In ancient Greece there lived seven sages: Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Myson, and Chilon. To these wise men, who lived so very long ago, is accredited that still-famous exhortation inscribed on Apollo’s temple in Delphi: “Know thyself.”
Growing in self knowledge is no easy task— this is ironic, to be sure, but a truth we all know by experience.
Part of self knowledge includes knowing what your strengths are. There are three reasons such knowledge is crucial.
1. Your strengths are gifts and you need to be aware of them to be grateful for them.
We all have special gifts. Maybe you have a compassionate heart; you just can’t help but be nurturing. Maybe you’re a go getter. You walk into a situation, see what needs doing, and get it done whatever it takes—spontaneous initiative, delegating, hard work, you name it. Maybe you can sing like a bird. Maybe you have calming presence. Maybe you have an incredible intellect, or a gift for teaching. There’s no end to the varied and beautiful gifts with which God has endowed man.
But these beautiful qualities are just that: gifts from God. St. Paul rejoices, “Gladly, therefore, will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me,” and “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.”
God is our Creator. He has given us life, and He has given us special gifts. We owe him gratitude for both.
In the same way that we will not be grateful to God for the gift of life if we do not recognize that it is good, we will not be grateful to Him for our natural talents if we do not see them in the first place. In other words, if we do not recognize the gifts He has given to us then it is impossible for us to be grateful for them! Knowing our strengths, and knowing that they are from God, is the beginning of showing Him a proper gratitude for them.
Recognize what He has given to you, and thank Him!
2. Knowing your strengths is the beginning of using them well.
The Parable of the Talents begins with the master entrusting his goods to his servants: For even as a man going into a far country, called his servants, and delivered to them his goods; And to one he gave five talents, and to another two, and to another one, to every one according to his proper ability: and immediately he took his journey.
The Lord returns from his journey and finds, as you will remember, that the servant to whom he entrusted just one talent fearfully buried it. His response is stinging, and quite frankly, a little frightening:
And his lord answering, said to him: Wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sow not, and gather where I have not strewed: Thou oughtest therefore to have committed my money to the bankers, and at my coming I should have received my own with usury. Take ye away therefore the talent from him, and give it to him that hath ten talents. For to every one that hath shall be given, and he shall abound: but from him that hath not, that also which he seemeth to have shall be taken away. And the unprofitable servant cast ye out into the exterior darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In his commentary on this passage, Gregory of Nyssa—both saint and Church Father—wrote,
Let him then who has understanding look that he hold not his peace; let him who has affluence not be dead to mercy; let him who has the art of guiding life communicate its use with his neighbor; and him who has the faculty of eloquence intercede with the rich for the poor. For the very least endowment will be reckoned as a talent entrusted for use.”
Given all this, why must we know our strengths? Because we must use them! We must seize every opportunity to serve the Kingdom of Heaven with the talents God has given to us.
How do we begin to do this?
- We need to identify our strengths. That sounds like it would be easy, but it will be a great challenge for most of us. There is no better help for growing in authentic self knowledge than turning to the Holy Spirit.
- We need to see our strengths in the light of them being given as gifts from a master to a servant. From this follows two important points: we are wrong to take any credit for them, we neither make them nor merit them; and they are to be used in service to God, not ourselves.
3. Your strengths say something about who you are, and about who God is.
Saint Bernard defines humility as, “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.”
At a glance it may seem as though focusing on your strengths you run the risk of puffing yourself up. Surprisingly though, if seen in the right light, seeing your strengths can have quite the reverse effect. If we see that our strengths are given to us by God, despite our not deserving them in the least, and if we see them almost as not even our own, but rather as talents given to us on loan to be used to build the Kingdom then we will be humbled. And further, when we understand that our work will be judged and that to whom much is given much will be expected then we are motivated too!
Suddenly, knowing our strengths becomes a source of humility, a challenge to serve, and a glimpse of the path to heaven. It tells us something about who we are and what we are to do in this life.
This is clear even on a very practical level. For example, the person who knows where his strengths lie is in a much better position to discern what sort of work he will do well and find fulfilling. Isn’t it true that we often find most fulfilling whatever we are best at? No doubt this is true in part because there is a certain pleasure in success, but perhaps it is also because God’s will for us often—though not always— includes what we do well.
And more, it tells us something about God. It helps us to see His mercy and generosity.
There is a wonderful passage from Fr. D’Elbee, “I am not telling you, ‘You believe too much in your own wretchedness.’ We are much more wretched than we ever realize. But I am telling you, ‘You do not believe enough in merciful love.’ We must have confidence, not in spite of our miseries, but because of them, since it is misery which attracts mercy.”
This recalls a reflection from Little Therese towards the end of her life: “It is just this—to find myself at my death with empty hands—that gives me joy, for, having nothing, I shall receive everything from God.”
We begin with nothing; everything we receive is a gift from God. God gives us life, He adopts us as His children and redeems us from our sins, He even gives us the grace and natural talents to serve Him in this life and thus to participate in the building up of His kingdom so that we may enter into His joy in the next. So, even are very strengths speak to us of our nothingness and His goodness because they are gifts which a Father has entrusted to His children.
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