Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

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The Theory of Desirable Difficulty

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2013 Oct 03

There are a handful of authors that I have been so consistently impressed by that I feel compelled to read whatever they produce.  In fiction, there’s C.J. Sansom.  In terms of business or leadership, there’s Jim Collins.

And in a genre of writing hard to describe is Malcolm Gladwell.  His typical approach is to popularize research, mostly in the field of social science, that challenges conventional wisdom.  You may be familiar with some of his writings, such as The Tipping Point, Blink, or Outliers. 

His new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, has just been released.  And yes, it is just what the title promises. 

Gladwell explores two ideas:  first, how much of what we value in the world is produced from such lopsided conflicts as David and Goliath.   But second, and the more provocative of the two, is how we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong.

Consider his take on the classic biblical tale. 

First, the weaponry.  David was an expert “slinger,” which means the stone hurled at Goliath was with pinpoint accuracy at a velocity of thirty-four meters per second.  “In terms of stopping power, that is equivalent to a fair-size modern handgun.”

Further, Gladwell suggests that Goliath’s size was due to acromegaly, a disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland.  Often resulting in serious vision problems, this would account for Goliath’s need to be led by an attendant, thinking David had “sticks” (plural) instead of his one staff, and perhaps missing the tact his opponent was taking against him until too late.

So what gave the giant his size was also his source of greatest weakness.


David wasn’t the underdog.  Goliath was.  And everything we thought made David weak actually made him strong.

Moving from the pages of the Old Testaments to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the minds of cancer researchers and civil rights leaders, murder and the high cost of revenge, as well as the dynamics of successful and unsuccessful classrooms, Gladwell demonstrates “how the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty” and how the disadvantaged often have the advantage.

I was particularly drawn to the second part of the book, “The Theory of Desirable Difficulty.”  There he tells the story of David Boies, who credits his dyslexia for forcing him to compensate by developing skills of observation and memory.  Gladwell asks, “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child.  Or would you?”

Here lies a deeply important, and deeply biblical, idea.

As a pastor, I’m often confronted with the confusion and bewilderment surrounding why God might allow pain and suffering into a human life. 

I know one of the reasons.  It is to strengthen us, for what has wounded us most deeply is often what has made us who we are. 

Think of how it works with our muscles.  To build muscle, you have to actually tear the muscle.  And then, when it heals, the scar tissue builds the muscle up and strengthens it.

Biologists have witnessed this in their work among plants and animals for years.  They call it the adversity principle.  They have discovered that habitual, ongoing well-being is not good for a species.  An existence without challenge is not healthy. 

You see it in the flabby animals at a zoo that have their food delivered to them every day. 

You see it in rainforest trees.  Because water is everywhere, they don't have to extend their root system more than a few feet below the surface.  As a result, the slightest windstorm can knock it down.  But a tree that is planted in dry land has to send its roots down thirty feet or more in search of water.  Then, not even a gale force wind can knock those trees down.

It's no different with our life.  Our pain is often what has developed us, strengthened us, allowed us the ability to grow.

And that's what the Bible teaches:

"...we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3, NIV).

All to say, Gladwell is on to more than he might realize.  These ideas aren’t simply observations from social science,

…but spiritual science.

James Emery White



Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

James Dobson, When God Doesn’t Make Sense.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.