We’ve all heard the line—“He has so much potential.” But what does that mean? In what way does a person possess something so intangible?
I can see how potential applies to my life. It is possible that in the future I will graduate, but as of yet, I have not. It is possible that in the future, I will have kids, but as of yet, I have none. It is possible that I will travel to Europe, and it is possible that I will own a luxury car. You get the picture. All of these unrealized possibilities amount to some kind of potential.
To some degree, it’s the realization of these (or any) future possibilities that we live for. I work hard at school so I can realize my graduation potential and hopefully realize the possibility of getting into grad school. I exercise to realize the possibility of a healthy body. But is this all I think about when I consider “my potential?” Is that all there is? Degrees, jobs and physical fitness?
Don’t get me wrong, these things are great. But lately, I have found myself thinking on a grander (and usually more abstract) scale. “My potential” is being increasingly expressed in terms other than schools, cars and vacations. More and more, I’m thinking in terms like: my potential to influence others, my potential to make a lasting difference, my potential for fulfillment and peace, my potential purpose.
These are all somewhat nebulous concepts, but nonetheless, they are the end goal of many of our pursuits. Not many of us would deny wanting these things. In fact, we pursue most worldly things ultimately in search of these intangible qualities. We fill our lives with degrees and job titles, cars and houses, friends and family in the hope that they will bring purpose, peace and direction to our lives, that they will help us “reach our potential.” Most of us feel there is a future possibility of finding these things. But why?
Part of this “potential” idea is the concept of design. According to the Oxford Dictionary, potential is the capacity of latent, hidden qualities to be developed into something useful or successful in the future. But to develop into something, one must be designed to develop into that something. Think about it this way: A caterpillar has “butterfly potential.” In other words, it is designed with the capacity to develop from a caterpillar to a butterfly. Without such a design, the caterpillar would have no “butterfly potential.” Similarly, if I have potential for peace or purpose, then I am probably designed for the realization of those things.
I recently switched from a desktop PC to a laptop. Before I got rid of my desktop, I had the parts sitting in a corner gathering dust. Eventually, the tower became a handy place to set a plant. Imagine: a PC being relegated to a plant stand. The tragedy here is not that PC’s are inadequate for holding plants, but that they are designed to perform far greater functions. This is an obvious example of unmet potential. And it’s probably not too far off from the way many of us feel. Many of us feel we have been designed for a life other than the one we are currently living: a life of hope, peace and purpose.
So how do we find this life? How can we maximize our potential? Obviously, if we feel we have greater potential—if we feel that there is an unused capacity or the presence of latent qualities within us—then maybe that feeling reflects an unmet design potential. And any design potential leads to the presence of a designer who gave us that potential. Thus, if we are to discover this life of fulfillment, we need to find out what the designer says about his design. Just as we read the owner’s manual for our new computer (written by the designers) to discover how to maximize its computing potential, maybe we need to refer to the owner’s manual for our life to discover how to maximize our life’s potential.
The Bible points to a God who has taken great care in designing us with potential. In Genesis 1:26, we find God creating “human beings in our [God’s] image.” In Ecclesiastes, we find that God has “set eternity in the hearts of men.” And in the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “I came so they [we] can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” All this points in one direction: We are designed as spiritual beings to live spiritual lives. Not in some pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by mystical way, but in a real, life-changing way. God has designed us as people with a spiritual—non-material—element, and He designed that element to be the source of true life.
The spirit is that inner-space that we all take notice of when we step out of our routine: when we feel extreme anxiety or depression; when we sense something profound in the unfolding of nature in spring; when we feel a depth of connection with an intimate friend. The feelings we have at these times cannot be explained with recourse to physical nature; we are at a loss for words … and we find ourselves in the presence of something supernatural.
The recognition of this “inner-space,” or soul, lends us some insight into our design potential. If we are designed with a soul, then maybe it is in the soul where we find the answers to our deepest longings. Maybe this is where we maximize our potential. In the words of Gordon MacDonald in The Life God Blesses, “to live out of the soul is to be in touch with my Creator, to live with an eternal perspective, to live as fully as possible in a mixed-up time.”
Oh, is that all? But it’s not that easy. Try slowing yourself down enough during the rat race of daily life to pay any attention to your “inner self”; few of us are able to pay enough attention to our stomachs, never mind our souls. But this article is not intended to be a how-to of soul living—many capable authors have filled books on the topic. What this article is intended to do is raise the question: Is it possible that our soul is the key to our elusive potential? If I have been designed with a soul (a question you’ll have to answer for yourself), then maybe the Designer of my soul can help me find a way to meet my design potential. Could this be the key to the mystery?
[David Wiens is a husband, a student, an amateur philosopher and writer and a (sometime) musician. His foremost passion is to see the life of Jesus Christ radically intersect the lives of individuals (including himself).]
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