Around the turn of the 20th century, a pioneering psychologist named Alfred Adler proposed the counterintuitive theory of compensation. Adler believed that perceived disadvantages often prove to be disguised advantages because they force us to develop attitudes and abilities that would have otherwise gone undiscovered. It’s only as we compensate for those disadvantages that our greatest gifts are revealed.
Seventy percent of the art students Adler studied had optical anomalies. He observed that some of history’s greatest composers, Mozart and Beethoven among them, had degenerative traces in their ears. He cited a multiplicity of other examples from a wide variety of vocations of those who leveraged their weaknesses by discovering new strengths. Adler concluded that perceived disadvantages such as birth defects, physical ailments and poverty can be springboards to success. That success is not achieved in spite of those perceived disadvantages; it’s achieved because of them.
Subsequent studies have added credibility to Adler’s theory. For example, in one study of small business owners, 35 percent were self-identified dyslexics. While none of us would wish dyslexia on our children because of the academic handicap that comes with it, that disadvantage forced this group of entrepreneurs to cultivate different skill sets. Some of them became more proficient at oral communication because reading was so difficult. Others learned to rely on well-developed social skills to compensate for the challenges they faced in the classroom. All of them cultivated a work ethic that might have remained dormant if reading had come easily to them.
The point? Our greatest advantages may not be what we perceive as our greatest advantages. Our greatest advantages actually may be hidden in our greatest disadvantages if we learn to leverage them. One key to discovering your destiny is identifying those disadvantages via careful and sometimes painful self-inventory.
Your destiny is hidden in your history, but it’s often hidden where you would least expect to find it. Your destiny isn’t just revealed in your natural gifts and abilities. It is also revealed in the compensatory skills you had to develop because of the disadvantages you had to overcome.
When I was starting out in ministry, I was frustrated by the fact that I had to preach from a manuscript. I had friends who could preach from an outline or just jot down a few notes on a note card. I couldn’t speak extemporaneously. I had to study longer hours and read more books. Then I had to script and rescript every single word. I often stayed up until 3 a.m. on Sundays, putting the finishing touches on my manuscripts, and that was after working on the message for more than 20 hours during the week.
I thought the inability to speak extemporaneously was a handicap, but what I perceived as a preaching disadvantage proved to be a writing advantage. Those sermon manuscripts, after some adaptations and alterations, became book manuscripts. Without that perceived disadvantage, I don’t think I would have cultivated my writing gifts. Writing, for me, is a compensatory skill. My writing ministry now impacts far more people than my preaching ministry.
When was the last time you praised God for your perceived disadvantages or thanked God for the challenges in your life? Without them, we’d never discover or develop the compensatory skills God wants to use to catapult us spiritually, relationally and occupationally. Our strengths are hidden within our weaknesses. Our advantages are hidden within our disadvantages. No one is a better example of that than the king who came disguised as a shepherd. His greatest advantage was the direct result of a perceived disadvantage, without which he never would have fulfilled his destiny.
Let me set the scene: The clock was ticking, and David’s mind was racing. Like a flash flood, memories from the past cascaded into his consciousness. David was only a teenager, but his short life flashed before his eyes. That is what happens when you’re staring death in the face. In this instance, death was a 9-foot giant named Goliath.
David was Googling past experiences in hopes of finding something—anything—to help him in his predicament. That’s when it happened. Something triggered a memory. It may have been the angle of the sun, the sound of a snapping twig or the breeze blowing in from hills; but whatever it was, David had a flashback. A roaring lion pounced into his mind, looking just as ferocious as it did the day he was tending his father’s sheep on the outskirts of Bethlehem. A rush of adrenaline pumped through his veins as he recalled putting a smooth stone in his slingshot. David calmed his nerves, steadied his hand and took aim at the lion’s forehead. The stone hit the target, stunning the lion just long enough to allow David to finish him off with his bare hands.
In that moment, in his memory, fear evaporated and confidence condensated. It was more than a realization; it was a revelation. More than self-confidence, it was holy confidence. The uncircumcised Philistine who was staring him down was no different from the wild animals David faced and fought while tending sheep. David connected the dots between his past experiences and his present circumstances, and it inflated his soul with a sense of destiny.
Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.
Every past experience is preparation for some future opportunity. God doesn’t just redeem our souls. He also redeems our experiences—and not just the good ones. He redeems the bad ones, too…especially the bad ones. How? By cultivating character, developing gifts and teaching lessons that cannot be learned any other way. The most important lessons in life rarely are learned in a classroom via secondhand knowledge. Relying on secondhand knowledge results in a vicarious life. You become an extra in your own story instead of taking the lead role. The expectations of others become your script, and you live off their experiences instead of creating your own.
The most important lessons are learned in the classroom of life via firsthand experience. The tests are tough, but no curriculum is more effective. The way you pass the test is by cultivating the character, developing the gift or learning the lesson God is trying to teach you. One thing that has helped me endure the challenges I’ve faced is by seeing them as learning opportunities. If you learn the lesson God is teaching you, no matter how things turn out, you have not failed. In fact, you cannot fail.
Each wild animal that attacked David’s flock was a pop quiz. They tested his character and his skill. David could have sacrificed his sheep for the sake of personal safety, but he passed the test by risking his life for his flock. Why is that so significant? Because God was preparing David to shepherd His flock, the nation of Israel. He also was cultivating a compensatory skill that would change David’s destiny and Israel’s history.
On paper, David was at an obvious disadvantage. He wasn’t even in the army! If anyone was going to face Goliath, it would be a trained soldier, right? His brothers seemed more qualified than David. David didn’t even know how to wield a sword or throw a spear. All he’d been doing was tending sheep, but that perceived disadvantage gave him the advantage he needed to defeat Goliath. Israelite soldiers were trained the same way the Philistines were. No one was going to defeat Goliath in hand-to-hand combat. No one, especially not David, could match his strength or his skill.
You cannot fight a giant on giant terms. You have to change the rules of engagement. The best way to fight a giant is with a slingshot at 20 paces, and that is a skill that shepherds cultivate out of necessity. So while it seemed as if David was totally unprepared, he actually was prepared perfectly; while it seems as if he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, David was perfectly positioned.
David must have felt as if he had been put out to pasture. What a letdown when he was passed over during the draft. However, what David didn’t realize at the time was that God was getting him ready for the frontlines while he thought he was on the sidelines. That is how God is working in your life. He is preparing you for your date with destiny; I promise you that. I also promise that He’s doing it in ways that are virtually undetectable, and it’s not until you find yourself facing the biggest challenge of your life that God reveals how, when and where He prepared you. That’s when you recognize the battle isn’t won on the battlefield. It’s won or lost long before you reach the battlefield.
There is a time to be on the frontlines, but there is also a time to be on the sidelines. There is a time to be in the limelight, but there is also a time to be in the shadows. Moses needed to tend sheep for 40 years before he could lead the flock of Israel. The disciples needed to fish for fish before they could fish for men. Even Jesus needed to craft masterpieces in wood before He made masterpieces out of us. Every divine appointment is preceded by a season of preparation. If we submit to the preparation, God will fulfill His promise. If we don’t, He won’t. Why? Because God never sets us up to fail.
I went to a hundred conferences before I ever spoke at one. I read thousands of books before I ever wrote one. I wouldn’t trade those seasons on the sidelines. I wouldn’t want to go back to the days when I was a one-man staff preaching sermons, leading worship, copying bulletins, counseling couples, answering phones, editing videos and organizing outreaches. I wouldn’t trade that season either because it’s the time we spend on the sidelines that prepares us for the frontlines.
One key to fulfilling your destiny is recognizing the season you are in. If you don’t, you’ll experience high levels of frustration and disappointment. There are seasons when learning to lead isn’t as important as learning to follow. There are seasons when handling failure is of greater value than handling success. I tell every church planter I meet that the first five years don’t count because God has to grow you before He can grow whatever you’re leading. Don’t worry about church growth. If you’re growing personally, church growth will take care of itself.
I have two primary callings: pastoring and writing. The routes by which I arrived at each destiny were very different. The path to pastoring was a direct path, while the path to writing was full of dead ends. Half a dozen manuscripts miscarried before I finally published my first book. I felt called to write when I was in seminary, but it took 13 years to accomplish that calling. I can’t even put into words the frustration I felt, and it got worse every year. I hated celebrating my birthday because it was an annual reminder that one more year had passed without fulfilling my destiny.
During one season of acute frustration, I asked God to take away the desire and the dream. He didn’t. Have you ever been there? Your dream seems to be a mirage that remains the same distance away no matter how fast or how far you pursue it. You know you have a destiny to fulfill, but the elapsed time causes you to second-guess yourself.
I was about ready to give up on the writing dream when I decided to give it one last shot. I leveraged my birthday as a self-imposed deadline. I did a 40-day fast to focus my energies. I self-published my first book before my 35th birthday. Getting my first book into print was more of a relief than anything else. I didn’t really rejoice. It simply alleviated the frustration I had felt for so many years.
A few years have passed since that book was published, and my perception of that delayed dream is now very different. I’m so grateful it took so long! Here’s why: If I had written my first book at 25 instead of 35, it would have been all theory and no substance. I hadn’t lived enough life. I would have been writing out of secondhand knowledge instead of firsthand experience. My books would have lacked the credibility that comes with experience.
We hate to wait. We want our dreams to become reality yesterday. I’ve come to appreciate what I now call divine delays. God wants you to get where God wants you to go more than you want to get where God wants you to go. So take a deep breath, enjoy the journey, and know that God will get you there when you’re ready to get there. Your current frustration will be cause for future celebration if you hang in there long enough. Don’t give up! God is building emotional endurance. The key to emotional endurance is experiencing high levels of disappointment that break us down so God can build us up with a holy confidence. Any time I feel stretched emotionally, I remind myself that God is expanding my emotional capacity to be used by Him in greater ways.
Similar to David watching his brothers go off to war, maybe you feel overlooked and underappreciated. It seems as if everyone else is getting the promotion, the scholarship or the girl. Your day will come. In the meantime, don’t short-circuit His plans and purposes by taking shortcuts. God is setting you up. He is making divine appointments. The bigger the opportunity, the longer it takes. The reason we get frustrated is because we think big without thinking long. That is a recipe for disappointment. Reevaluate your timeline, and be encouraged when it takes longer than you expected. That simply means God wants to do something immeasurably more than all you can ask or imagine.
David wasn’t just the youngest of nine brothers. The language in the Bible story seems to suggest David also was the smallest in stature. The Hebrew word for youngest isn’t just chronological; it’s also physical. David was the runt of the litter in every sense of the word. David looked to be anything but a warrior. That’s why Saul questioned his credentials and Goliath mocked his opponent.
David possessed a skill as a shepherd that the soldiers did not. While they were trained in their traditional boot camp, David was trained in ancient guerrilla warfare. His training ground was the hillsides where his flock grazed. His target practice was the wild animals that attacked his flock. His compensatory skill was using a slingshot. David had no idea God would use a shepherding skill to catapult him into the national limelight. We’ve heard the story so many times that we take it for granted, but David was the unlikeliest of heroes with the unlikeliest of skills. If David wasn’t an expert marksman with a slingshot, there was no way he could defeat Goliath; he most definitely wouldn’t have become king; he therefore never would have produced a royal lineage that includes the Messiah.
One of the story lines in this scene is the way God used a seemingly random skill to strategically position David. The slingshot wasn’t the only example. I bet David complained about taking music lessons as a kid. I know I did. I actually gave up the bass because it was just too big to carry back and forth to school. Try a harp! Those music lessons paid off for David. It was his skill with the harp that opened the palace doors to him. When David played the harp, it soothed Saul’s spirit. That’s how David met Jonathan. That’s how he learned the customs of the court. Without his musical skills, David wouldn’t have set foot in the door!
My point? You never know what skill God will use for His purposes, so don’t underestimate the strangest of skills. God can use anything and everything for His purposes if we allow ourselves to be used by Him. God used Noah’s boat-building skills, Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, Esther’s face and figure and the magi’s astrological knowledge. No skill is unredeemable or unusable in God’s grand scheme.
It was his skill with a slingshot that netted David his first 15 minutes of fame, but it was another compensatory skill—maybe his greatest skill—that translated into 3,000 years of cumulative influence. David was more than a musical performer. He was a songwriter, and those songs (psalms) still rank as the most popular portion of the most popular book of all time. Here’s what you need to see: The greatest of psalms came out of the worst circumstances. To put it another way, the most comforting psalms were written in the most uncomfortable situations. David walked through the valley of the shadow of death. He agonized over his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. David was a fugitive, hiding in the caves of Adullam. David didn’t want to be in any of those situations, but those circumstances produced the profound lyrics we find in
You may not want to be where you are. Maybe you’re wrestling with depression, reeling from a mistake that seems unforgivable or are just sick and tired of being sick and tired. Dare I suggest that God is cultivating character? How do I know that? Because you are His workmanship! He is chipping and chiseling. As with a half-finished piece of art, it may not look beautiful yet; but God always finishes what He starts, as long as we don’t quit on Him. So you may not like your present circumstances, but they may be the key to your character; and character development is the key to your future.
I love movies with lots of action and adventure. Give me a few good stunts, some special effects and a bucket of popcorn with extra butter, and I’m a happy camper. Still, I have to admit the best movies aren’t the movies with the most action. They are the movies with the best characters. The key is character development. Don’t you love movies where the main character has to overcome an obstacle, face a fear or fight injustice? We love those characters who have to overcome extreme adversity. We just don’t want to be them. We want to watch it on a screen. Here’s what we need to recognize: It’s not the resolution of circumstances, but the evolution of character that God is after. The worst circumstances often produce the best character and the best storyline. That is certainly true of David, and it’s true of you.
The best-selling author of Soulprint, In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day and Wild Goose Chase, Mark Batterson is lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C. Visit his website at MarkBatterson.com.