Even though words have been my tools of trade for decades, there are still times when insights into the terms we commonly use still surprise me. The most recent is the word “potential.”
During a visit with my friend, Clarence, who’s also got some writer DNA, we were talking about what potential is all about. I studied Latin in high school for two years – does anybody do that anymore? – but had forgotten the word comes from the Latin “potent“ or “potens,” which means “power.” So basically, when we talk about someone’s potential, we’re referring to the individual’s untapped, unused or underdeveloped power.
I remember as a boy, being a would-be athlete, I sometimes asked my kids’ league coaches if I had “potential” to be good at the particular sport. I was more of a wouldn’t-be athlete. But my coaches were kind enough never to concede I possessed little power to be tapped athletically.
Thankfully, some people saw potential in me as a writer and affirmed innate abilities they had observed. Even today I’m still trying to tap into that potential, recognizing the power of the written word in a book, an article, blog post, or even a letter.
What about our potential spiritually? In the sense of power, what does God expect of us?
The amazing thing is, as I understand the Scriptures, the Lord sees much potential in all of us – skills and natural bents we’re born with, interests we develop and refine, and the spiritual gifts He entrusts to us. But unlike body builders that enjoy flexing their muscles, it’s not our own power that interests God.
Rather, He delights in His power being expressed through us. The apostle Paul wrote about his “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan” that he pleaded three times for God to remove (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). No one knows for sure what this “thorn” was. We do know Paul reconciled himself to the reality that the Lord had a purpose for it:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Perhaps if this handicap or malady, whatever it was, had been removed, the apostle would have been inclined to serve God on his own terms rather than rely on His sufficiency.
I’ll never forget the one time I met Kenneth Taylor, author of the acclaimed The Living Bible paraphrase. When he spoke, it was a great struggle for Mr. Taylor to get the words out. It was somewhat painful even for his listeners. Despite consulting with numerous physicians, a physiological cause was never identified.
This problem had manifested itself after he was well along the way in completing and publishing The Living Bible, which grew out of his desire to give his young children a version of the Bible they could understand, since the King James Version was the only one available at the time. He established his own book company, Tyndale House Publishers, to publish the unique interpretation of the Scriptures.
Mr. Taylor’s own conclusion was that with his Bible paraphrase’s incredible success, he might have become puffed up with pride had it not been for his speaking disability. Perhaps he had come to agree, along with Paul, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Just before Jesus ascended to heaven, He gave His followers some final instructions, words that summarized what He expects for each of us to do. In Matthew 28:19 Jesus commanded, “All authority (power) in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations….” He wasn’t saying, “Work as hard as you can and try to get people to become faithful followers of Me.” The authority – the power – was to come from Him alone. The role of His followers then, as well as today, is to serve as conduits for that power.
That our “potential” as Jesus’ followers is wrapped up in the power He provides is explained in His statement recorded in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem [where we live], and in all Judea and Samaria [neighboring cities and our nations], and to the ends of the earth [the world].”
Considering that the work of Jesus Christ after He left the earth was entrusted to a rag-tag bunch of folks with limited education and little status, it’s miraculous how Christianity has spread into every continent and most countries. This clearly wasn’t the result of human ingenuity and effort. Yes, we can engage in the “work for the Lord,” but the many stories of people whose lives have been changed by Jesus underscore that those astounding transformations have been His doing – His power acting through us.
What a privilege it is for each of us who profess the name of Jesus Christ to fulfill our “potential” – His power flowing through us in ways we don’t even understand.