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Breaching the ‘I Can’t’ Barrier

breaching the i can't barrier

By Rick Lawrence
Vibrant Faith Executive Director

I’ll begin with the obvious—we’re living through a challenging, disorienting, and difficult time in history. Racial and political and financial unrest layered on top of a global pandemic have made everyday life feel overwhelming. And that’s why it’s so important to pay attention to our words, because our words drag our beliefs behind them, and our beliefs form our reality. Jesus reminds us: “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth” (Matthew 15:11). 

We do not lessen that overwhelming feeling by simply putting a positive spin on our challenges—that’s inauthentic. And we undermine our strength and hope by continuously repeating (inside or outside of ourselves) that “I can’t.” Instead, we need an authentic substitute for “I can’t” that we can all adopt. How about:

Whenever I’m tempted to say, “I can’t,” I will substitute: 
“I can, but it will be hard, and hard is doable.”

If we’ve already agreed with Jesus that Hard = Good, then this substitution is not a fake workaround; it’s a commitment to the truth. But often “I can, but it will be hard” rams into a barrier called It’s Not Fair. Christopher Paddock directs the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution at the University of Colorado. When students get into trouble at school, they end up in Christopher’s office, usually because of a drug or alcohol charge. He loves his job because he finds great satisfaction in helping others overcome obstacles. The hardest challenge these suddenly needy young adults must face is the creeping insinuation that they won’t be able to drag themselves out of the rut they’ve descended into. I asked Christopher to describe the most effective tool he uses in his work with troubled students:

The most important thing is to have a sense of optimism for each student. The reason they meet with me is never positive, but it’s vital that I reflect an “I can” attitude relative to their identity. Often, the student is a wonderful young person who’s simply made a bad decision they regret, or because they’ve allowed themselves to move with the norms of a negative crowd instead of stand up for themselves. In every interaction, my goal is to communicate a central truth about their identity—that they are cherished, they are amazing, and they have the capacity to change the world. This ‘I can’ reflection gives them permission to be vulnerable with me because they feel supported. And when you’re locked in a challenging time, you’re desperate for support and understanding. I don’t judge students based on their actions; instead, I paint a picture of where their lives can go from here.

People who live with an “I can” mentality surface perseverance and spiritual grit in themselves and in others because their convictions are infectious. For example, consider the transformational impact of the “I can” messages Jesus peppered His followers with over the course of three years. Here’s a sampler, all from just the first 10 chapters of Matthew’s gospel:

  • “I will show you how to fish for people!” (4:19).
  • “You are the salt of the earth” (5:13).
  • “You are the light of the world” (5:14).
  • “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also” (5:39).
  • “You are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (5:48).
  • “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (7:7).
  • “I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (8:10).
  • “Daughter, be encouraged! Your faith has made you well” (9:22).
  • “Because of your faith, it will happen” (9:29).
  • “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons” (10:8).
  • “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves” (10:16).
  • “When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time” (10:19).
  • “Don’t be afraid of those who threaten you” (10:26).
  • “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul” (10:28).
  • “Not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (10:29-31).
  • “Anyone who receives you receives me” (10:40).
  • And, of course, to the paralyzed man lying on a mat: “Be encouraged, my child! Your sins are forgiven” (9:2).

If you have “I can’t” tendencies, start by making those two words a red flag in your life. Whenever you hear yourself speak or think some version of them, stop and replace them with “I can, but it will be hard, and hard is doable.” One practical way to live this out is to invest in deeper learning and ministry training. When you’re learning you’re growing, and when you’re growing you’re saying to yourself (and others) “I can.” 

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily. His new book, The Suicide Solution, was just released.

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