No More Whack-a-Mole
Tony Cooke

whackamoleHave you ever seen someone playing the game called Whack-a-Mole? They stand before the game board with a padded hammer, just waiting for one of the little critters to pop its head up, and they try to whack it before it goes back in the hole. The longer they play, the faster and more erratic the moles are in popping up their heads.

Now for the real question: Have you ever felt like your life was just one hectic, non-stop game of Whack-a-Mole? There you stand, just waiting for the next problem or need or crisis to arrive, and you only hope that you’re fast enough to react to it before yet another “mole” sticks its head up, and the next, and the next, and the next.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of focus, and how important it is to not have our productivity diluted by trying to do too many things at once. It may sound noble to try to do everything—to whack every imaginable mole—but ultimately, that leads to frustration and ineffectiveness.

Let me share with you three great quotes by D.L. Moody:

“Give me a man who says ‘this one thing I do,’ and not ‘those fifty things I dabble in.’”

“The trouble with a great many men is that they spread themselves out over too much ground. They fail in everything. If they would only put their life into one channel, and keep it in, they would accomplish something. They make no impression because they do a little work here and a little work there….Lay yourselves on the altar of God, and then concentrate on some one work.”

“‘One thing’ is my motto.”

In my own journey, it’s been very helpful to have a very specific vision statement that governs what we say “yes” to and what we say “no” to. When we were transitioning into traveling ministry in 2002, I sensed the Lord drop the following phrase into my spirit: Strengthen Churches and Leaders. Those words have reverberated in me since that time, and they serve as a filter for deciding where we direct our energies and our efforts. In other words, if an activity contributes to us strengthening churches and leaders, I’m far more likely to say “yes” to it than if it doesn’t.

Over these years, we have focused on three main avenues through which we’ve been able to carry out our assignment from the Lord:

  • We endeavor to strengthen churches and leaders through teaching in meetings and seminars in churches, conferences, etc.
  • We endeavor to strengthen churches and leaders through the books we write.
  • We endeavor to strengthen churches and leaders by providing helpful articles and other resources on our website.

I was recently speaking at a Bible school in the States, and the person introducing me referred to me being, “…very comfortable in my own skin.” I hadn’t really thought about that before, but I like that idea. I believe that if we are really comfortable in our own skin, it will show up in two specific areas:

  1. We will not be emotionally insecure and try to be someone that we’re not.
  2. We will be more effective, because we will be ministering according to our own assignment, gifts, and anointing.

Not trying to be someone else or trying do everything, but being accurately focused in one’s endeavors, is very biblical. For example, note the following direction Jesus gave His disciples: “These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). Of course, in the great commission, Jesus broadened their assignment, but being a wise strategist, Jesus limited the scope of their work at that time.

Jesus Himself knew how to stay within the parameters of His own assignment and He refused to allow the pressure of people get him off-track from what He was supposed to do. In John 6:14-15 (NLT) we read: “When the people saw him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, “Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!” When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself.” Shortly after this (John 6:66), Jesus’ popularity took a drastic dip, but it was more important to Jesus that He be in the will of God than to have high favorability ratings from the crowds. When faced with a conflict between the will of God and the expectations of people, Jesus unflinchingly chose the will of God.

Paul is another great example of someone who remained focused. When he was called by Jesus, he was shown where his energies were to be directed. In Acts 9:15, we find that Paul was called, “…to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.” Paul’s strategy was typically, then, to go into a city and first of all preach in the Synagogues. A group of Jewish converts to Jesus would form the basis of a new congregation, and Paul would then work from that group as a platform, focusing on reaching the Gentiles in that community. It wasn’t until later in his ministry that the emphasis on reaching kings was realized.

From the above Scripture (Acts 9:15) we can see that there are often primary and secondary aspects of our callings. Paul’s greatest thrust, though, was toward the Gentiles, the group that Jesus mentioned first. Galatians 2:7-9 (NLT) says, “…they saw that God had given me the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as he had given Peter the responsibility of preaching to the Jews. For the same God who worked through Peter as the apostle to the Jews also worked through me as the apostle to the Gentiles. In fact, James, Peter, and John, who were known as pillars of the church, recognized the gift God had given me, and they accepted Barnabas and me as their co-workers. They encouraged us to keep preaching to the Gentiles, while they continued their work with the Jews.”

One of the things that made Paul so solid in his ministry is that he had learned to not give in to the pressure of comparison. He knew who he was, and he knew what he was supposed to do. He did not allow the ministries of others or the opinions of others to get him out of his own lane. Consider the following:

2 Corinthians 10:12-16
12 For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. 13 We, however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us—a sphere which especially includes you. 14 For we are not overextending ourselves (as though our authority did not extend to you), for it was to you that we came with the gospel of Christ; 15 not boasting of things beyond measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but having hope, that as your faith is increased, we shall be greatly enlarged by you in our sphere, 16 to preach the gospel in the regions beyond you, and not to boast in another man’s sphere of accomplishment.

To be focused not only requires that a person has achieved some level of emotional security and strategic effectiveness, but it also means that they have come to peace with—and to terms with—their own finite nature. They know that they cannot singlehandedly save the whole world, but they know they can do their part. They’ve come to realize that it’s better to do a few things very well than to do many things poorly.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “The art of leadership is saying ‘no,’ not saying ‘yes.’ It is very easy to say ‘yes.’” Similarly, Charles E. Nielson said, “When, against one’s will, one is high pressured into making a hurried decision, the best answer is always ‘no,’ because ‘no’ is more easily changed to ‘yes’ than ‘yes’ is to ‘no.’”

The proper prioritization in Nehemiah’s life caused him to stay focused when his enemies—Sanballat and Geshem—tried to distract him and get him off-track. Nehemiah “…sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?’” Because Nehemiah had said an emphatic “yes” to the plan of God, it was easy for him to say “no” to the detours presented by others.

Keep in mind that we not only have to say no to the evil, the wrong, and the sinful, but sometimes we have to also say “no” to certain good things so that we can say “yes” to the best things. Some individuals are people-pleasers, and so they say “yes” to all kinds of things spontaneously that they probably should not say an immediate “yes” to. If you find yourself frequently saying “yes” to things, and later regretting that you did, and even feeling anguish over having committed to something so quickly, you may have to address some issues of impulsivity in your life.

It’s a good discipline for leaders—in many situations—to learn to say things like:

  • Would you send me an e-mail about that, and let me consider it.
  • Let me check with my wife / staff / calendar / finance team and get back with you.
  • I need to give that some thought before I can make any type of commitment.

It’s alright to respond immediately to someone in a genuine crisis, but we don’t want to live our entire lives without a purpose of our own (a godly purpose), and we don’t want to spend all of our time doing nothing more than having knee-jerk reactions to other peoples’ whims, issues, and drama. We don’t want to spend all of our time doing nothing more than putting out fires, or to borrow our initial analogy, playing a constant game of Whack-a-Mole.

Practically and logistically, all of this is worked out in degrees. No one is able to only do one thing exclusively in life. For example, when Lisa reminds me that the trash needs to be taken out to the curb on trash day, I can’t tell her, “I’m sorry honey. I only strengthen churches and leaders.” We all have varied responsibilities to fulfill in life, but we hopefully can be moving and growing toward a point where we’re giving greater quality and quantity of time to those things in life which are most important.

How do we apply this?

  1. Say “no” to things you can and should say “no” to.
  2. Break the habit of saying “yes” impulsively. Delay responding until you’re certain you really mean “yes.”
  3. Delegate things that you can and should delegate.
  4. Multi-task when you need to—there are times when we do have various responsibilities to fulfill. Resolve, though, to un-clutter your life as much as possible from the extraneous, the unnecessary, and the unprofitable.
  5. Determine what’s really important and focus on your top priorities. As Stephen Covey said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

May God help all of us live focused, prioritized lives, and to live intentionally and deliberately.