“If you become who God meant you to be, you will set the world on fire.”—Saint Catherine of Siena
“Desire that your life count for something! Long for your life to have eternal significance. Want this! Don’t coast through life without a passion.” —John Piper
IN THE SUMMER OF 2006, I took a group of kids on a mission trip to inner-city Chicago, along with a group led by my friend Trent. We were there to serve the poor and homeless and do some street preaching.
By that time, I had already earned my master of divinity degree, which included 120 credit hours of biblical studies, philosophy, church history, Hebrew, Greek, and other related subjects. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I hadn’t found the program extremely challenging. That’s not to say I always got straight As, but with a little extra effort, I could have. Oftentimes, even when I barely studied I earned a B or a B+ in classes as difficult as Greek Exegesis of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
For the longest time, I thought of myself as an amazingly intelligent guy. I was able to neglect my studies in favor of watching sports, hanging out with my friends, and generally goofing around—and still earn Bs, even As! On top of that, God had gifted me with a good memory, so much of what I did study, I retained. I wore my ability to get results while essentially coasting through the program as a badge of honor.
However, on this mission trip, I encountered a young man who completely rocked my view of myself.
This kid was from Trent’s youth group. The first time I saw him, he was sitting in the corner of the big meeting room we were all gathered in, and he was holding a Bible about two inches from his face—so close, it was like he was about to put it on and wear it as a mask. On top of that, he was turning his head back and forth across the pages, muttering to himself under his breath.
Either he was a weirdo who was just goofing off for attention, I thought, or he was a lunatic.
“What on earth is he doing?” I asked Trent.
Trent smiled. “James has two strikes against him,” he said. “He has a learning disability and a vision problem that makes it exceedingly difficult to read.”
Hearing that, I felt like a total donkey. I had judged this young man without taking the time to understand him and the situation. “That’s rough,” I said.
“Oh, don’t feel bad for James,” replied Trent. “He’s determined and relentless. Nobody in our youth group knows the Bible better than he does.”
As the impact of that statement slammed into me, I thought of Jesus’s words: “To whom much is given, much is required.” God had given me a lot of intellectual gifts, but I had neglected them. He had given virtually nothing to James, but James had maximized what he had. There was no question in my mind who had been more faithful to God’s blessings on his life.
Of all Jesus’s parables, the one that I feel is profoundly relevant to mental toughness and pursuing your potential is the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. In this story, Jesus explains that a rich man had three servants. Before he went away on a long journey, he gave each of his servants a certain amount of money and tasked them with growing it—through investments, business, you name it. He gave the most money to the first servant, less money to the second, and the least money to the third.
When he returned, he discovered that the first servant had doubled his money. The second servant had also doubled it. To these two servants, he said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Since you have been faithful over a little, I will give you more.” However, when he reached the third servant, this man had done absolutely nothing with what had been given to him.
“I buried your money,” he said. “Here: you can have it back!”
The wealthy man was not amused: “You lazy and unfaithful servant! You could have at least put the money in the bank and earned interest!” Instead, the servant squandered the opportunity that the wealthy man had given him.
What happens next in the story, if you really think about it, is shocking. The wealthy man takes the third servant’s money ("talent" is the currency mentioned in the Bible) and gives it to the first servant.
That’s not fair, some of us might object. He started off with more money! Now you’re giving him even more by taking from the one who had little to begin with?
Yes. Jesus said, “For to everyone who has, more will be given to him, and he will have in abundance. But from the one who has not, even that will be taken from him” (v. 29).
Jesus’ point is that it doesn’t matter how much you begin with. It matters what you make of what you were given.
From our limited, earthly perspective, a daughter born into a wealthy family has an advantage over a son born to a single mother in poverty. From a spiritual perspective, she doesn’t. That young woman is held to a far greater level of accountability, and if that young man works hard and rises above his socioeconomic status, he is the one who is more faithful to what God has given him.
In the same way, the third stringer who plays his heart out is superior to the All-American athlete who has great stats but underachieves compared to his full potential. The mildly talented piano student whose fingers bleed from practicing so hard is superior to the musical prodigy who half-asses the cultivation of his gift. The man who inherits a position as CEO of a billion-dollar company and takes it for granted is inferior to a young girl with special needs who sets up a lemonade stand and puts her whole heart into selling dixie cups full of her sweet drink to the whole neighborhood.
Ecclesiastes 9:3 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, work at it with all your might” (emphasis mine). Colossians 9:3 says, “Whatever you do, work as unto the Lord, not men, for it is the Lord you are serving.” And when the disciple Peter asked Jesus what his plan was for the disciple John, Jesus replied, “What is that to you? You follow me” (emphasis mine).
The work of our lives is not measured by how it compares to others. As my friend Andy Frisella, who has built a nine-figure business and created the mental toughness program #75Hard, says, “You are the measure of your success. It’s not how much you have accomplished. It’s how much you could have accomplished. Success is the pursuit of your own full potential.”
That statement is 100 percent consistent with what the Scriptures teach. We are not responsible for eclipsing the achievements of others. We are called to relentlessly strive to become all God has made us to be, and to maximize every resource he has given us—from the money in our bank account to whatever artistic talent we possess. It is our job to live and work in such a way that when we die, we stand before Jesus and hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter now into the joy of your master" (Matthew 25:23).
Therefore, the driving question behind our desire to become mentally tough and maximize our potential should be, “What can I do to make the most of all that God has given me?” What should ultimately motivate us to become focused, confident, disciplined, and determined is not a desire to one-up others or win more than anyone else. It should be a desire for our one life to always move upward as we relentlessly work to get more out of ourselves.
Not just for our own personal gain. But for the good of the world...
...and the glory of God!
For spiritually-minded people, that's what should motivate our desire to be mentally tough.
That’s what it means for us to win.