Over 20 years ago, I heard a speaker named Jeff Olson give a talk on something he called “the Slight Edge.” The idea resonated with me, and ever since then it has had a significant influence on my life. I have come to realize it is a basic biblical principle woven into the fabric of creation. Like gravity, it works if you believe it or not.
The Slow Takeover of the Water Hyacinth
Olson started his lecture with the story about a plant found everywhere in South Florida called the water hyacinth. These plants which float on the water’s surface with beautiful, six-petaled flowers are native to the Amazon River in Brazil and were originally brought into Florida as ornaments in the late 1800s. Today, they have spread throughout the state (and other parts of the South) and become somewhat of a nuisance.
The water hyacinth is one of the most productive plants on earth; its reproductive rate even astonishes botanists. Put one plant into a pond, watch it for a month, and you will be surprised by what you see. After two weeks, it will have covered about one square foot of the pond surface and be hardly noticeable.
By day 20, it will have expanded to the size of a small mattress. However, by the 29th day, it will have covered half the pond. By day 30, the hyacinths will have covered the entire surface of the water.
Doing the Small Things Over Time
According to Olson, a daily application of the Slight Edge philosophy was like the water hyacinth. Success, he suggested, was not achieved by a quick fix, quantum-leap method offered by our fast food culture. Instead, success comes by doing the small things we know to do over time.
The good news is that these small things are easy to do; the challenge is that when doing them it doesn’t initially seem like we are making much progress. But if we continue over time, the cumulative effect will generate significant results.
If this is true, why are so many people unable to reach their goals in life? It is simply because the things that are easy to do are also easy not to do.
Olson writes in his book, The Slight Edge:
The truth is, what you do matters. What you do matters today. What you do every day matters. Successful people just do the things that seem to make no difference in the act of doing them, and they do them over and over and over until the compound effect kicks in.
The Way of the Ant and the Sluggard
An idea similar to the Slight Edge is found in the book of Proverbs in the comparison between the ant and the sluggard (Proverbs 6:6-11). In this passage, we are encouraged to avoid the path of the sluggard and instead study the ways of the ant. The ant does the small things that are easy for him to do day after day.
Another similar principle found in the scriptures is the idea of sowing and reaping (Galatians 6:7-8, Proverbs 11:18, 2 Corinthians 9:6, Luke 19:20-21, Matthew 13:24, 1 Corinthians 3:6-9).
This biblical standard can be summarized in three simple statements:
- You reap what you sow
- You reap more than you sow
- You reap much later than you sow
The farmer doesn’t sow one day and expect to reap a harvest the next. He must continue to work the land throughout the cultivation process before he sees the fruits of his labor.
Running Life’s Long-Distance Race
Both the apostle Paul and the author of the book of Hebrews use the idea of a race as a metaphor for the Christian life (Acts 20:23-24, 1 Corinthians 9:23-25, 2 Timothy 4:7, Hebrews 12:1-3). The race we run is not a sprint but a marathon.
We must get up every morning, lace up our sneakers, and run the best we can. Some days the wind is at our back and everything seems easy. Other days, the wind is in our face, and it seems like our entire run is uphill.
Regardless, we are called to run the race every day—to do the work that God has set before us no matter how simple, mundane, or commonplace it may seem (Ephesians 2:10).
As any athlete in training will tell you, the key to persistence, or what the Bible calls faithfulness, is driven by motivation.
We work not to prove ourselves to God or attempt to earn our salvation. Our motivation to obey God is out of love for him and in gratitude for what he has done for us in Jesus Christ. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones once wrote,
Love is not just a sentiment. Love is a great controlling passion, and it always expresses itself in terms of obedience.
Faithfulness is the key to living the Christian life, and nowhere is that more important than in the work we do. As Oswald Chambers writes in his devotional My Utmost for His Highest:
…if I obey Jesus Christ in the seemingly random circumstances of life, they become pinholes through which I see the face of God.
Through slow, faithful, daily acts of obedience and by God’s grace—this is the way we are transformed into the likeness of Christ and the way we transform the culture around us.