I was reminded recently in a conversation about Nicene Christology how crucial and significant our choice of words is. For the theologically uninitiated, that specific historical debate swirled around a single iota (Greek letter). Ink flowed at that time as theologians fiercely disagreed about how to most faithfully organise and communicate God’s self revelation in Scripture. Laying the political and personal agendas aside, we must surely conclude that precise terminology matters, which makes much of what I hear in the church today deeply disturbing. Though there are countless examples of careless wording to choose from — pastor as CEO or boss, eldership as board of directors, and target markets — in this post I want to address the language of helping people unlock their potential. And while the language of releasing potential is plied in a broad spectrum of churches and in numerous ways, for the reasons outlined below I think it is language we should avoid in the pursuit of clarity and faithfulness to the Scriptures.
Firstly, within the biblical economy of grace I am uncomfortable with the language of potential in principle. Carl Trueman writes in Grace Alone, “Grace is not God giving wholesale advice or a helping hand. It is God raising someone from the dead.” Later he writes, “The problems we face in our churches and in our individual lives are not ones that can be solved by mastering better and new techniques or simply by learning more information. We need more than how-to manuals and life coaches.” According to God, our problem is not ignorance of our purpose and the frustration of our potential. We are, as Paul regularly and not uncomfortably puts it: dead. The dead have no potential. At creation God breathed life into dust and today he breathes life into spiritual corpses. We do not need God to unlock our potential. We are lost unless he gives us new life. Hear Trueman once again, “We do not need spiritual healing, for that would imply we are merely in need of repair. We need spiritual resurrection. And resurrection is the unilateral act of God, not a cooperative exercise between the living God and the dead.”
Secondly, and linked to the above point, our lack of potential is not limited to initial or saving faith. It extends into the Christian’s entire life. There is a well established biblical pattern of God using those who are weak in the eyes of the world. This is not because their potential was previously unseen but because his strength is made perfect in our weakness. To believe that we have some kind of raw and impressive potential reduces God to sports coach trying to spot future stars on the field. Listen to Samuel Rutherford, in his letter to Robert Gordon: I am “like one stupefied with cold under the water that would fain come to land but cannot grip anything casten to Him. I can let Christ grip me, but I cannot grip Him. I love to be kissed and to sit on Christ’s knee; but I cannot set my feet to the ground, for afflictions bring the cramp upon my faith. All that I can do is to hold out a lame faith to Christ like a beggar holding out a stump, instead of an arm or leg, and cry, ‘Lord Jesus, work a miracle’.” God does not link arms with the strong and influential to do great things, he lifts up weak and drooping arms and with them accomplishes his perfect purposes.
Thirdly, as D. A. Carson writes in The Gagging of God, the terminology of unlocking our innate potential is in fact borrowed from the New Age movement. Therefore, though using this language does not necessarily make your church New Age it might reveal that movement’s dangerous influence. Carson comments on New Age spirituality, “The aim is not to be reconciled to a transcendent God, who has made us and against whom we have rebelled, but to grow in self-awareness and self-fulfilment, to become self-actualized, to grow to our full potential, until we are rather more at one with the god/universe that we otherwise would be.” While I am convinced God directs, fulfils and gives us purpose, these experiences have little to do with my potential and everything to do with his grace. Churches that exist to help people discover their purpose laden potential are in danger of suggesting that God exists for me. He does not. He created you. Your life is his.
Finally, in many churches that I have visited, the language of releasing potential to powerfully impact our cities for Christ has supplanted – and in many cases – completely replaced the New Testament’s emphasis on obedience to Christ. This might be a good place to gently remind my reader that potential is not a New Testament word. On the other hand, Christ’s lordship, faithfulness, putting sin to death and living a life pleasing to God through fruitful obedience are words as well as themes found throughout. Perhaps you are sitting waiting to learn what your potential is, wondering when it might be made plain so that you can finally accomplish what God has planned for you. Stop. He has already told you what he desires: obedient worship and bold witness, in all of life. Sure, we are all unique but that does not mean any of us are or will be exceptional, once we unlock our potential. Most Christians will strive together with their church family to merely persevere until the end while glorifying God in the mundane. Words like faithful and godly may not be as sexy as releasing potential but they go much further in describing the ordinary life of obedience every Christian is called to.