Achieving Greatness
How discipline and focus in any physical activity can yield spiritual and eternal rewards

In Armstrong Auditorium—a building we commonly refer to as God’s house—we showcase the greatest achievements of the human spirit. What does physical achievement by physical beings have to do with God, religion or spirituality? What does greatness in any earthly field (athletic, artistic or anything) have to do with spiritual greatness?

Can those things be eternally important?

Based on what it takes to achieve greatness in physical realms, the answer is yes! The methods required to achieve greatness in any physical activity are similar to the methods that can be employed as we do our part in striving for spiritual greatness.

Few in this world are “truly great” at what they do, Geoff Colvin points out in his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else. Greatness comes from what he calls “deliberate practice,” which requires concentration that is “so intense that it’s exhausting.”

When you apply what he writes about greatness to what the Bible says about spiritual achievement, it shows a wonderful connection between the two.

They are biblical principles—principles that young people are being taught here at Herbert W. Armstrong College and at Imperial Academy of Edmond. These are principles that all young people should be developing—especially in the formative teen years.

In Hebrews 5, the Apostle Paul said that “strong meat”—a metaphor for spiritual maturity—belonged to “those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (verse 14). If we don’t develop the human spirit, how mature or “advanced” can we really be spiritually?

There are principles that God created in the physical realm for us to achieve greatness—and these principles also apply spiritually.

Our college’s namesake asked, “Is Specialized Talent God-Given?” in the title to his January 1982 Plain Truth Personal. The answer to the question is, yes, but it’s only 1 percent of the equation. The other 99 percent is the hard work, discipline and focus necessary for greatness—which is the portion of the equation that Colvin focuses on in his book.

“The Christian life,” Mr. Armstrong related, “requires the same continuous, diligent, no-letup effort that a great pianist, violinist or singer must exert.”

Hebrews 12:2-4 show the effort Jesus Christ exerted to be “the author and finisher of our faith.” He “endured the cross … resisted unto blood, striving against sin.”

It takes a lot of effort to love God with all your heart, soul and mind (Mark 12:30). Other passages say it’s through hardness and tribulation that we enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

So let’s examine the principles that lead to greatness in any physical field and see how they can benefit us spiritually—eternally!

Where Spiritual Ability Comes From

Every one of us is unique, each with our own tastes, personalities and passions—as well as aptitudes for success! In spite of that, some say they have no “natural ability.” When it comes to spiritual achievement, that is true of all of us. The way of man is “not in himself,” Jeremiah 10:23 reads. God must give us the ability. He does so in the form of His Holy Spirit, typified by the “talents” in Matthew 25, which is called the parable of the talents. Verse 14 says they are the master’s “goods,” and they were given to each servant “according to his several ability”—some were given five, some two, and another was given one. Spiritually speaking, this is godly ability—not any “natural” human ability.

In the parable, both the servants with five and two talents doubled their money and were made rulers “over many things.” But the one who didn’t do anything with his talent was punished. Even though the “talent” wasn’t his to begin with, he was expected to provide some individual effort. The point is: God gives the spiritual wherewithal, but that doesn’t automatically guarantee spiritual greatness. We have to use the power He gives us. As young people with access to God’s truth, you have access to this power—it can lead and guide you even before it dwells in you (see Romans 8:11-16).

It takes human effort and energy. And we must beware not to fall into the category of the man in the parable who—out of laziness and fear—did nothing with the “talent” he was given.

Are You Limiting Yourself?

Sometimes we put limitations on ourselves as a means of excusing our laziness. We say, I don’t have a high IQ or I have a bad memory. Those limitations can so easily carry over into the spiritual realm. As Colvin points out in his book, IQ (our “intelligence quotient”) has nothing to do with greatness. This is especially true in spiritual matters because God has to give us the power to understand spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:11-14). As for memory, “There is apparently no limit to improvement in memory skill with practice.” Unless there has been some sort of deformity or injury, most bad memories are simply untrained memories.

It is so easy to limit our own human capacity—either imposing limitations on ourselves or imagining them. Add to that our tendency even to limit God’s power, as ancient Israel “limited the Holy One of Israel” (Psalm 78:41).

Spiritually Beneficial Habits Formed From “Deliberate Practice”

Achievement in the physical realm boils down to hard work—the kind of work Colvin calls “deliberate practice.” All those principles apply spiritually! Even developing them physically—developing the human spirit—can aid in our relationship with God. It is the principle of being “faithful over a few things” that can lead to greatness in many things (Matthew 25:21).

Again, as Mr. Armstrong wrote: “The Christian life requires the same continuous, diligent, no-letup effort that a great pianist, violinist or singer must exert. There is the easy road that leads to failure, but the way to achievement, whether in a profession, or entrance into eternal life in the Kingdom of God, is the hard, difficult, never-give-up way of persistent, determined effort and self-prodding” (op. cit.).

Notice this statement from Colvin’s book, and see if it reminds you of a scripture: “There is in fact a path leading from the state of our own abilities to that of the greats. The path is extremely long and demanding, and only a few will follow it all the way to its end.”

Matthew 7:13-14 read: “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

Compare that to what Mr. Armstrong wrote in his article: “Most professing Christians think they had it all made when they ‘received Christ.’ They had it no more ‘made’ than a great performing artist had it ‘made’ into world fame on first deciding, as a child, to become proficient in his or her chosen profession.”

Going to worship services and listening to a sermon doesn’t make one a great Christian, just like going to a voice lesson doesn’t automatically make someone a great singer. That’s faith without works, which James says is “dead” (James 2:17-26).

The Apostle Paul also compared the Christian journey to mastering a physical skill: “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 9:25).

It requires temperance, self-control and discipline to “strive for the mastery”—a phrase meaning “to labor fervently” (which we could call “deliberate practice”).

Mr. Armstrong again: “But is it worth the effort? Apparently most professing Christians have never come to see how great is such salvation and eternal life!” Those in the world who really apply themselves can physically achieve something, but Paul said it is only a “corruptible crown.” For us, we are looking further into the realm of spiritual greatness.

As Mr. Armstrong said: “Sure, [salvation is] a free gift. One can’t buy it. One can’t earn it. The eternal life is free …. Yet the great God of love won’t give it to one in the pain, anguish, sorrow, discontent and unhappiness produced by sin. … To live above that transgression demands effort.”

Think of the effort God put into His side of the plan—sacrificing His Son. He is not making us do all the work, nor should we expect Him to do all of it either. “God paid a price beyond description when He gave His only begotten Son,” Mr. Armstrong wrote. ”Jesus paid the supreme penalty of death in your stead to make possible that free gift. And you have to pay the price of repentance, faith, obedience, overcoming, growing spiritually in knowledge and love and obedience and faith and endurance!”

It takes years to become excellent at something. Colvin and others have estimated that it takes about 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice.” God gives a human being a certain span of years in this life. Achieving greatness requires using that time in the best way possible.

So how do the principles of deliberate practice apply in spiritual endeavors? To answer that, I want to define “deliberate practice” (showing five components of it), and then show the fruits of deliberate practice (showing four major things it does for us), and then give three models of different types of practice, and then finally give two all-important factors required for achieving greatness.

Five Components That Define “Deliberate Practice”

1. It is pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone. Imagine three concentric circles: the innermost one is the “comfort zone”; the next one out is the “learning zone”; the one outside that is the “panic zone.” If we only do what comes easily to us, we will never improve and grow. That can be applied physically or spiritually. It is easy to settle for what we know, what is comfortable, or what simply feels good. But if we push ourselves to develop physical abilities, elevate our tastes, and exercise our senses—in other words, develop our human spirit—then God’s Holy Spirit will have much more to work with when it dwells in us. God is a master at pushing us just enough to grow—never so far that we panic, and never more than we can handle, as 1 Corinthians 10:13 says.

2. It is high repetition of the right way to perform the task. How often does God have us repeat things? Colvin writes: “Repeating a specific activity over and over is what most of us mean by practice, yet for most of us it isn’t especially effective.” That’s not vain repetition, but the right kind of repetition. This requires that we know what to repeat, which leads to another component of deliberate practice.

3. It is designed practice—meaning someone is telling us how to improve. Knowing what aspects to practice requires coaching from someone who has been on the field longer and knows the most efficient and effective pathway to success. This applies spiritually for sure. Like Solomon, we do not know “how to go out or come in” (1 Kings 3:7). We can do nothing apart from God. We constantly need his guidance, which is given through His Word and oftentimes through His ministry.

4. It is continuous feedback on whether the task is being performed properly. In his book, Colvin quotes Steve Kerr, former Chief Learning Officer of Goldman Sachs, who said, “Practicing without feedback is like bowling through a curtain that hangs down to knee level.” We need feedback to ensure we are, in fact, getting better. Sometimes that feedback can be from looking at the fruits in our lives.

5. It is highly demanding mentally and not much fun. These mental requirements constitute the main reason most people are not “great” at what they do. Colvin says: “If it were inherently fun and easy work, everyone would do it, and everyone would be great.” As we read in Matthew, few find this path. Only a few are called out of this present evil world to resist Satan and become the one Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7).

Four Fruits of “Deliberate Practice”

1. It helps us to perceive more. When a tennis ball is served at a great tennis player, the athlete knows where the ball is going to end up—not by watching the ball, but by learning how to interpret where it will go based on how the server’s body is turned. Colvin shows that the greats know what to look at and what to listen for. They “hear more when they listen and feel more when they touch.” They’ve learned to “spot non-obvious information that’s important.” This allows them to look further into the future to anticipate certain outcomes. “They may be looking only one second ahead, but for them that extra moment makes all the difference.” Similarly, God is trying to get us to see what “eye hath not seen” and to hear what “ear hath not heard” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).

2. It helps us to know more. Colvin writes: “Building and developing knowledge is one of the things that deliberate practice accomplishes. Constantly trying to extend one’s abilities in a field requires amassing additional knowledge, and staying at it for years develops the critical connections that organize all that knowledge and make it useful. … [T]he central importance of knowledge to great performance poses serious difficulties for the theory that great performance arises from innate talent, since no one is born with a vast fund of knowledge about anything.” As Mr. Armstrong said, we are born knowing nothing—we have to learn everything and “grow in grace and … knowledge” (2 Peter 3:18).

As Mr. Armstrong wrote in The Incredible Human Potential, “[t]o live perfectly would require all spiritual knowledge. … The Holy Spirit imparts spiritual perception so he can understand the Bible. And to understand all the Bible takes time. We have to grow into the knowledge of how to live perfectly without sin.” That is exactly the principle of a lifetime of deliberate practice: We have to be constantly learning more!

3. It helps us to remember more. Deliberate practice teaches us to “chunk” items. Though we can only remember five to nine items at a time, we remember more because we put more items into fewer chunks. Remembering more than five to nine letters is easy if you know how those letters form words. Remembering more than five to nine words is easy if see those words as common phrases. The “greats” can remember more because they have learned how to effectively “chunk” items.

Spiritually, memory is of the utmost importance. Throughout His Word, God tells us to remember, and He composes a “book of remembrance” for a faithful few in the end time who do this (Malachi 3:16)

4. It helps us set better and more attainable goals. Do we just launch into our day—into school, family life or a job—and like an undisciplined young musician, say, Well, I’ll just try that again and hope it’s better this time. That is not an effective attainable goal. The kinds of goals the “great” practicers set, Colvin says, “are not big, life-directing goals, but instead are more immediate goals for what you’re going to be doing today. … Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome …. The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but about the process of reaching the outcome.”

We must have goals in little areas of life—being faithful in that which is least. A goal like I’m going to be more God-like today is not an effective goal. Be specific: Perhaps the goal has to do with how you will speak to a sibling, the kind of dietary choices you will make, or a specific kind of improvement you will strive for in your prayer session.

Three Types of “Deliberate Practice”

There are three models of practice that Colvin discusses in his book:

1. Music model. This is the kind of practice where the student works on sections repeatedly until they can be performed perfectly. It is called the music model, since this is how most music is practiced. This also applies to dancers who have to execute strict choreography. Spiritually, God has us “rehearse” His master plan each year in the form of seven annual festivals. We also rehearse our understanding of the Bible throughout the year—Bible verses which, not unlike a historical piece of music, do not change.

2. Chess model. This is the kind of practice where the student studies successful scenarios and tries to duplicate the previous player’s success when applied to their specific scenario: “Excellent chess players practice by studying positions from real games between top-level players, organized by various themes …” Colvin writes. “Thousands of books of such positions have been published. The practice routine is to study a particular position and choose the move you would make, then compare it with the move chosen by the master; if they’re different, figure out why and which is better.”

This is not unlike 1 Corinthians 10:11, which talks about scenarios discussed in the Old Testament, which all “happened unto them for [examples]: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” The context here is knowing what to avoid—what not to do. But the same applies in those positive examples, like the ones outlined in Hebrews 11.

3. Sports model. This is the kind of practice that involves conditioning—building muscles and strength in specific activities (mastering a particular throw, hitting a ball out of the sand, etc.), so that those things can be easily applied when the game is in full swing.

Mr. Armstrong wrote: “Like muscle, character is developed, and grows by exercise. My name is Armstrong. I suppose I could make my arm slightly stronger, and develop the muscle, by constantly bending it back and forth at the elbow. But if I pull, or push, against some heavy weight or resistance, the muscle will develop much faster. There is within us this nature that exerts a heavy pull against that perfect righteous character—to give us something to strive against for the very purpose of strengthening and developing right character!” (Incredible Human Potential).

Give in, and you have weakened—as sin saps our willpower. Yes, we can be forgiven, but forgiveness does not necessarily strengthen our character. Resisting, however, can build strength.

Two All-Important Factors Required For Greatness

1. Achieving greatness requires passion. That’s what Colvin calls it in his book. We could also call it drive or zeal. He writes about one Olympic figure skater whose road to gold “involved at least 20,000 derriere impacts on an unforgiving surface. … That fact raises the question of why anyone would go through it for a reward that is many years away. This is the deepest question in the study of exceptional performance.” What stirs us to go through difficulties “for a reward that is many years away”? It partly has to do with our own drive and passion. That passion can help us through the roughest practices: We can reach “a state in which a person is so totally involved in a task that time slows down, enjoyment is heightened, and the task seems almost effortless. This ‘high’ is achieved when the challenge just matches the person’s skills; if it’s too easy the experience is boring, too hard and it’s frustrating.”

When it comes to our spiritual endeavors, we will grow if our hearts are in God’s Work the same way! Jeremiah said God’s Word was “burning fire shut up in my bones” (Jeremiah 20:9). The Apostle Paul told the evangelist Timothy to stir it up (2 Timothy 1:6). Yes, God has to put it in us, but then it is up to us to nurture and feed that zeal—to keep that “fire in our bones” roaring.

“What you want—really, deeply want—is fundamental because deliberate practice is a heavy investment,“ Colvin writes. “Becoming a great performer demands the largest investment you will ever make—many years of your life devoted utterly to your goal—and only someone who wants to reach that goal with extraordinary power can make it.”

2. Achieving greatness requires belief that we will achieve greatness. Colvin describes it this way: “What would cause you to do the enormous work necessary to be a top-performing ceo, Wall Street trader, jazz pianist, courtroom lawyer, or anything else? Would anything? The answers depend on your answers to two basic questions: What do you really want? And what do you really believe?”

A Christian must believe that, with God’s power, greatness will be achieved (Philippians 1:6). That is what the Bible calls faith—believing God will accomplish and perform what He said He would.

Colvin writes: “if you believe that your performance is forever limited by your lack of a specific innate gift, or by a lack of general abilities at a level that you think must be necessary, then there’s no chance at all that you will do the work. … Everyone who has achieved exceptional performance has encountered terrible difficulties along the way. … But those who see the setbacks as evidence that they lack the necessary gift will give up [because of their beliefs]. They will never achieve what they might have.”

Hebrews 11:1 says faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This is the opening verse to what we commonly call the “faith” chapter—a chapter that expounds on some of the spiritual “greats” of biblical history.

What evidence do we have that God can achieve greatness through us? Our evidence is faith! It was “by faith” that these men and women put in all the effort we read about in this chapter. They believed and knew where that Source of greatness was. They believed and knew that if they subscribed to His program and methods, they would achieve!

As Colvin puts it: “What you really believe about the source of great performance thus becomes the foundation of all you will ever achieve.”

Verse 6 of Hebrews 11 reads: “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”

Diligently seek that growth and improvement in everything you do—physical or spiritual. Our level of spiritual greatness in God’s Kingdom—our reward—will be determined by how diligently we seek after this greatness today.