When people say, “You have potential,” how do you feel? When I was younger, I cringed when well-intentioned people at church and school told me I had potential. I know they were recognizing my gifts and talents, but I heard “potential” and felt pressure to meet their exceptions. Now that I am in my fifties, I look back and realize that I spent too much time trying to live up to my potential and the expectations of others.
There is a man in the Bible named Timothy. Timothy grew up in a city named Lystra in Asia Minor or present-day Turkey. Born to a Greek father and a Jewish mother, Timothy was raised by his mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois, in one of the first Christian communities. If anyone of his generation had the potential to serve God in the early church, it was Timothy. Even Timothy’s Greek name means “Honored by God.”
As a young man, Timothy met the Apostle Paul when the great man was traveling across Eastern Europe, teaching and starting new churches. Paul recognized Timothy’s faith and invited Timothy to be his student. For the next three years, Paul mentored and prepared Timothy to continue his work as an evangelist and leader for the early church.
Timothy did well in serving as Paul’s assistant and was eventually sent to the church in Ephesus to be their pastor. Despite his shy and quiet nature (1 Corinthians 16:10), Timothy was willing to go and live up to his potential and the expectations of others.
Timothy’s first years as the leader of the church was rough, and he experienced three main problems. First, the people looked down at him and wouldn’t accept his leadership because he was too young in their eyes. Second, there were false teachers in Ephesus who questioned Timothy’s credentials and teaching. And third, the church members gossiped openly. Timothy, a young man full of potential, felt like a failure, was stressed out (stomach problems), and wanted to give up.
In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, knowing that Timothy needed encouragement. (2 Timothy 1:1-14)
1. No matter what happens, you are still a “beloved son” in the faith. (v. 2)
If you feel like a failure, the reassuring words of unconditional love is what you need. Timothy needed to hear that no matter how anyone perceived his performance as a pastor, he was still a child of God and Paul’s beloved son in the faith.
Potential is a word that feeds the perfectionist’s pain. A perfectionist will think; “I must be perfect to reach my potential. Anything less is a failure.” The truth is we all fail as sinners, and in Christ, we are redeemed. Focusing primarily on your potential is like having a reoccurring, frustrating dream that is never resolved. Paul often failed (rejected, scorned, and stoned), but he always came back to God’s purpose for his life.
2. Rekindle the gift of God within you. (v.6)
When we are discouraged, it is hard the see anything good as we are consumed our pain and sadness. In darkest moments, we must not forget the light of God’s truth. Paul instructs Timothy to rekindle the gift(s) of God in his life. Timothy has a loving family, but I believe Paul is referring specifically to Timothy’s spiritual gift. Christians have speculated, but I am not sure what were Timothy’s spiritual gifts. Timothy may have had the gift of healing, knowledge, or miracles, but Paul’s main point is for Timothy to depend on God’s spirit, not his own ability.
3. Choose to live in power, love, and self-control rather than being consumed by fear (v.7)
Once a man experiences a failure (real or perceived), then confidence decreases, and doubt increases. Even with potential, mentoring, and spiritual gifts, Timothy still had to make a choice to live in faith or in self-doubt and fear.
The most anxious times in my life were when I felt powerless to change a situation or the actions of others. When you experience doubt in your own strength, consider how great is God’s promise that His power can sustain you. We do not have a life like victims, but we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:37).
4. Trust, Trust, Trust (vv.13-14)
Three times in two verses, Paul writes to Timothy about trust. On any given day, we can really have a bad day and wonder if God will give up on us. Paul learned over and over not to let one day or experience to make him wonder if God would give up on him. Led and taught by the Spirit, Paul learned that trials and tribulations are common experiences, we can trust God’s love and will for our lives.
I believe Timothy trusted Paul, and therefore these words were especially influential. God may have a purpose for your failure that you cannot see in the down days. In one of my darkest seasons as a church pastor, I desperately prayed to God, “Change me or change this church.” God did both!
Through a painful but necessary season of change, I grew in faith and learned to trust more completely in God’s will. My life took a different turn than I wanted, but I have been so blessed, and God has used me to encourage other pastors and men who are refocusing their lives on purpose rather than potential.
Paul Arnold is a husband, father, grandfather, and currently serves as a chaplain to a senior living facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He hosts several podcasts – Man to Man (career advice for men) and Pardon the Confusion (Sports) that are found on iTunes and www.redcircle.com