CIRCLES OF CONCERN & SPHERES OF INFLUENCE
SEVEN HABITS...BUT. For whatever reason, I really took in Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People when it came out 17 years ago (has it really been that long?). This book was concise, memorable, and practical for the challenges and opportunities I then faced. I used Covey's principles and procedures to craft a personal mission statement in 1994 that guides me to this day. I still take my paperback volume down and refer to it every now and then. But one part of Covey's book bothered me then...and it bothers me now.
RIGHT...UP TO A POINT. Covey wrote that we should only work on matters that are within our "sphere of influence," not on matters that may be in a much wider "circle of concern." In other words, while I might have concern for world peace (part of my "circle of concern"), I may have no functional or meaningful outlet for making any impact on world peace because it is beyond my "sphere of influence." Therefore, says Covey, I should let go of--or set aside--my concern for world peace (and, it follows, concern for events, decisions, policies, etc. that effect world peace) and focus primarily on the matters in which I have been given some relatively small measure of influence--personal peace, family peace, peace at work, in some limited community areas, etc. It's easy to see how this can help a person pursuing personal income or corporate position or community admiration focus and intensify their efforts on what will bring more immediate results. This makes sense...up to a point.
ALL THE WORLD IS MY CONCERN. But this is not the way of contemplative prayer, nor the way Jesus taught disciples to pray or live. Jesus taught his disciples to pray: "Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." All the world is within a Christian's circle of concern. Through intercessory prayer (at least) all the world's heartache and yet-to-be-fulfilled possibilities are also within our sphere of influence. Jesus draws us into His sphere of influence and we bear Jesus' concern for all the world through Him. Were I to set aside my concern for the world, I would be setting aside people and situations for which Jesus died and lives.
WHERE DO VISION AND ASPIRATION COME IN? And what if the world view, frame of reference, or perspective that I start with is small, self-centered, and/or deluded to begin with? If I have no dream or outward vision to which I aspire, then what I exercise within my sphere of influence becomes merely self-reinforcement of my limitations and ingrown perspective. For instance, I am convinced that most Americans have a very diminished and skewed view of neighborhood and community. Most either take these for granted and overlook them in their pursuits of more apparently self-fulfilling objectives. But such overlooking of fundamental realities sabotages the very objectives that are pursued. It is the vision of community and call to neighboring that form the very context out of which individual aspiration can flourish. But community and neighboring--that's "circle of concern" stuff. This is why Covey's approach breaks down at this particular point. A great visionary himself, here he sounds more like an instructor molding obedient managers.
INFLUENCING THE WORLD THRU PRAYER. Granted, my apparent influence may seem negligible and frivolous. In prayer, however, I believe influence connects effectively (to borrow Covey's word). In prayer, I confess my concern and anxiety over events or directions beyond my control or influence or understanding. I let them go, not with a carelessness or narrowing of vision, but with a simultaneous relinquishing and petitioning that God intervene and, if possible or desirable, direct me to be part of a short, mid-range, or long-term resolution. I wait in anticipation for God to work--in confidence that I will see the fulfillment of God's will in some way in my lifetime or beyond.
CLARIFYING WISDOM. I find that when I honestly lament what I see or experience that is morally wrong, and bring this into the heart of my prayer with earnest confession and yielded anticipation, either I am relieved of the burden and come to peace, or I sense my call to participate in bringing resolution or response. Often, it is clear to many people that "something ought to be done" about an injustice or community dilemma; but the response that comes through contemplative Christian prayer is "how best" and "in what way" would God be glorified?
BEING A PART OF GOD'S DIFFERENCE. It is a misnomer to think that because I have no direct influence over world peace, I therefore do not or cannot influence it. What if we thought and acted this way with all matters that concern us or impact us directly or indirectly? This seems to me to lead to a rather acquiescing, resigned, limited kind of life. Instead, I choose to pray through my circle of concern until my circle of concern becomes part of the sphere of influence to which God has invited us all to be part of God's difference in the world.