There is a dense forest behind my parents’ house where I grew up. In my youth, the trees had the illusion of being 200 feet tall while the woods themselves felt like a mile deep. I recall not being able to see through these woods to the other side. Thus, the thought of entering brought all manner of terrifying creatures and frightening things to mind. For many years, I didn’t frequent these woods very often — unless I was feeling extra brave or extra foolish.
But then time passed and I got older. The trees got smaller. The forest less dark. My fear, irrational or inflated as it may have been, diminished.
Now, as an adult, I still have my fears. If anything, they’ve merely changed forms. A dark and towering forest has morphed into a looming house payment and the challenges of parenthood. Fear, it would seem, is not something we simply grow out of. We are always facing down a new angst; a new dread, even as we get older.
This realization ought to challenge us. Since we know fear is a part of life, shouldn’t we better prepare ourselves for it? That would certainly make life more livable, wouldn’t it? Or are our fears something we simply must accept? That we must give in to the fact that even at our very best, at our most confident, there will always be mountains we are not meant to climb; enemies we cannot subdue.
Giants we cannot overcome.
The Giant and the Giant Killer
Before he was king of Israel, David was a shepherd boy tending to his father’s flock. He had a relatively simple life, yet that life would change forever the day his people, the Israelites, came to a standoff with their enemies, the Philistines. It was then that a Philistine champion, Goliath, stepped forward and announced a challenge to the Israelite army.
“Choose one man to come down here and fight me! If he kills me, then we will be your slaves. But if I kill him, you will be our slaves!” he declared. But the Israeli army cowered at the sight of Goliath. All except for David, the shepherd boy. He alone volunteered to fight Goliath.
On paper, the two could not have been more different. Goliath, the massive, one-man slaughterhouse vs. David, the lowly shepherd boy. And yet, when the time came to fight, David bested his adversary. With a sling in hand and sandals on his feet, David somehow managed to fling a rock right between the eyes of Goliath; in effect, knocking the Philistine to the ground and permitting David the opportunity to grab hold of his foe’s sword and slice off his head.
I can only imagine the shock of those in attendance. The victory meant the end of the conflict. And the beginning of David’s storied career in Israel.
To put it by today’s standards, it would have been akin to a high school second-stringer dunking on Lebron James. Or a Little League player crushing a 98-mph fastball into the left field bleachers. Or if you prefer, a first-time boxer throwing a single punch to knock out Mike Tyson.
How could a small boy, a no-name like David, overwhelm a warrior like Goliath? It’s practically inconceivable, let alone unbelievable. Goliath would have seen countless other enemies fall before him — many of whom would have been twice, maybe even three times the size of David. There’s no question Goliath was the favorite in this scenario. So, how did David do it? What was David’s secret? And why did so many others shrink with fear rather than face their enemy?
The first explanation for David’s victory might have been sheer luck. Somehow, due to the randomness of the universe, David just so happened to pull out a miracle when he needed it most. He selected a few stones and flung them as hard as he could towards his intended target. And when one of them hit right where he wanted it, he took advantage of his good fortune and cut off Goliath’s head before the giant could regain his footing. That’s possibility number one.
The second explanation could have been overconfidence on the part of Goliath. Seeing that his opponent was a non-soldier, Goliath might have been boasting, even goading David into hitting him. “Here’s a free shot”, he might have chided. “Come, have a go, if you like.” And in doing so, would have sealed his fate when David struck him perfectly. That’s scenario number two.
A third explanation, and more in line with the Biblical narrative, would have been David’s divine positioning. Since God knew David and would choose him to be king someday, it was impossible for David to lose. God would have broken Goliath’s legs or stricken the warrior blind even if David’s aim had been poor. Thus, David’s victory was inevitable.
Now, barring Goliath tripped out of clumsiness, was drunk, or David’s rock had a homing beacon, we still have three illustrations as to why things turned out the way they did. And to anyone who reads this story for the first time, one might think any of these interpretations to be solid.
Yet I’m willing to contend with all three. David may have had divine favor, but his victory wasn’t based solely on that or an abundance of luck. Nor for a lack of seriousness on the part of Goliath. David’s achievement was rooted in his preparedness. He knew he held an advantage, even if everyone else failed to notice.
How Does Any of This Hold Up Today?
Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and Outliers, reopened the case for David’s conquest over Goliath with a unique observation. In his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell posits that David was not the underdog whatsoever. In fact, it was Goliath who would have been disadvantaged from the onset. How is that so? Well, let’s look at the context.
For one, David was a shepherd. His job description would have included warding off predators like wolves and lions. In David’s time, a shepherd’s means by which to protect his flock would have been a sling; a military-grade leather sling. One that, according to Gladwell, could strike birds in mid-flight or hit objects 200 yards away. If David was any good at his job, then he would have been able to hit anything within a reasonable distance. A single strike meant instant death should he connect in a vulnerable area.
For two, Goliath was a larger-than-average man. He may have even suffered from a genetic defect like gigantism. Accounts of his size portray him as being “six cubits and a span”, which would have equated to somewhere around nine to 10 feet in height. With such a large girth, Goliath may have been awkward, if not imbalanced due to his extreme size. He walked into the valley with an attendant — a shield carrier — to make his challenge known. He was covered in heavy armor; the kind that would crush normal men beneath the immense weight. The tip of his spear alone weighed “six hundred shekels of iron”, hardly the gear of a speedy and able warrior. Up close, Goliath would have been intimidating. But his size would have slowed him down tremendously. A major flaw should his rival consider attacking from a distance.
And that is precisely what David did. Rather than facing Goliath on his own terms, David used the tools available to him. You could argue this was breaking the rules of honorable combat, but David was willing to fight smart, not foolish. Even when Saul, the current king of Israel, offers David his armor, David rejects it. He refuses to resource himself with something that he’s unfamiliar with. He even goes on to boast that he’s “killed lions” whenever they’ve come for his flock. This declaration of confidence doesn’t fit the mold of a scared underdog. It’s more befitting of a warrior ready to win.
Preparation is the First Step Towards Victory
David’s story is one of preparation; not luck. David had spent years protecting his sheep from dangers. He was a skilled marksman — a very lethal, very capable attendant. The soldiers of Israel’s army had been fighting their opponents with heavy infantry — swords, shields, and spears. And presented with the opportunity to end the fighting with one-on-one combat, conventional thinking would lead them to fight in the same manner they’d been doing all along. But David breaks that expectation and wins the day.
Our greatest fears can often feel like inescapable threats. Because they (our fears) want us to play by their rules. For example, let’s say I fear public speaking. In order to alleviate my fear of public speaking, I may choose vocations that will keep me from getting in front of people. If I fear failure, I may seek out activities that will only placate to my strengths. If I fear an ominous wooded landscape (like at my parents’ house), I may choose to avoid it rather than walk into (or even around it). But these solutions are all about avoidance, not about overcoming my fear.
Now, it’s totally sane to mention that sometimes our fears are clear and justifiable in avoiding. I wouldn’t poke a cobra with a stick just because I want to test my fear of snakes. Fear is often linked to wisdom. But in keeping with the example of David and Goliath — and the reality that transformation and growth may rest on the other side of a fearful situation — what if our paths of avoidance are the wrong ones? What if those choices don’t lead to success but rather mediocrity?
Mediocrity Says I Don’t Trust You
Have we considered that mediocrity is our destination should we avoid our fears? When faced with distress, we don’t contemplate where we are headed. There’s no time for it. Our only worry is getting away from the problem. However, where we wind up may be more of the same. Our fears don’t go away just because we run from them. As we’ve said earlier, they merely change forms — we don’t (and can’t) outrun them.
What are we to do then? One antidote for our fear is to trust ourselves. David trusted in his abilities. He had experience. He knew what he could do despite what his detractors said. And at a deeper level, he trusted God. David had the awareness that his training had led him to this moment. Trust and confidence weaved together a powerful combination. If trust was not present, David’s entire battle plan falls apart. He’s stuck wearing Saul’s armor. And consequently, he is served up on a platter for Goliath to devour.
David, as a result of his lack of trust, becomes just like any other soldier Goliath has fought. And is cut to pieces in the process. He becomes a number, not a king. Story over.
Again, there are moments when fear is good for us. But like David in the battle with Goliath, do we stare down our Goliath and cower because we sense impending doom? Or is it because we are just ill-equipped? If it’s the former, then we need to assess whether our fear is irrational or not. If it’s the latter, then we need to assess how we might equip ourselves for victory. We are only underdogs if we let the world define us that way. But any true champion knows that preparation and trust are the keys to victory.
We all have our Goliaths before us. If we prepare ourselves accordingly, we might topple that Goliath with ease. And what will be a shock to the world, will be of little shock to us. A win that’ll take us from mediocre expectation and propel us into radical, giant-sized transformation.