the scariest spot will not suddenly turn you into a courageous warrior. Sometimes, the place where we are most capable of growth is the place where we have the most experience, where we’re the most familiar.
However, we do need to change our mindset.
We need to shift from listening to fear to hearing the voice of courage.
Courage says follow our fears. Courage says we’re capable of more than we realize. Courage says fear is holding us back from our future. Courage says “Depend on God fully; give it all we’ve got!” Courage says, “I know you’re afraid. It’s better to do it scared than not at all.”
I don’t know where this post finds you, but I’m on the verge of being stretched again. At certain times recently, the stretch has seemed overwhelming. But writing this post has reminded me of two very important things.
1) Every time I’ve felt the stretch, I’ve found something good in that spot.
2) When I don’t feel the stretch, I’m tempted to rely on myself and neglect my need to depend on God.
Where are you being stretched? Where are you being challenged “beyond what you can bear?” What has pushed you past your limits, leaving you hobbling around like an athlete after a brutal leg day?
If you’re being stretched, you’re in a good spot. If you’re overwhelmed, that’s okay.
New growth and opportunity are right around the corner.
If you struggle to listen to courage instead of fear, then you might enjoy my list of 8 New Ways To Deal With Your Fears.