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Redefining potential

Sprinter leaving starting blocks on the running track (Credit: Berc via Fotolia.com)

If you listen to people talk sports for long enough, or read enough sports articles, you’ll slowly come to realize that there are two ways to judge a particular player or team. You can either judge by intangible qualities, like character, toughness, and spirit, or you can judge by statistics. If you saw the baseball movie Moneyball, you are familiar with the new craze of measurable statistical analysis in sports.

But some sports fans still like to talk about the intangibles, and one of the most tossed-around words in this category of sports judgment is potential. A player’s potential is as marketable as their actual statistics, sometimes more so. Entire sports careers have existed based simply on that player’s perceived potential. He or she may routinely underachieve, but there are flashes here and there of great play, and those flashes sustain the hopes of fans until the next star comes along, with even more potential than the one before.

Potential is a huge word in baseball this time of year because of the looming MLB trade deadline. Teams looking to improve have to determine how much they value the potential of their young stars, because teams with proven players want high-potential players in return. A scout’s job is to evaluate these young players and make a call on whether they will be successful in the future, so in a way, their whole career is based on the value judgment category of predicting potential.

But potential is important in all sports. Just this week I saw a report that should surprise no one that follows college football. LSU is recruiting an 8th grader.  He has reportedly already been offered a scholarship, and is of course ecstatic. What 8th grader wouldn’t be thrilled to receive a scholarship from their favorite team?

But the reason he’s been offered the scholarship has little to do with his actual performance. Sure, his 40 yard dash times and his broad jump are impressive, for an 8th grader, but the reason the coaches are offering him a scholarship is because of what they hope his current performances indicate about his potential as an 18 year old. In other words, they are calculating his potential.

The sports world is abuzz with talk of potential, and that’s because our culture has bought into the philosophy that serves as the framework for judging potential. See, we are a performance driven culture, an image-driven culture, and we spend as much time on our appearance as we do our actual output. The multi-billion dollar marketing and public relations industry exists because we are concerned with our images, our companies’ images, so much so that we want to manage and control them.

We carry this image-driven obsession into our inner lives as well. In spiritual terms, we judge potential based on the same criteria the world uses to judge potential and that scouts use to judge the potential of young players. Scouts become consumed with height, weight, physique, and speed. They salivate when a player combines strength, speed, and agility and start marketing this player as the next potential superstar. That player may not have played a professional game yet, but they are already, in the eyes of the public, a star.

We spend so much time looking at our outer characteristics but so little time attending to the inner qualities of our lives. Our image-driven and potential-driven culture convince us that we need to spend more time worrying about our appearance than our character. We unknowingly smuggle this kind of thinking into our relationship with God, and waste so much time and energy trying to present ourselves the right way to God. We go to church, do the right things, say the right things, all in an attempt to impress God or earn some favor from him.

But in God’s economy, the heart is more valuable than outward appearance. Remember the story of Samuel going to find a new king for Israel in 1 Samuel 16 and looking through all of David’s brothers, judging them as more kingly than little David because of the outward appearance of his brothers compared to David? God had to remind Samuel that He looks on the heart, not the outward appearance. This theme is found throughout the Bible: God examines our hearts, He cares about the inner condition of our souls.

You and I can quit our exhausting efforts to try to impress God. He measures our faith by our obedience, and obedience comes from a heart that is tuned every day to God. You may not see yourself as a spiritual giant. You may not think you are worth much to God. You may think you aren’t worth his time. But the beautiful and freeing truth is that God has a plan for your life and mine, that He loves each of us and that He demonstrated that love by sacrificing His own Son to cover all our sins and failures. With God every sinner has potential for a new life, because He offers forgiveness through Jesus Christ. That’s a different way to look at potential. It’s not about outward appearance. It’s about the condition of your heart. Are you ready to take that step of surrender and submit your heart to Him today?

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