John D. Rockefeller was barely two years into his first job when the Panic of 1857 struck. Rockefeller could have become depressed and paralyzed by the unfortunate circumstances of a declining economy. But instead of lamenting the timing of the economic upheaval, he chose to perceive events differently than his peers. He looked at them as an opportunity to learn. He often said, “I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity.” Within 20 years of that first crisis, Rockefeller alone controlled 90 percent of the oil market. He found an opportunity in a crisis.
The coronavirus crisis has plunged us all into a global health catastrophe and an economic downturn. It has dramatically redefined what a normal life means. It would be helpful for us to look for the opportunity in this disaster. At such times, it's useful to realize that in both Chinese and Japanese, the word crisis is written with two symbols signifying “danger” and “opportunity.” Every crisis, while deeply unsettling, contains the seeds of opportunity.
Here are seven seeds of opportunity to plant as you face your crisis.
1. Reflect on who you are.
Several years ago, three dedicated Christian businessmen in my church lost their jobs. After several weeks of job searching, they came to me individually to talk. Interestingly, each wanted to know what I thought about him leaving the business sector and enrolling in seminary to pursue a ministerial vocation. As they spoke, my questions were: "Why are you considering such an alternative? Why are you thinking of this option currently in your life? What caused you to consider such a career change?” One common thread ran through each man’s story. Each prefaced his remarks by saying, “You know, I’ve been doing a lot of serious thinking lately.”
These were fine Christian laymen. Eventually, they found jobs, and none enrolled in seminary. But by their admission, it took the loss of a job to jar them out of complacency to ask reflective questions.
Crises provide us with an opportunity to reflect on who we are and where we are going. They offer the pause to consider other options and avenues.
2. Reconsider what you have accepted.
Lowell “Bud” Paxson was running an AM radio station in Clearwater, Florida. In 1977, one of his advertisers found himself in a financial crunch and could not afford to pay for airtime. Instead, he offered Bud what seemed a desperate deal. He would pay for the airtime in the currency he had: Rival can openers.
What can a radio station do with a box of red can openers? Bud might have simply sent them back and put his collections department on the advertiser. He could have given them away as gifts to his other corporate customers. But instead, he instructed one of his hosts to sell the can openers on the air.
To everyone’s surprise, this desperate move proved a brilliant one. The can openers sold faster than anyone expected and gave Bud a radical new business model. Instead of selling advertising to customers who sold products, maybe Bud could just sell the products himself!
A few years later, Bud got the financial backing to launch a cable channel to pursue this business model fully. The channel, named the “Home Shopping Network” (today HSN), would simply sell products on the air 24 hours per day.
The outcome of this story is well known. HSN quickly took off. It was soon carried by cable companies around the country and then expanded into other languages and countries. It spurned an entirely new media category.
Crises allow us to break comfortable patterns of behavior. Had Bud simply been paid in cash, he would have no reason to try selling can openers on air. He would have probably continued doing what he was doing, selling advertising. We feel no urge to change what seems to be working, so when our options are acceptable, we repeat what we've done before.
In this dilemma lies the gift of crisis. It provides the opportunity to reconsider what we have accepted.
3. Rise to the top.
A crisis has a way of letting the cream rise to the top. During a disaster, those with the right skill sets and talent—even if they are not the identified leaders or top performers—have a way of rising to meet the challenge, to showcase their skills, to bloom where they are planted, to get the best from others.
Pro football player Kurt Warner was cut from the Green Bay Packers in 1994 and took the only job he could, bagging groceries for $5.50/hour at a local store in Iowa. He then spent the next three seasons as an undrafted football player in the Arena Football and NFL Europe leagues. In 1999, the St. Louis Rams returned from finishing last with a 4-1 record to starting their season in crisis. Their starting quarterback, Trent Green, tore his ACL during a pre-season game. It looked as if the team were on the verge of another disastrous season. Newly signed, second-string quarterback Kurt Warner answered the call that season, throwing for 4,353 yards, 41 touchdown passes, and winning 13 games. Then he won the Super Bowl by attempting 45 passes without an interception and throwing two touchdowns for a record 414 yards. Kurt Warner went from supermarket bagboy to Super Bowl MVP, and the Rams, a mediocre team at best, coalesced around their unexpected leader to rise to the challenge and beat the odds to transform into world champions.
Crises provide the opportunity for under the radar people to shine, to show their worth, and to excel when others thought they couldn’t.
4. Reconnect with people.
Too often, when faced with a crisis, the human tendency is to isolate ourselves from others, going into hiding. It’s during these times; we most need to connect with others for help, support, encouragement, and strength. Especially, people who provide a mentoring, coaching, and directional role. These people see our blind spots. They love us enough not to let us make stupid mistakes.
I once faced a personal crisis, stemming from a person who was verbally attacking me with lies and innuendoes. This tension was creating stress at home and frustration in every area of my life. I was mad. I had lunch with my close friend Wilbur and splattered my anger all over him and how I wanted to unload on my enemy. Being the genuine, mature friend that he was, he let me erupt. Tactfully, Wilbur pointed out to me how destructive such an attack would be. He loved me enough to prevent me from making a stupid mistake.
A crisis provides an opportunity to seek out those people who will encourage us and inspire us to be the best we can be.
5. Receive a blessing.
All too often, I cannot correctly interpret what is going on in life at the moment. It is difficult to make sense of all the pain and trials that come my way. Sometimes I cannot tell if what’s happening to me is a blessing or a curse, especially if I am in the midst of a crisis.
When I was playing high school basketball, I collided with a teammate going for a loose ball. He came out of the collision, barely scathed. I, on the other hand, had busted my lip, and my two front teeth were dislodged with one hanging on by the nerve. Rushed to a dentist, he stitched up my mouth and put my teeth back where they belonged.
What appeared to be a horrible accident turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Before that night, a noticeable gap was visible between my two front teeth. When the dentist repositioned my teeth, he was able to align them, so there was no gap. I walked away from his office with a bruised face, stitches in my lip, and a new smile.
As a boy, Thomas Edison received a blow on his ear that impaired his hearing. But later, he believed his deafness was a blessing, saving from distractions. Now, he could concentrate, resulting in some of the great inventions.
Victor Hugo, a literary genius of France, was exiled from his country by Napoleon. But out of that period of exile arose some of his most creative works. When he later returned home in triumph, he asked, “Why was I not exiled earlier?”
Helen Keller became blind and deaf, faced obstacle after obstacle in her life. However, on more than one occasion, she confided, "I thank God for my obstacles, for through them, I have found myself, my work and my God.”
George Frederick Handel was at a low point in his life. His money was gone, and his creditors hounded him, threatening him with imprisonment. His right side became paralyzed, and his health deteriorated. For a brief time, he wanted to give up. Amid the darkness, he picked himself up and began to do the only thing he knew to do—write music. And out of that despair, he wrote the oratorio known as Messiah, which many consider the most significant piece of church music in history.
Crises often reveal blessings. When the current of the crisis moves the sand, we often discover a treasure.
6. React with perseverance.
On a consumer flight from Portland, Maine, to Boston, the pilot heard an unusual noise near the rear of the aircraft. Henry Dempsey turned the controls over to his co-pilot and went back to check it out. As he reached the tail section, the plane hit an air pocket, and Dempsey was tossed against the rear door. He quickly discovered the source of the mysterious noise. The back door had not been appropriately latched before takeoff, and it fell open. Dempsey was instantly sucked out of the jet.
The co-pilot, seeing the red light on the control panel that indicated an open door, radioed the nearest airport requesting permission to make an emergency landing. He reported that Dempsey had fallen out of the plane and requested that a helicopter be dispatched to search the area of the ocean.
After the plane had landed, the ground crew found Henry Dempsey holding onto the outdoor ladder of the aircraft. Somehow, he had caught the ladder and managed to hold on for 10 minutes as the plane flew 200mph at an altitude of 4,000 feet. What is more, as the plane made its approach and landed, Dempsey had kept his head from hitting the runway, a mere 12 inches away. According to news reports, it took several airport personnel more than a few minutes to pry the pilot’s fingers from the ladder.
That is a picture of perseverance—the ability to hang on when it would have been more natural to let go.
A crisis provides us with an opportunity to keep going when it would be easier to give up. So, don’t quit. Never give up. Keep going. Hold on. Like Henry Dempsey, do not let go.
7. Respond in faith.
Crises, by their very nature, are frightening and threatening. There is a tendency to retreat to the past—what is familiar, what is comfortable, what is known.
When the Israelites left Egypt in a mad dash, the Red Sea stopped them. They faced a crisis of monumental proportions. What would they do? They panicked, fearing the unknown. They wanted to retreat--to go back to Egypt. God says to Moses, their leader, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward” (Ex. 14:15 NASB). They chose to move forward in faith.
Some forty years later, the Israelites confronted another body of water—the Jordan River, not as big as the Red Sea and with no one pursuing them from the rear. But, they, nevertheless, were apprehensive. To Joshua, leading the children of Israel into the unchartered area of the Promised Land, God said, “Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you for your own” (Jos. 1:11 NIV).
Crises are a prime opportunity to display faith. To move past the dangers to meet the possibilities of a new day, to move ahead in life, to grow, always requires faith. As we respond in faith, the unknown becomes known, the darkness becomes light, the night becomes day. Faith is like walking toward an automatic sliding door which only opens as we move toward it.
Facing a crisis feels like life's rug jerked from under us. But remember, God is under the rug. He will catch you, support you, encourage you, and soften the blow of the fall. You can count on him for that. He can be trusted.
Let me close with an Oswald Chamber’s quote: “It is no use to pray for the old days; stand square where you are and make the present better than any past has been. Base all on your relationship to God and go forward, and presently you will find that what is emerging is infinitely better than the past ever was.”