Thursday, November 6, 2008

My strength versus His Strength

One of my greatest failings in life has been a persistent belief that I can do anything if I just try hard enough. Sounds simple and innocuous enough but it has proven a consistent chink in my armor and one that Satan has used to rob me of much joy and success. You see if it is true that I can do anything if I just try hard enough then anything that goes wrong in my life must be due to my not trying hard enough. Now sometimes this is true enough, I have my slacker days like most of the rest of us but life is a team sport, believing that it's all on you, or in this case all on me, can lead down a dark path. It has lead me to do jobs that members of my team or family could have done and grown from because I felt like it was my responsibility. Not because I doubted the talents or abilities of the people I led but because I felt like it was my job to shelter them from the storm and in so doing I unintentionally limited their growth. This belief is also un-Biblical, it suggests that if I try hard enough I just might be good enough to get into heaven on my own, the reality is that all of us are products of the fall and in total dependence on Jesus for salvation. Now before this goes too far let me say that we all need to work hard, as an obvious example I'll site Matthew 25:14-30. But we must never forget to seek God's guidance, assistance and will in our lives, it might just be in line with our own, if not we need to get our will in line with His. Here's an example from my life (I'd say I was changing the names to protect the innocent but none of us are so I'll just change them and leave it at that):

My career had taken a number of interesting twists and turns and I was largely successful, in my mind this was because I was trying hard enough. At times though I was troubled by people I saw around me not doing as well while trying just as hard, maybe harder. Clearly if only effort were needed it would be obvious to the naked eye.Some time ago my comfortable career took a difficult turn, I had been working for a man I'll call Jeff. Jeff understood and inspired me, he was the greatest boss I had ever had. Our company went through a re-organization and he was promoted. I was moved into what should have been a comfortable leadership role but I found my new manager's style of leadership frustrated me somewhat. We worked through this together and I learned from the partnership. I could have done better in this role had I been a better communicator, but that is material for a future entry. At the same time this happened the people who managed the office space relocated my desk from a nice window seat to a surprisingly inconvenient location next to the printer and fax machine directly outside of a noisy break room with a squeaky door, I heard every conversation (hushed and otherwise), every vending machine thud, every microwave beep and every dish clanked in the sink. My new manager tried address the space issue but my feeling was that, with limited options it was better for me to remain where I was than to move one of the team to that space. I really missed my old situation and wanted to move on from where I was.

I found that Jeff had an opening which I applied for. It seemed clear to all that I was a fit for this promotion, I interviewed and the path seemed clear but at the last minute we learned that the job required a four year degree with no exception for work experience (which I had plenty of). I had started working for this company to earn more money to finish college but our growth was so fast and my work effort so well rewarded that I had decided to settle for my Associate of Arts Degree and my ability to work hard enough. This was the first time in my adult working life when it was made clear to me that hard enough was not good enough at work either, past life experience had earlier made clear that trying hard enough is not good enough in relationships. After appealing up the corporate ladder and evaluating my options for finishing my degree it became apparent that the job would go to someone else and it did.

And so I got a new boss I'll call Sam. Sam's leadership style fit me better but I wanted to be validated with something more than I had. Sam and I worked on getting some other promotion under my belt. When a manager role opened up on a team I had worked on a few years earlier some of my old team mates recruited me for the job. I applied and, just as before, it seemed to me that I was a shoe in. Then I learned that someone else had been named for the position and I had been passed over again. I was despondent but had kids to feed and a decent income so I resolved to just work to put food on the table, do the best I could and not worry about it.

Some time later I had an opportunity to share some critical information with one of the senior leaders of the company, we'll call him Tom. Tom was suitably impressed and I offered to come by his office to discuss it further. Tom took me up on this and that chat led to an opportunity to show my stuff in front of a number of senior leaders while car pooling to a remote site for an inspection and I felt that perhaps my time had come after all so the next day I got up early and got the kids on the school bus (I was a single dad at the time) then set about getting ready for my big opportunity. Then I did something I never do, I got into a clothing hassle with myself, these slacks are to fancy, this shirt too old, that one too pretentious, etc. Then I looked up and realized that I had made myself late and missed the car pool. I called Tom and told him that I'd meet him at the remote site and cursed myself on the hour long drive across town. When I arrived I found that all of the senior leaders I wanted to impress had not shown up at all. We did our inspection, I got all of 2 minutes worth of face time with Tom, and I drove the hour back across town in a blue funk.

When I got back to the office I parked the car and thought about things for a minute and realized I had left out one critical element in all of my career planning and execution. I had left out God! I pondered this some more and realized that I had been relying on my own strength and not His. I had not prayed for guidance, for discernment, for wisdom, for help or even for good luck. Some years earlier I had promised not to dishonour God like this when I realized that doing things in my own strength had been a contributor to the failure of my marriage and here I'd done it again. I prayed a little and then I prayed a lot, I asked God to forgive me for leaving Him out again and the betrayal of it all hit me full in the face, I had broken yet another promise to seek His guidance and follow His lead and I was reaping the consequences. I told God I was putting my career in His hands and was just not going to worry about it any more, if He wanted me promoted then He could make it happen, if not all I asked for was to be able to feed my kids. With my perspective back on straight I headed back to my desk.

A few minutes later Jeff came by my desk and did his "I know something you don't know" dance (hard to picture without seeing it but it involves stroking his beard as he rocks on his heals...). After a minute I looked up and asked what was up, it was either that or let him rock there waiting for me to take the bait. Jeff explained that he had been on his way to buy a soft drink from a vending machine down stairs with his credit card so he could maintain the mandatory two purchases a month required to keep his low interest rate when he suddenly came to the conclusion that he should just buy one from Tom's assistant Sally (she keeps a supply in a dorm fridge under her desk for Tom). While Jeff was shooting the breeze with Sally, Tom heard his voice and called him in to discuss the inspection. My name came up and Tom was fairly complimentary. Jeff mentioned that he had been trying to get me promoted for some time but wasn't having any luck. At this point Jeff said that Tom essentially froze and looked up and too the side for about 15 seconds, then snapped back and told Jeff to go get the paperwork filled out for my promotion, as far as Jeff and I know there wasn't even a position open for me at the time. I was blown away and told Jeff about how the day had gone and my prayer of submission. When we did the math we figured there was about 15 minutes between my prayer and my promotion. Three years of effort wasn't good enough until I acknowledged His sovereignty and sought His will. Now let's do some different math:
  1. Two missed promotions that most people I consulted expected to go to me.
  2. A temptation to hope again which I met with my same old "stand on my own two feet approach".
  3. An episode of uncharacteristic fashion consciousness on my part (anyone who has known me for long will attest to my lack of fashion conciousness).
  4. Multiple leaders who had accepted an invitation to an event all having last minute conflicts.
  5. A prayer of submission.
  6. An innocuous change of plans in Jeff's regular routine putting him outside of Tom's office just over an hour after the inspection and just minutes after my prayer.
I just don't see that much room for coincidence there. Now none of this is to say that if I just pray I'll get the genie in the bottle routine from God, as I said He may have other plans and life will go better if I line mine up with His. I'm also not suggesting that this was all about God wanting me to have a promotion if I just asked nicely. What I am saying is that He is in charge and can use whatever life events are out there to teach us this. He wants us to live in relationship with Him, in constant conversation with him, to pray without ceasing. He'll start with a whisper and may get a little louder if we're not paying attention. He wants us to seek his advice and guidance. He wants to use us for the betterment of His kingdom. A kingdom which is not coming at some time in the future, but exists whenever and wherever God has his way. We need to be ready to listen when he talks whether it's about careers, relationships, big issues or seemingly small ones.

I still work on this challenge of His strength versus my strength in my life and am getting better but I am clearly a work in progress. Brothers and sisters, never under estimate the value of good guidance to go with the careful stewardship of whatever talents God has gifted you with, he wants you to use them to grwo His kingdom.

Where are you in this challenge of driving hard but concurrently seeking His will?