Your Calling and Your Critics

By

This is not a post about sports.

Chad Pennington emerged as the last guy standing after injuries plagued Marshall University’s football team at the quarterback position. Player after player went down and the unheralded freshman from Tennessee debuted. I was there at an early game, watching this guy throw passes that looked like they took ten years to get to the receivers. My verdict was in: this guy stinks, and he’ll never amount to anything in the football world. That was about 15 years ago.

A few days ago, Chad Pennington retired from the NFL after an eleven year career in which he was twice named the NFL’s comeback player of the year. He still has the highest completion percentage in the history of the NFL, making him the most accurate professional quarterback of all time. And professional takes on a fuller meaning with Pennington. He is universally praised, loved, and acknowledged as an ideal pro athlete. He worked hard and overachieved his entire career. Besides his intelligence and athletic gifts, he is known for class, dignity, charity, and other virtues that make a lasting reputation.

In college, he led Marshall to unheard of victories and became one of the most, if not the most, beloved quarterback the team has ever had. And that’s saying a lot at Marshall, which has had numerous great quarterbacks. Everyone in West Virginia feels like he belongs to our state, even though he is not originally from here. He is an adopted son and we are very proud of him. I admire him greatly, and despite my cheerless prognosis, I cheered him on for his entire career. His career features many highlights, one being that he was once a runner-up to Peyton Manning for the NFL’s MVP award. Playing through countless injuries, he left a mark on professional football that was all his own.

What about my early prediction, my dismissive reaction to his debut? I was, of course, dead wrong. I’m fairly knowledgeable about football, but I suspect no one is interested in hiring me as a talent scout. For Chad Pennington, it goes beyond his talent. What I couldn’t see at the time was his intelligence, character, class, work ethic, and determination. I counted him out without all the facts.

What if what I had said mattered? What if Chad had heard my dismissal, taken it as truth, and hung up his cleats?

There are people who don’t have access to all the facts about you. They may criticize and dismiss you based on a sampling of your efforts. Maybe they’re right, of course, in their evaluation (and it may help to hear them out). But don’t let critics write you off.

I still think Chad wasn’t that impressive when I saw him early on. He didn’t have a great arm. In fact, he never had a truly great arm. But his intelligence, will, and over-all character did more than compensate for whatever lack of talent he had. I think it’s safe to say there have been thousands of players with more natural talent. But it’s the same story over and over. The physical stats–your strong arm, height, speed, agility–don’t make you the best. Having enough talent is a given, after a certain point it becomes about work ethic, character, and other factors (see Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, or Matt Conner’s review here). Mostly, it’s about who works the hardest.

The same may be true of you and me. If we are called to do something and genuinely have a gift for it, then the main thing in our way is hard work. And the critics, if we let them be.

Of course, one of the great needs for discernment in our lives is in just this area. We need to know when some one is a critic and when some one is a counselor. We need counsel, and some of that will be critical. (The best help I’ve received in my writing has been very critical.) We should ask for wisdom from God, who gives generously.

Chad Pennington had more doubters than just me, and you have plenty of people lining up to tell you that your dream is not realistic. There are likely people itching to tell you the sample of your work they see defines you as a bust. These people often operate on a baseline of condemnation. They feel condemnation surrounding them and look for opportunities to share what they know so well. This is a very tempting mindset and is pretty much mankind’s default setting. It’s a mindset that must be argued against with vigor every day.

If you are a believer, the deep reality about you isn’t one of condemnation, but of acceptance and love. That doesn’t mean you will be an NFL quarterback, or the next C.S. Lewis. But you will be you, and that’s what the world needs. More precisely, it’s very likely what your community needs. And if you don’t play well at the local level, why export that to the world? Seek ye first to love and serve your family, your church, then see about what happens elsewhere. Leave it in God’s hands and work very, very hard.

Don’t hang up your cleats and don’t worry about “proving everyone wrong.” Let God be true and every man a liar. Christian vocation is about love and service, not revenge. Don’t make the condemning critics important enough in your heart for it to continue to be about them. Make it about God’s love, your calling, and a community that needs the work of your hands.


22 Comments

  1. Hannah Joy

    Wow. Mr. Smith, this was exactly what I needed to hear.

    “There are people who don’t have access to all the facts about you. They may criticize and dismiss you based on a sampling of your efforts. Maybe they’re right, of course, in their evaluation (and it may help to hear them out). But don’t let critics write you off.”

    Only God knows all the facts about me. And only He can evaluate me, though the critics will tear me apart based on their own perceival. I always seem to forget that and rely only on the critics’ words. I hang up my cleats too often, because I’m scared of what people will say if I fail. What I forget about is that God calls me to do things, and it doesn’t matter what people say because my answer to God should ALWAYS be “Yes.”

    I was just rereading Prince Caspian last night and something struck me as it never has before in the many times I have read it:

    “I’m sorry, Aslan,” [Lucy] said, “I’m ready now.”

    That simple reminder that if you fail, you need to get back up and do the right thing again. Repent, and then say, “I’m ready now.”

    Thanks for the wonderful post, Mr. Smith.

  2. Anne

    “If you are a believer, the deep reality about you isn’t one of condemnation, but of acceptance and love. That doesn’t mean you will be an NFL quarterback, or the next C.S. Lewis. But you will be you, and that’s what the world needs. More precisely, it’s very likely what your community needs. And if you don’t play well at the local level, why export that to the world? Seek ye first to love and serve your family, your church, then see about what happens elsewhere. Leave it in God’s hands and work very, very hard.”

    So true. Well done.

    My only question is, if you’re related to P.G.Wodehouse, shouldn’t you spell your name Psmith?

  3. Dan R.

    “Seek ye first to love and serve your family, your church, then see about what happens elsewhere. Leave it in God’s hands and work very, very hard.”

    It’s likely this is mostly just me, but mmhmmm, this is good stuff!

  4. betsy

    “Leave it in God’s hands and work very, very hard.”

    It occurs to me that I must do the first in order to be able to do the second. That not leaving it in God’s hands means being crippled with fear, which means being really unable to work hard. This is the latest version of “trust God and do the next thing” and I love it. Thanks for your encouragement.

    “What I really want to do is write, but of course I’ll never do that” should probably be a sentence that doesn’t come out of my mouth again.

  5. Chris

    Fantastic post, Sam. And an excellent point when you said, “We need to know when some one is a critic and when some one is a counselor.” That’s the hardest part I think–having the right balance of stubborness vs. humility, so that we can press on against the critics yet be open enough to hear the counselors.

  6. Kirsten

    Sam, this is a much-needed encouragement for me today (and tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…). As always, thanks for sharing your wise insights in a powerful way.

    And Re: Betsy–

    “It occurs to me that I must do the first in order to be able to do the second. That not leaving it in God’s hands means being crippled with fear, which means being really unable to work hard.”

    YES, YES, YES. Fear of failure is my worst, ugliest, most self-destructive kind of fear. Betsy, I’m going to print out your comment and tape it to my wall(s)!

  7. April Pickle

    OMGosh! There is a football photo in the Rabbit Room! (That was my initial reaction and I happen to watch the NFL faithfully.) One of the reasons I am so crazy about the Rabbit Room is the fact that the posts alone are works of art/reflections of the gospel. And in this case, it is art that defies the “artsy.” The post alone sets for us an example of not letting the critics get in the way. It’s beautiful, even with a sports picture. Maybe even because of a sports picture.
    Amen to the post and to the comments as well.

  8. Don Smith

    Excellent post and your principle example is one of a very fine man. I’d be happy with eleven Chad Pennington’s on my team, anytime.

  9. Jaclyn

    This ending paragraph is getting pasted right up on my Facebook Wall. Thank you so much for this cool, refreshing drink of water to the soul.

    In the Biblical counseling classes I’m taking, we’ve looked at how humankind was created to need counsel in order to know how to live life. What determines the course of a life is the counselor one has chosen to heed. There’s really only one sure way to get good advice – straight from God.

    So thankful for believers like you, Sam, who are keeping your ear leaned in to the still, small voice of God’s Spirit.

  10. Renee

    Very encouraging!

    “But you will be you, and that’s what the world needs. More precisely, it’s very likely what your community needs. And if you don’t play well at the local level, why export that to the world? Seek ye first to love and serve your family, your church, then see about what happens elsewhere. Leave it in God’s hands and work very, very hard.

    Don’t hang up your cleats and don’t worry about “proving everyone wrong.” Let God be true and every man a liar. Christian vocation is about love and service, not revenge. Don’t make the condemning critics important enough in your heart for it to continue to be about them. Make it about God’s love, your calling, and a community that needs the work of your hands.”

    Thank you! Thank you! I needed to hear just that! I will pass this on to my husband. I am so glad to have stopped by the Rabbit Room tonight. God has used you to speak to my heart words of encouragement. Thank you.

  11. EmmaJ

    Once, a long time ago, I heard myself saying, “I’ve always wanted to do something great. But I wonder if trying to do something great might be keeping me from doing things that are useful.”

    The gifts God gives to the church aren’t simply the abilities he endows us with, though that’s part of it. We are the gift. Being the real you in the community that is the Church, and in the world… living and being authentically, walking with God’s Spirit and being the person he made you to be – that’s a gift, too. But it’s so easy to lose sight of that – thanks for the good words, Sam.

    “The work of our hands is the salt of the earth and the music we make is the light of the world. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

  12. James Witmer

    I knew all this. (Well, not the football stuff.) And I needed to hear it again.
    Thanks for serving us with who you are, and the hard work of good writing.

  13. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    You guys are great. I wasn’t sure how a post like this would fly here. Thanks for giving it (and me) a chance.

    Hannah Joy– Thanks. I love the quote from Lucy (love her). (Cliche in 3..2..1) You go girl.

    Lois– Well, maybe catch a game before it’s banned. Thanks for reading.

    Anne– Thank you and well played. You know, and this is mildly tragic, I’ve yet to read any of the Psmith stories. Weird. I am at present enjoying another of the Blandings masterpieces. Amazing stuff. (I did not write that bio.)

    Dan R– Thank you, sir.

    Betsy– Wow, that’s wisdom. I resonate with your words. Thank you.

    David A– Thank you very much.

    Chris– Thanks, dude. (And thanks for your regular commenting and tweeting and encouragements.) I totally agree with you. I tried to represent that struggle in a truthful way. Like so many things, both are so true.

    Kirsten– Thank you so much for the kind words, my friend. Your frequent encouragement is a real boost. And I am right there with you, as the person said.

    April P– Cool, a fellow sports fan. Thanks for the kind words. Art that defies Artsy? Wow, I love that. I want that on my tombstone. Along with a flying WV to honor my Mountaineers. (I kid.) Stick around, April. We need more athletically-informed people in this here community.

    Don S- Thank you. And I agree. But I’d hate to see one of the Chads trying to block Ray Lewis.

    Jaclyn– You may give me too much credit, but I receive the kind words and thank you for them. Yes, walking with the wise and all that business. So true. All the best in your classes and may you emerge a life-long counselor of great worth and effect.

    Renee– That is tremendously encouraging for me to hear. Thanks for taking a few moments to say that. Peace to you.

    EmmaJ– As always, such wise words. I am with you. We need more than “Our peculiar kind of community,” we need the Church. Thank you!

    James– Thanks, bro. Go and sin no more.

    Zach– I have you under constant surveillance. Thanks!

  14. Loren Eaton

    Don’t hang up your cleats and don’t worry about “proving everyone wrong.” Let God be true and every man a liar. Christian vocation is about love and service, not revenge.

    I need to hang this above my desk.

  15. Renee

    Just wanted to say that more posts like this would have me stopping by the Rabbit Room more often! We obviously need to be encouraged to keep our eyes on Jesus, to press on to reach the end of the race and to run with endurance the race that God has set before us, with purpose in every step, with all we’ve got! To run in such a way that we may win!
    (I feel a blog post brewing here! 🙂
    or to quote Jen from a previous comment:

    “I feel the surge of words
    Begging to be let out.” -Jen

    Thank you again! It just feels good to be inspired.

  16. Canaan Bound

    That post was, most definitely, about sports. 😉

    Great words. I think I will share them with some youth at my church, though the message is ceratinly not lost on me. Thanks, Sam.

  17. Jess

    Agreed, Canaan Bound. And that is by no means a bad thing. Half the time I end up writing about sports (because that’s what we care about in this family) and it’s nice to let someone else do it for a change… and so beautifully, too! I hereby vote for a Rabbit Room sports page. Or at least a few more posts on the subject.

  18. livingoakheart

    This is exactly what I needed to hear right now. As I finish my first year of college, I am learning the difference between criticism and counsel, and it is a hard lesson. I am trying, though.

  19. SD Smith

    Loren– Right beside your cleats? Wait, no, definitely not that. Press on!

    Renee– Thanks! Get that blog post out, quick. It sound like it would be dangerous not to. 🙂

    Canaan Bound– Everything is about sports, right? Thanks, friend.

    Jess– A Rabbit Room sports page? I like that idea. If we build it, they will come.

    LivingOakHeart– Thanks. And stay cool. Yoda is dumb. Trying is good.

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