Saturday, September 24, 2011

Keep Your Eyes on the Goal: Part 3

When we understand what the goal is and we come to grips with who we are, then we can run the race with abandonment. Paul could see the goal clearly. He was delighted to give everything he had to reach the goal. He ran the race with enthusiasm; in God’s strength. We get a taste of Paul’s holy abandonment in Philippians 3:13.  “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it but one thing I do, forgetting what is behind and straining for what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus”. 

            It was a crisp autumn day as the teams gathered for the High School Section cross-country meet at Crown College. The runners were anxious and excited as the starting time for their race drew near. This was a significant race because it determined who would advance to the State cross-country meet. The girls ran their race first. The teams gathered at the starting line eager for the race to begin. The gun went off and the mass of runners surged forward, each runner jockeying for a better position in the pack. On this occasion the runners crossed an open field and then disappeared from view. When they finally reemerged the mass of runners had spread out so that there were small clumps of girls running together. The lead runners had put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack. The final stretch of the race brought them back across the open field toward the finish line. The lead runner pushed hard and crossed the finish. She was followed closely by a second runner. Not far behind came two more runners each pushing hard. One was slightly in front of the other, but just yards before the finish the fourth place runner gave all she had and passed the girl in front of her to finish in third place. It was a thrilling finish to the race. But I don’t want you to miss a significant, but easily overlooked, detail.  The girl who pressed hard and finished third didn’t have to do that.  The first 10 runners were going to the state competition.  That was the ultimate goal. She had already earned her spot at the State meet.  She could have easily coasted into the finish, but instead she gave everything she had all the way to the end. 

            That was the kind of race that Paul ran. He gave everything he had all the way to the end.  He was willing to cut the anchor ropes of the past that held him back. Paul let go of his misguided zealousness that fueled his hatred of the Church. He also let go of a stellar career in service for Christ. He set aside all of his success to run all the way to the finish. No runner can run well looking over his shoulder. Paul knew he could not run the race well by constantly looking back. So Paul committed himself to forgetting the past and staying focused on the future.   He did not discount his past, he just didn’t live there.  He put all his effort in moving toward the goal.  He didn’t waste his energy trying to recreate the past. He didn’t allow himself to be distracted by side issues.

            Paul had his eye on the prize. He had a clear idea of why he was running the race. In Philippians 3:12 he writes “Not that I have already attained all this, or have been made perfect, but I press on to take hold that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”.  Paul used a play on words to create a vivid image. God had taken hold of Paul on the road to Damascus. Now Paul was striving to take hold of Christ. The ultimate prize for Paul was knowing Christ. He was willing to do whatever it took to attain that prize. Paul was not talking about winning his salvation.  Paul knew that he could in no way earn his salvation. He made this clear in his letter to the Ephesians. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) He was running the race to win the prize of knowing Christ intimately and personally. To know Christ, to really know Christ, that is winning the prize. 
            Paul gave his maximum effort to win the prize. There’s a difference between going for a jog and running a race.  When you are out for a jog you can set whatever pace you like. If you want to stop and walk for a while you can. But when you’re in a race, you don’t hold back.  You give everything that you have.  That is what it means to run a race.  We are running in the most important race of all; the race of life. We are part of Christ’s team and our goal is to run for Him.  Do your best to eliminate the distractions that would keep you from running the race well. Let go of the things in your past that weight you down and keep you looking back.  Put all your effort into the things that will move you forward. 

            To the untrained eye running looks pretty simple, but it is not. The goal in running is to get your momentum moving forward not side to side. Untrained runners often expend energy inefficiently. It is common to see a runner swinging his arms across his body and bobbing his head from side to side. Some runners get into the habit of striding slightly to the side, alternating with each step. These things expend energy that could be better used to move forward. A talented runner will align her arms, legs and feet so that all of her momentum is moving forward.  As we run the race of life we should pay attention to the way we are running. Just running is not enough. If we take the time to examine our lives we may discover that we are not running as efficiently as we might. In this most important race of all we want to focus our energy on moving forward toward the goal.

            So as you run your race keep your eyes on the goal. There is no greater goal in life than knowing Christ and helping others to know him. Don’t settle for anything less. Strive to win the prize that God has set before you. It is attainable, but you have to get on the track and run the race. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Keep Your Eyes on the Goal: Part 2

Understanding the goal of our spiritual journey is the first step to running well. After we understand the goal we need to be honest about our current situation.  In Philippians 3:12 Paul writes:  “Not that I have already attained all this or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.”  These are interesting words for the apostle Paul to write. Philippians is one of the last letters Paul wrote.  He was in a prison in Rome awaiting his death. During those days of reflection, as he looked back over his life, there was much he could have been satisfied with. He had planted many churches and influenced countless numbers of people. Yet, as he reflects on his life what does he say?  I haven’t arrived.  I have not yet attained the goal.

            We have all met “him” or “her” in one form or another.  We’re going to call “him” Steve.  Steve is the best at everything… in his own mind.  You know who I’m referring to.  Steve is the person who, as soon as you say something, has to come up with something better.  You buy a new HP Pavilion laptop that you are really excited about. You show it to Steve, but he’s not impressed. Instead he tells you all about the features of his new MacBook Pro. You comment that you finally ran a mile in 6 minutes. He counters with, “That’s nothing. I routinely run the mile in 5 minutes, and I don’t even break a sweat.” At that point you are ready to strangle Steve.  No matter what you do, he can do it better.  The problem with Steve is that when you put him to the test, he fails every time.  Steve suffers from a lack of an accurate understanding of who he really is. Now before we get too hard on Steve, take a look in the mirror. There are times when we all have inflated views of who we are and what we have accomplished.

            Paul was realistic about his own performance.  He had no false illusions about his life.  He was unwilling to rest on his past successes.  Instead he was fully aware that the race was not yet over. He had not yet attained the goal. 

            Paul had good reason to be proud of his life. He had all the right credentials.  In Philippians 3:4-6 Paul boldly lays out his credentials for all to examine. “If anyone else thinks he has reason to put confidence in the flesh, I have more.  Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, in regard to the law of Pharisee, as for zeal persecuting the church, as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” Paul’s papers were in order. He was the top of his class. At this point in his life, he could have retired.  He could have kicked back, put his feet up and said, I’ve done everything I can do and it’s time to rest.

            Instead of resting on his past Paul was very honest that he was still a work in progress. He knew that God wasn’t done with him yet.  He had set high standards for himself and he had no false illusion that he had reached those standards.  The ultimate goal was still out in front of him. Rather than pull back, he continued to press forward with everything he had. Paul was motivated to keep running the race.  There is excitement in Paul’s words. I can almost see him bouncing as he dictates them. The race is not done yet, it isn’t over, there’s more ahead.

            Paul set for himself what the business world calls BHAGs; Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Most of us tend to set manageable goals. No one likes to fail, so we set goals we know we can accomplish. After a while those goals no longer motivate us. Instead of striving for something greater we start coasting. That was not Paul’s approach to life. He always had a greater goal before him. Paul was excited about striving for the next level of his service for Christ.  There was much more to learn about Christ. There were parts of his spiritual journey that were still underdeveloped. Rather than pulling back, he was excited that there was still much to do.

            Picture yourself sitting at Starbucks with a Bold Pick of the Day in your hand, talking with the Apostle Paul. You and a few of your friends have gathered to spend an hour with Paul. You hold your cup up to your face, breathing in the rich aroma of the coffee, as Paul talks about his spiritual race. As you sip your coffee Paul looks you in the eyes and says, beware of getting side-tracked in the race. “For by the grace given me, I say to every one of you, do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with a measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has been given one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body and each member belongs to all the others.  We have different gifts according to the grace given us.  If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in the proportion to his faith.  If it is serving, let him serve.  If it is teaching, let him teach.  If it is encouraging, let him encourage.  If it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously.  If it is leadership, let him govern diligently.  If it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” Romans 12:3-8      Paul scans your small group and you can see excitement in his eyes. “Each of you has been gifted by God in different ways. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience the thrill of using your gifts to the maximum. Don’t settle for something less.  Don’t get side-tracked.”

             There are two extremes that need to be avoided as we run this race of the Christian life.  The first extreme is the Super Christian syndrome. This is characterized by an inflated view of a person’s spirituality. Super Christian believes that she has arrived spiritually and she wants everyone to know it. Any faults or failures are ignored or rationalized away. Super Christian looks down on those who have not yet figured out the Christian life. She feigns pity for those lesser mortals who still struggle with sin, failure and a lack of knowledge. This person believes that the race is already over and they won.

            The other extreme is the “I’m a Worm” syndrome. This is characterized by a total lack of self-worth. This person sees themselves as having nothing to offer to the Kingdom of God. When they look in the mirror all they see is a failure. They are unable to see the gifts and talents that God has given them. This is the person who is so self-defeated they never even try to run the race. 

            Paul challenges us to be realistic runners, knowing both our assets and our obstacles. Having an inflated view of ourselves hinders us from running the race.  It keeps us from being honest about what we need from Christ.  Having an inflated view of assets sets us up to depend upon ourselves instead of God.  On the other hand denying the gifts and talents God has given us is not humility but ingratitude. God has given each of us gifts that he wants us to use for His glory. Refusing to use our gifts out of a false sense of humility doesn’t please God, it angers Him.  God is saddened when we waste the talents He has poured into our lives. God wants us to be fully aware of our limits so that we can thrive. He calls us to live in the dynamic tension between who we are and who we are becoming.  I think God wants us to live with a good dose of positive discontent; being excited about where we are on our journey but not satisfied to stay there. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Keep Your Eyes on the Goal

Ability is what you are capable of doing.
Motivation determines what you do.
Attitude determines how well you do it.

--Lou Holtz

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:10-14 (NIV)

            Do you ever find yourself getting distracted? It can happen so easily. It happens to all of us from time to time. Many restaurants today are equipped with multiple TVs staring at you from every possible angle. You try your best to ignore them as you eat your lunch, but before you know it you are staring open-mouthed at a television watching something you cannot hear and you probably don’t understand.  We have all had the experience of talking with a friend when something else grabs your attention.  Suddenly you’re someplace else.  A few minutes later you awaken to the reality that you have no idea what your friend has been talking about. It can be very embarrassing to be caught not listening.

            Sometimes when we get distracted it causes real damage in our lives.  As an associate chaplain at the hospital I get called in to the ER when there has been an accident. On one occasion I was called in to attend to a young girl who had driven off the road and rolled her car. Her cell phone had rung and she reached over to the passenger seat to answer it. In that split second of being distracted she drove off the road.  If you have been driving for any length of time you have had your share of close calls and near misses because of a distracted moment.

            We can get distracted spiritually as well, often with very negative results. It happens when we focus on what others are doing or not doing. We can get very engrossed in the performance of others and in the process lose our focus on what God wants us to do.  It happens when we let lesser important things push the important things off to the side. Minor things become major things in our mind so that we spend our energies on things that really don’t matter.  Satan is delighted when we get upset over inconsequential matters. He rejoices when we become enthralled with superficial projects. If he can get us to “stare at the TV” he can keep us from advancing the Kingdom of God.
            As we run the race of faith, we need to keep our eyes firmly on the goal God has set before us.  When a runner competes in a race it is important to keep focused forward. Races have been lost because a runner has looked back. When running a cross-country race it is important to know what is in front of you. If you get distracted you can get tripped up or take a wrong turn. When we get distracted spiritually we veer off course and lose our way. In order to run the race well we need to keep our eyes on the road ahead. 

            In order to stay on course we need to be clear about the goal. Having a clear picture of the goal shapes everything that we do.  It determines how we will spend our limited resources. We can see examples of this in the world of business. The founder of Dominos Pizza was asked what made his company so successful. He replied that what made them successful was knowing their goal. He stated that Dominos doesn’t sell pizza, they sell delivery.  What makes them stand apart from the other pizza places is that their goal is to be the best at delivering pizza.  It’s not the pizza, it’s the delivery.

            Starbucks is another example. Did you know that Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee?  Starbucks intentionally sells an experience.  Go to their website and look it up.  Their stated goal is to create a community experience for you.  They just happen to center it around very expensive, very strong coffee! 

            As followers of Jesus Christ, we need to be clear about our goal. Our goal is to know Christ and make Him known to others. In Philippians 3:10 the apostle Paul writes these words: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings becoming like him in his death and so somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead”. 

            Paul had a clear and compelling vision of his goal. He never forgot why he was running the race.  Paul was the star runner on the team.  He could have allowed his accomplishments to distract him from the race but he didn’t.  He had a clear understanding of the goal.  He knew exactly where he was headed.  Paul set his goal on knowing Christ.  Paul wanted a personal, experiential knowledge of Christ. He was not satisfied with a purely intellectual understanding of Christ. He desired an intimate relationship with Christ.

            Paul was clear about what this relationship would look like. He wanted to know Christ in the power of His resurrection. The power of Christ’s resurrection is new life.  Paul knew all about the new life available through Christ. He had experienced it first hand, as God transformed him from a vicious enemy to a powerful ally. Paul wrote often about putting off the old life and putting on the new life in Christ. Paul wanted an ever greater experience of new life.  For Paul, the resurrection wasn’t some kind of historical event; it was a dynamic everyday experience. It was a moment-by-moment power that infused his life. 

            Paul also desired to know Christ by sharing in Christ’s sufferings.  Does that make you uncomfortable at all?  It does me!  I don’t like to suffer.  Do you? We are an anti-suffering society.  We fight hard against suffering. We have drug stores filled with thousands of pills, ointments and creams to alleviate pain. Is Paul really saying that he wants to suffer? No, I think what he is saying is he is willing to pay the price to stay close to Jesus.

            If you want to be a better runner, who do you run with?  You run with the better runners.  At first it can be a painful experience, but if you persist it pays off.  Committing to train with someone else is sharing in their suffering. You do it not because you like the pain, but to attain the goal.  That is the image Paul is using.  He committed to identifying with Christ in his earthly struggles so that he could attain the goal. He was willing to pay the price and face the struggles in order to follow Jesus. We will never have a full experience of the power of Christ if we are unwilling to share in his sufferings as Paul did.  

            There was another aspect of Paul’s relationship with Christ. He wanted to know what it meant to become like Christ in his death.  Paul was not being morbid. He wanted to live out the depth of commitment that Jesus had. Going to the cross was an act of total obedience for Jesus.  He was letting go of everything and putting it in the Father’s hands. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus struggled with the path that was before him. He prayed fervently that God would open another path. But in the end his prayer was not my will but yours be done. As it says in Philippians 2:8, Jesus was “obedient to death – even death on a cross.”  That was the level of commitment Paul was striving for. He struggled along the way just like we struggle. He was tempted to hold back and not give his all. But his greatest desire was to know what it means to die with Christ.  Paul set his sights on the highest of standards. In Galatians 2:20, Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

            We need to guard against settling for a lesser goal.  Satan has placed many alternative goals before us.  If we allow them to they will consume us. We cannot afford to settle for something less than the real thing.  Our goal is clear: to know Christ and to help others know Him.  As we strive to know Christ better, others will see Christ through us. Jesus said that people see Him when they see us living out our love for Him. We want to help each other see Jesus Christ whether for the first time or the thousandth time.  We want to help each other to grow in our relationship with Christ. The highest goal we can have to is to know Christ. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Is There Room in the Middle for Me?

A journey toward personal clarity

                I have spent much of my life in the middle. I am the middle child of three boys. Many of the pictures of us when we were kids have me standing in the middle. Growing up I found myself looking up at my older brother and looking back at my younger brother. In school I was an average student. I pastor a mid-sized church; not a mega church, not a small church.
                When I was in seminary I found myself in the middle of the theological spectrum. I was (and am) uncomfortable at either end of the theological continuum. Yet I felt constantly under pressure to choose. Since those days I have struggled with the question is there room in the middle for me?
                I once heard a speaker talk about the stages of maturity. When we are children we are eager to learn. We are excited about all of the new information that we can attain. As we enter adolescence and beyond we come to a place where we think we have it all figured out. In our mind we have all of the answers and can’t understand why others don’t. We have a word for this stage; it is sophomoric. It means conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature. It is interesting that we use the term sophomore for second year students in both High School and College. They know just enough to be dangerous. Some people, unfortunately, never progress beyond this stage. Most people will pass through to another stage called disillusionment. During this stage a person begins to question everything. They begin to have doubts about the extent of their knowledge and understanding. If a person stays in this stage too long they become cynical. The final stage of maturity is coming to the place where we understand that there are some things we know for sure and many things that we may never understand.
                As with so many aspects of life we rarely progress through these stages in a linear fashion. Instead, most of us experience each of these stages multiple times in our lives. Each time we enter into a new stage of life we find ourselves beginning a new phase of maturity. We may feel very confident in one area of our lives and feel totally clueless in another. But overall the truly mature person understands that although they may comprehend some things there will always be some things just outside of their grasp. This is exactly how I feel when it comes to theology.
                As I reflect upon my spiritual journey I can identify each of the above stages of maturity. I have felt exhilaration, confidence, despair and calm assurance. At times I have felt confident that I have settled a matter in my heart only to have some new personal discovery shake up my neat categories. There was a time when I felt I had all of the answers and times when I have felt I had none of the answers. I have forced myself to read and listen to others who see things differently to challenge me to keep exploring what I believe. I am often uncomfortable in these exchanges, and at times get defensive, but God always teaches me something significant. I tend to read and listen skeptically at first, but after I have had time to process I usually find some common ground to build upon.
                My intention is to invite you to take a spiritual journey of discovery with me. Before we take off I want to tell you about a different journey I took recently.
                Our oldest son has been working in Christian camping for the past several years. He spent two years working full time at Trout Lake Camps in Minnesota and then moved to Grace Adventures in Michigan. In the process he met a young lady and they became engaged. After they are married they will be living in Michigan. We had never visited the area where they will be living so we decided to take a trip. In preparation for this trip we did some homework. We went to AAA and got maps and guides to help us. We went on the internet and scouted out places to stay and things to see. As we planned our trip we focused on those areas we wanted to explore the most. We also looked for things to avoid and possible side trips that might enhance our experience. We tried to discover as much as we could before we left, knowing that there are always surprises along the way.
                The actual journey turned out to be different than we anticipated. To begin with we had miscalculated when we should arrive at Grace Adventures and so had to adjust the beginning of our trip. We had to find somewhere to spend the July 4th weekend. We knew this could be a problem. We were able to secure a room at a national chain motel in Muskegon. When we arrived the motel was in chaos. The cleaning staff had just walked out, there were 15 guests scheduled to arrive and they could not find our reservation, even though I had documentation. Eventually they were able to get us a room in another, less chaotic, motel for the weekend. Our journey was off and running.
                Throughout the rest of our trip we experienced a mix of excitement, discovery, disappointment and challenge. We had a great time with our son and his fiancĂ©. We discovered the Michigan sand dunes, which are awesome. We drove many miles. Our van broke down and we had to drive home without a reverse gear. Overall the trip was great, but it wasn’t what we had planned.
                I tell you all of this because I am inviting you to join me on a far more significant journey. Along the way there will be some places where we want to spend significant time. There will also be some side trips and some places we will avoid. We will make some discoveries and encounter some surprises. We can anticipate there will be many challenges to face and obstacles to overcome. In the months ahead I will periodically share some of my thoughts about God's sovereignty, free will, responsibility, salvation and the like. I invite your thoughts, reactions and perspective. Let us take this journey together and see what God has in store for us. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Running Into the Wind Makes You Stronger: Part 2

Prayer is such an important part of facing the challenges of life. Here is a poem I wrote about prayer. 

On Prayer

I went to prayer the other day
I traveled along a familiar way
On my knees I began to start
To open to my God my heart
The words began to flow with ease
My Father in heaven I sought to please
Then in my heart I heard a voice
To listen I had no choice
Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know I’ve traveled life’s sod
Be still and know that I’m aware
Of all the things that cause you care
Be still and know my love is pure
Be still and know my grace is sure
Be still and know that I am God
Together let us walk life’s sod
I went to prayer the other day
I returned home another way 



Running into the Wind Makes You Stronger: Part 2

James teaches us to embrace the tests of life. Just like when you are running into the wind, James challenges us to lean into the trials of life. James 1:2 “Consider it pure joy my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance”.

            We got a letter from school the other day for my daughter Elizabeth. It talked about taking advanced classes.  The school was giving certain kids an opportunity to do extra work.  I don’t know why any kid would want to do that, but some do. The letter came from the office of Student Development. Attached to the letter was another sheet of helpful hints. Across the top of the hints sheet it said, in big, bold letters, Overcoming Text Anxiety.  I thought, how fitting.  I have text anxiety all the time: whenever I am working on my computer. I guess the author of the letter had text anxiety because it should have said TEST anxiety – Overcoming Test Anxiety. 

            We all face test anxiety when we are confronted with the challenges of life. In light of James’ words maybe it is fitting to talk about text anxiety also. His words are hard to comprehend. It doesn’t seem reasonable to be joyful in the face of difficult situations.  Yet it is in embracing the test that we grow strong. 

            Trials are the testing ground of our faith; the place where we become strong.  We often test things in order to discover more about them.  We test things to discover their limits and their strengths.  If you’re a parent and you have an elementary age child, you have had the joy of going through Science Fair at least once. We have done many Science Fair projects in our house.  On one occasion we tested the tensile strength wire.  We took different kinds of wire and tested how far we could stretch them before they would break. That’s tensile strength: how far something will stretch before it breaks.

            The trials that we face are like that Science Fair project on tensile strength.  God stretches our faith to test it. He wants to show us that our faith is much stronger than we think it is. It is during times of trial that we learn about our strengths and weaknesses.  Our God given gifts and talents are revealed and refined by testing. We learn to trust others to come along side of us. These important lessons can only be learned through times of testing. Without trials many aspects of our faith remain dormant. Trials have a way of clarifying our faith like nothing else can. 

            Several years ago I took a group of youth to work at a camp for inner-city youth. Every evening there was a chapel service, which concluded with an invitation for kids to accept Jesus' offer of salvation. Those who responded were paired up with a counselor who would share the gospel with them. In preparation for our trip I had talked about how to do this with our youth. I told them that they needed to be ready to share the gospel with the campers. I gave them some resources to help them be prepared. Most of the youth didn’t take me seriously. The very first night at the camp the altar call was given. Several kids came forward. When they called for the counselors to come forward, one of my guys, like a deer in the headlights, walked up front. He was given four young boys to counsel. He was in a panic. He had no clue what to do. Maybe for the first time his faith was being put to the test.  How was he going to share his faith with these eager boys?  It didn’t seem so important to be able to articulate his faith before but all the sudden it seemed very important. He was being put to the test.

            Testing clarifies our perspective and leads us to perseverance.  Testing is God’s way of making us strong in our faith so that we can continue to run the race.  We don’t like tests, but they are essential if we’re going to grow.  Hebrews 12:11 says it this way: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” 

            Testing is uncomfortable. It’s hard to run into the wind but it’s running into the wind that makes us strong. When the wind is against you, you lean into the wind.  As you lean into the test God does His work in you. The trials of life are a spiritual adventure not to be escaped but to be embraced.  Adventures always include a certain amount of difficulty. That is what makes them an adventure. An adventure is an uncharted journey with great potential.  Along the way a person will face all kinds of difficulties, but she is willing to do it for the sake of the adventure.

            Living for Christ is a life-long adventure into uncharted territory.  God does not give us a detailed map to follow; instead he gives us a guide, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit uses the trials of life to teach us valuable lessons about God and ourselves. Sometimes we overcome our trials and sometimes we fail. God uses both our successes and our failures to shape us. Often our failures are more productive than our successes in shaping our lives.

            I remember vividly an experience I had in Inorganic Chemistry class. We were given the assignment of doing a distilling project, which took several hours. I carefully assembled my apparatus and began the long process. Step by step I worked my way through the assignment. I eagerly awaited the product that was to emerge from the end of my elaborate contraption. I waited and waited but nothing came out. After several hours of work I had produced no results. What do I do now, I thought? Sheepishly I wrote up the experiment just as it happened. I explained that something had gone wrong along the way and I gave several possible reasons. To my surprise I received full credit for the assignment; not because I got the right product, but I did the right thing.  I did exactly what the professor expected of me.  When it didn’t turn out right, I tried to figure out why.  When things in life don’t turn out right, instead of complaining, we should take the time to learn what went wrong. Failure teaches us what not to do the next time.  

            God puts trials in our lives for our good. They have a purpose. We often quote Romans 8:28 too glibly. It is a powerful statement about God’s grace. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called to his purpose.”  When we find ourselves running into the wind remember that God is using that situation for our good and His glory.  .

            Perseverance is an essential quality of our faith. It is an active quality, not a passive one. No one develops perseverance by sitting at home and doing nothing. James 1:4 says, “Perseverance must finish its work so you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything”.  Then in verse 12 James continues, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him”. 

            Hudson Taylor spent most of his life running into the wind.  Hudson Taylor was a missionary to China in the 1800’s. He went to China with a passion to reach the Chinese people for Christ. When he arrived in China what he found disturbed him. All the missionaries were living along the coast in missionary compounds inside of walled cities. They maintained all of their European customs, living totally separated lives from the Chinese. Consequently they were not making any headway in reaching the Chinese people.

            Hudson Taylor did a crazy thing.  He got rid of all his European clothes and began to dress like a Chinese person. He routinely left the walled city to penetrate the interior of the country. Instead of being applauded he was met with skepticism and resistance. He was viewed as a rebel. Other missionaries complained about him and put obstacles in his way. In spite of the resistance he kept pushing into the wind.  Eventually he founded the China Inland Mission. He recruited other missionaries to follow him into the interior for the cause of Christ. Thousands of people came to faith in Jesus Christ because he was willing to persevere in the face of stiff resistance. Like Hudson Taylor, we are called to persevere through the trials of life.  Perseverance is part of God’s refining process.  God uses perseverance to purify our faith and move us closer and closer to the goal.  It leads us toward both maturity and completeness in Christ. 

            Maturity is a moving target. It is relative to where a person is in life.  Being mature at age 5 is very different from being mature at age 35. Maturity is not static. It is dynamic. The goal of maturity is constantly advancing. It changes with every stage of life.  Maturity can be defined as being at the right place in life at the right time. The truly mature person knows that they have not arrived.

            In addition to moving us toward maturity, perseverance makes us complete. The word James uses does not mean to be perfect; it means to be without any missing parts. Think about it in terms of a car. A Model T Ford was a fully functioning, complete car.  A BMW is also a complete car but very different from the Model T. Each car has all the parts it needs to be fully functional.  For us to be complete is to have all the parts of our lives in place, with nothing missing.

            God rewards those who faithfully run into the wind with the crown of life. Ultimately the crown of life refers to our eternal salvation. Ultimately it means life everlasting with God. But we don’t have to wait for some undisclosed time in the future to experience that life.  We can experience that life right now. God does not want us to just endure until the end of our earthly life. He wants us to live life to the fullest. In fact, Jesus said that’s why He came. He didn’t come just for eternity, He came for the present. John 10:10 says it clearly, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy, but I have come that they may have life and have it to the full”.  Jesus’ desire for us is that we would experience the fullness of life right now. As we persevere through the trials of life we move closer to Christ.

            I installed an epoxy floor in my workshop.  What seemed like a simple project turned into a major affair. Before I could actually begin working on the floor I had to move everything out of the workshop.  Then I had to clean the sawdust out of the corners and get the floor prepared. Once I got the floor clean, I noticed how bad the walls looked so I decided to paint them before I put in the new floor. After a number of days I finally got everything painted, the floor put in and everything back in place. It took perseverance; tackling one thing at a time until the project was complete. Perseverance is what moves us toward the goal.

            We cannot let the trials of life stop us short of the goal.  Paul reminds us that our trials serve an important purpose.  II Corinthians 4:16-18 says, “Therefore we do not lose heart, though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day for our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us eternal glory that far outweighs them all; so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal”. Paul reminds us that the goal is out in front of us.  As we persevere through the trials, it allows us to rise above the norm.  It allows us to see beyond where we are today toward the ultimate goal. Persevering through the trials enriches our lives.  It solidifies our faith, making us strong so that we can accomplish God’s purposes.  

            Recently I was running into the wind and found myself uncontrollably smiling. I thought, this is weird, why am I smiling?  As I ran I experienced an overwhelming sense of joy, God’s joy. As I was running into the wind, I realized that all the trials I have faced in ministry are like running into the wind.  The things that I have faced have moved me one step closer to the goal.  They’ve made me much stronger in my faith and in my ability to do ministry because I have been running against the wind.

Do you feel like you’re running into the wind?  Don’t give up the race. The more you learn to trust Christ in the midst of your struggles the more God will transform your struggle into joy.  For when you run into the wind with joy, God can do great things in your life.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Running Into the Wind Makes You Stronger: Part 1

You have a choice.
You can throw in the towel, or you can use it to wipe the sweat off of your face.
--Gatorade


James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:1-4 (NIV)

            I do most of my running along a bike path that follows a county road.  To get to the bike path I run down my driveway and follow the highway for about a ½ mile.  Many times as I make the turn onto the bike path I am confronted with a stiff wind. There is not much along the bike path to shield me from the wind; it is mostly corn fields on both sides of the road. Most days I can expect a west wind to be blowing into my face.  The wind can be very strong at times so I have to lean into it and push myself to keep going. It would be easy on those really windy days to just turn around and go home. There comes a point in my run when I do turn around and head for home. At that point something marvelous happens. The wind, which has been fighting me up to this point, is now at your back. It feels like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders.  I feel light and strong as I make my way home.  It’s wonderful having that wind-assisted run.

            When I first started running again I thought of the wind as a nuisance.  I would grit my teeth, put my head down and run into it.  One day it dawned on me that running into the wind was really a blessing.  When you run into the wind, it makes you stronger: not when you run with the wind, but when you run against the wind. I began to view the really windy days as a challenge to be overcome.

            On this journey we call the Christian life we are often running against the wind.  Facing resistance is a common experience for every follower of Jesus. In fact, Jesus told us that we should expect it.  In John 16:33 Jesus said, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart, I have overcome the world.”  During our life’s race we are going to be running into the wind more than we won’t be.  It will be in our faces. At times it will be very strong. Running into the wind can be discouraging and tiring.  It can feel like we’re being pushed backwards. Then something happens to shift the wind.  God changes our direction or our circumstances and we feel like we can fly. Those are glorious moments of refreshment and relief. Because running into the wind is common, there are some things that we need to keep in mind. 

            When you are running into the wind keep a positive perspective. James 1:2 says, “Consider it pure joy my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds”. When we face resistance in our lives our first reaction is often less than positive. Yet James tells us to consider it pure joy.

            I can be a complainer.  I don’t like that about myself, but I have to confess that it is true.   I have an uncanny ability to see the negative side of almost any circumstance. When I face resistance I sometimes respond with an over-inflated sense of justice. At the same time I have a low tolerance for pain, so when things get uncomfortable I complain about them. One time I called up a good friend of mine to complain about some situation I was facing. I told him that I felt like I was running into the wind all the time and always facing resistance. He just listened.  He let me get it all out, and then he said, “Do you feel better now?”  I said, “Well, yeah”.  He said, “Good.  Now stop complaining and get back in the race.” 

            In a sense, James is saying, stop complaining! He challenges our negative attitude and instead calls us to see trials as a means through which we can grow.  James had a far different attitude toward running into the wind than we do – a much better attitude.  He tells us to consider it pure joy when we are put to the test. Joy is not being happy because we’re being tested, but being confident in the grace of God in our lives.  We experience the grace of God more keenly during times of testing.  When things are going great it is easy to coast along as if we don’t need His grace. It’s when we’re tested that we are fully aware of our need for grace.

            James was a realist.  He knew that trials were going to come as part of our experience.  They are a normal part of following Christ.  Sometimes we naively think that if we are followers of Christ all of the trials of life will be eliminated. The reality is that, more times than not, when we put our faith in Christ we face more resistance not less.  We have turned around and we are running into the wind instead of with the wind.

            James tells us to expect trouble, but don’t let it overwhelm us.  He understood that trials were going to come from many different places, and in many different forms. Some of them will be trials of our own making. We make bad choices and we face the results of those bad choices.  How many times have you or I made a bad choice and then complained because we got a negative consequence from a bad choice we made?  We quickly want to deflect this trial and say that it is someone else’s fault.  Of course it has to be – it can’t be because of something I did. We are faced with this kind of trial all the time.

            We also face trials because of our faith.  Following Jesus puts us at odds with the prevailing culture.  Jesus said that.  No servant is greater than his master.  If they rejected me, they’re going to reject you.  Get used to it!  It is part of what it means to follow Christ.

            There is another kind of trial that all of us face. It is the kind of trial that comes from living in a fallen world. This kind of trial can be very dramatic such as getting cancer or having a heart attack. It can also be mundane; the normal stuff of living in a world that is off center with God. Instead of looking for someone to blame we need to accept the truth that we live in a fallen world. Bad things happen to everyone, believer and unbeliever alike.   

            What makes the difference in these trials is how we respond to them. We can let them overwhelm us or we can face them head on. James tells us to embrace all our trials as opportunities to grow stronger. Trials test our spiritual mettle. They afford us an opportunity to demonstrate our faith in real-life situations.  God uses trials in our lives as a refining fire for our faith.

            When the apostles faced opposition, they saw it as an opportunity to be strong witnesses for Jesus Christ.  In Acts 5:40-41 we can see the courage of the apostles.  The apostles had been brought before the Sanhedrin where they were flogged and told to never preach in the name of Jesus again. The apostles left the Sanhedrin moaning and crying and complaining about what a raw deal they had gotten.  Wait! That is not what they did. “They left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the name”. The disciples didn’t complain, they rejoiced in what God was doing.

            The struggles we face in life are an opportunity to advance in our faith. If we choose to grumble our way through trials, we just make them harder.  When we face trials with joy, we can find confidence in God’s grace.  God has promised that no matter what we face he will walk with us through it. We can handle any trial life throws at us when we put our confidence in Christ.

            I Corinthians 10:13 is a powerful statement about God’s provision in a time of trial. The word “temptation” in this verse is the same word that is translated as “trials” in James.  If we could plug “trials” in for “temptations” the verse reads like this.  “No trial has seized you except what is common to man and God is faithful.  He will not let you be tried beyond what you can bear, but when you are put to the test, he will also provide a way out so you can stand up under it.”  God promises us that He will not let us be crushed by the trials of life. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

9/11 Remembered

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on our nation. Here is a piece that I wrote in response to 9/11.


LEST WE FORGET
9/11/11

They stood at their posts unaware.
The morning sun glistened on the water of the bay.
It promised to be a day like many others.
Then the planes came.
They came out of the sky without warning.
And with them came death and destruction.
Many were buried in the rubble never to be recovered.
A nation was awakened from its sleep.
Its heart broken, its resolve steeled.
A nation thrust into a war it did not choose nor did it want.
A date that would not be forgotten.
A date that would go down in infamy.
The date was December 7, 1941
The place, Pearl Harbor.

Time, the great duller of our senses, clouds the past.
The emotions, so vivid, so powerful, fade to a vague memory.
The image fades and then disappears from our consciousness.
Passion replaced with complacency.
Resolve melts into routine.

They sat at their desks unaware.
The morning sun glistened on the water of the bay.
It promised to be a day like many others.
Then the planes came.
They came out of the sky without warning.
And with them came death and destruction.
Many were buried in the rubble never to be recovered.
A nation was awakened from its sleep.
Its heart was broken.
Its soul was stirred.
The name of God sprang to our lips.
A long forgotten source of help in time of trouble.
A forgotten relationship momentarily reawakened.
The date was September 11, 2001.
The place, New York City, the Pentagon, Pennsylvania.

The memory has already begun to fade.
Let us not forget. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Run Your Race Well: Part 3


If we are going to run the race of life well we need to know the course. “Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who with the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning at shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2

            At High School cross-country meets there is often more than one race. Usually there are junior varsity races for both boys and girls and varsity races for both boys and girls. The courses are not the same.  It is important for the teams competing to walk the course before the race. They need to know which course they are running.  You can’t run someone else’s course and win the race. During a meet I attended some of the lead runners in the boys’ varsity race took a wrong turn and began to follow the girls’ course. They ran quite a distance before they figured out that they’d gone the wrong way.  In the end it cost them the race because they ran the wrong course.

            Hebrews 12 reminds us that we need to run the right course. God has marked out a course for each of us. He has done this through the gifts and talents that he has given us as well as the circumstances of life we encounter. He desires for us to run the race that He has marked out for us. We get messed up when we start to run someone else’s race. We have all done this at different times in our lives. In High School the popular kids tend to be the athletes, so we try our best to be an athlete. We admire someone who is a great singer so we try to become a singer. We see a person excelling in business so we try to mimic what that person does. We may be mildly successful in our efforts, but most of the time they lead to frustration and discouragement. That’s because we are trying to run someone else’s race. God has a race marked out for each of us that we must discover, explore and pursue. Our personal race may take us in very different directions from those around us. But when we are running our race we can feel it. It feels right. We are energized and enthusiastic. It doesn’t mean that our race is always easy; it is not. It does mean that when we are running the race God has marked out for us we will feel fulfilled.

            At times we will get discouraged. Even though we are following the right course there are rough stretches along the way. When those times come we need to run with perseverance.  Perseverance means to run with energy, enthusiasm and endurance. One of the greatest temptations in any distance race is to stop and walk. Your legs grow heavy and your breathing gets labored. Your body screams out for you to stop running because it hurts too much to keep going.  Every distance runner has experienced this. When you hit that point you have a decision to make. Will I give in or will I persevere? The great runners know that if they persevere they will get through the rough spots.

            In the race of life there will be many rough spots. The temptation is to stop running. As followers of Christ we stop running when we start just going through the motions.  We become spiritual zombies, doing the same things over and over, but there is no real life there.  When we stop running the race we drain away the vitality that God desires for us. We most fully experience God’s grace when we give our whole-hearted effort to the race and persevere through the rough spots.

            One of the best ways to run with perseverance is to follow the lead runner. I have discovered that when I am running a race I can draw strength from the other runners. I usually do my training runs alone. At times it is hard for me to push myself. In contrast, when I am running with a group of runners I am energized to push harder. I ran my first ½ marathon in 2010. The race organizers provided pace runners. Pace runners are skilled runners who are able to set a specific pace and maintain it for the whole race. If your goal is to finish the race in two hours you would follow the pace runner with the two hour sign. Following a pace runner not only keeps you on your desired pace, it energizes you to keep going.

             Hebrews tells us to keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the ultimate pace runner. Jesus is the one who designed the course.  He knows it intimately. He has run the race before us and is uniquely qualified to lead us through our race.  When we fix our eyes on Jesus we can run with joy. We can run with joy because Jesus has conquered sin and death. We can run with joy because Jesus didn’t give up on his race. Hebrews 12: 2 says for the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, scorned the shame and sat down at the right hand of the Father.  His race took him through some very difficult situations, but he ran with joy because he knew the course and kept his eyes on the goal.

            The Living History Farms Race takes place the Saturday before Thanksgiving in Urbandale, Iowa.  It has to be one of the craziest races in the country. Several thousand people dress up in all manner of costumes to run a 7-mile race through fields, streams and mud. For many of the participants the goal of the race is to get as muddy and dirty as you possibly can. It is usually cold and sometimes wet, yet people run with joy! There is excitement and enthusiasm throughout the race. It is not important who wins the race. The joy is in being part of it.  It’s a wonderful image of how we should run our race.

            God has placed us within a community of faith called the church. It is a very diverse community with many different outward expressions of our faith. Together we are running the race of life for the glory of God. Corporately and individually God wants us to run the race as full participants with joy. In Colossians 3:15-17 Paul talks about this community experience. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Paul calls us to encourage each other along the way as we give our best for the glory of God.  

            As I think about running the race with joy I am reminded of Eric Liddle. Part of his life’s story is depicted in the movie Chariots of Fire. Eric was a gifted runner and a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. He set his sights on running in the Olympics. In the movie his sister comes to him and chides him because she sees his running as interfering with his preparations to go to China as a missionary (which eventually he does). In a tender and powerful moment he says to her, “I am committed to be a missionary in China, but you need to understand that God has made me fast and when I run, I feel God’s pleasure”. I can, in a small way, identify with Eric Liddle’s words. When I use the gifts that God has given to me, I feel God’s pleasure. When we understand the race that God has marked out for us, and we pursue that race, we experience the delight of God.

            John Moxin knows what it is to run the race with joy.  John is a short man with a distinct British accent and a huge heart for God. John is dyslexic, which has made reading difficult for him all of his life. When God entered his life, he decided that God was calling him to be a preacher. He began applying to Bible schools but because of his dyslexia we was rejected.  He was told that because of his handicap he would never make it as a preacher.  But God had other plans for John.  God gave John I Corinthians 1:26:  “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential, not many were of noble birth, but God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong, he chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are so that no one may boast before him.” John read that verse and he knew that was for him.  For the last 30 years John Moxin has been preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Northern Ireland. He has been stoned and run out of town but he’s never given up the race.  He runs the race with passion and with joy. 

            We have been called to run the race marked out for us. How well are you running your race? “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Hebrews 12:1-3 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Run Your Race Well: Part 2


In order to run the race of life well we need to remove the obstacles that would get in our way. At the beginning of cross-country season our High School team takes a day to clear the course. They run their home meets at a beautiful park with trails that lead through the woods. These trails need to be cleared of debris. A low hanging branch or a fallen limb can cause a runner to stumble and fall. In order to run the best race the obstacles have to be removed.

Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles...” We are instructed to divest ourselves of all those things that hinder us from running the race; those things that would distract us and keep us from doing our very best.  There are two different kinds of encumbrances that get in our way; good things that distract us and bad things that entrap us.

A new track season had just begun. I had purchased a new lock for my track locker. It was one with a key because I didn’t like remembering the combination. As I dressed for the meet, I put the key on a chain around my neck and stuck it inside my uniform. I was scheduled to run the 2-mile race that day. When the time came I took my place at the starting line and anxiously waited for the gun to sound. The starter gave the commands; take your mark, set, bang! We were off. As I rounded the first turn the key around my neck began to swing wildly. Needless to say it was distracting as it repeatedly hit me in the face. As I came around the track I heard the coach screaming out, “Throw it away”.  I didn’t.  I hung on to it.  I didn’t want to lose it. Have you ever tried to run hanging onto a key attached to a chain around your neck?  Needless to say I didn’t run very well. What I needed to do was get rid of the thing that hindered me, but I was more afraid of what I might lose. 

The fear of losing something good often keeps us from experiencing something better. Just before a race begins the runners take off their warm-ups.  Warm-ups are great when you’re cold and you need to get your muscles loosened up, but when it comes time to run they must come off. They will hinder you from doing your best. There is nothing wrong with warm-ups. They are just not appropriate for running the race.  As we prepare to run our race throughout this life, we need to get rid of those things that encumber us, those things that may be good things, but distract us from running the race.

Life offers us many good things. If we are not careful we can fill our lives with so many good things that we become weighed down and unable to strive for what is best. As we mature in our faith we learn to see the difference between what is good and what is best. If a good thing is hindering us from running our race well, then we need to “throw it away.” As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “"Everything is permissible"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive.” In order to run the race well we must let go of some good things so we don’t miss out on the best things. We can live “the good life” but fail to run the good race that God has marked out before us.

There is another kind of obstacle that we need to clear out of our way. Hebrews calls it the sin that so easily entangles us. We don’t like to talk about sin. It makes us uncomfortable. Instead we talk about making a mistake or a poor decision. Sometimes we rationalize away our sin by claiming that we are victims of other people’s actions or some circumstance out of our control. The Bible is very clear that we are all sinners. Romans 3:23 says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Sin is a reality that we must deal with in our lives.

Sin is such a common part of our lives that we often don’t recognize its presence. Children are notorious for not tying their shoes. They run around with shoelaces flopping in the air oblivious to the potential danger involved. So parents are constantly reminding their children to tie their shoes so that don’t trip and fall. No serious runner would ever run a race with his shoes untied. It would be a recipe for disaster. Even more so, no runner would attempt to run a race with his shoelaces tied together! He would be tripped up at his first stride. Every runner makes sure to eliminate anything that would entangle her and trip her up.

Recently I read an article on the Internet titled “Police thankful for baggy pants.”  The story was about some juveniles that had robbed a store.  The police arrived in time to catch them in the act.  The juveniles tried to run away but were unsuccessful. They were wearing baggy pants that hung down low. As they tried to flee their pants fell down to their knees, tripping them up. Can you imagine the scene? It would be comic. There is the thief trying to run while holding onto his loot and pulling up his pants at the same time. Even as this makes us smile, it should remind us of our own attempts to hang onto our sin and run the race of life.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are keenly aware of sin in our own lives. There are certain things that trip us up time and time again. It could be anger. When things don’t go our way we explode and hurt others. It could be pride. As we look in the mirror we glory in our superior abilities. It could be lust; lust for things or for pleasure. Whatever it may be there is some area in our lives that always seems to be lurking in the shadows waiting to take center stage. By God’s grace we need to take steps to actively eliminate those things from our lives. One of the most helpful ways to do this is to confess this sin to a trusted friend. James 5:16 tells us, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”  The juveniles mentioned above intentionally put on those baggy pants and it tripped them up!  We do the same thing when we ignore the common sins in our lives. It is time to put off those things so that we can run the race well.  

Satan is the master of setting obstacles in our way. He is always watching for ways to trip us up. The more aware we are of our vulnerabilities, the better prepared we will be to side-step Satan’s traps. Here are some common obstacles that Satan likes to throw in our way.

One of Satan’s greatest tools against us as believing Christians is to get us over-committed to too many good things. We live in a society that values productivity. We often measure this by how busy we are. If a person is really busy we assume that they are highly committed and productive. Satan loves this. He tempts us to fill our lives with so many activities that there’s no margin left in our lives. He convinces us that busyness is the same as faithful service to God. As we add one thing on top of another we become overwhelmed. Instead of feeling fulfilled and joyful be become discouraged and resentful. We collapse under the weight of all of our commitments. Part of running the race well is learning to say no to many good things so that you can say yes to the best things. God has gifted you to flourish in certain areas. Discover these areas and then pursue them with all of your heart.  

In John 17 we get the chance to eavesdrop on Jesus as he prays to the Father. In verse 4 he says, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” I love that passage. At the end of his earthly ministry Jesus was able to say he had done everything the Father had asked him to do. Did He do everything there was to do?  No!  Were there still people who needed to be healed?  Yes!  Were there still demons that needed to be cast out?  Of course there were. He did everything God asked Him to do. He completed the work the Father had given to him.

We need to guard against the trap of trying to do everything. In our desire to be faithful we often say yes to too many things. Ask God for discernment about what to accept and what to reject. When we come to the end of our lives the Father is not going to ask us if we were busy. Instead He will ask us if we did what He asked us to do. If we are going to run the race well we need to guard against over-commitment.

Another common obstacle that Satan puts in our way is fear. Fear is a powerful emotion that can take control of our lives. Fear is the antithesis of trust. When we let fear rule in our hearts we are really admitting that we don’t fully trust God. Everyone would like a secure future, but that is not always the race marked out for us. The fear that our future may not be secure can keep us from running the race. If we elevate security to the highest place then we will always take the safe course in life. The fear of failure can immobilize us. We cannot expect to be 100% successful in life. Failure is a normal part of life. But if we are afraid to fail we will never take the needed risks in life that allow us to grow and mature. Most of us want to be liked by others. Being accepted by our community is important. But if we put undue emphasis on the opinions of others we will constantly live with the fear of rejection. It will cause us to become chameleons, adapting our lives to the wishes of others while losing our true identity. These are just a few of the fears that can be major stumbling blocks to running the race of faith. As with sin, the best way to deal with our fears is to bring them out into the light. Name your fears. Confide in a trusted friend and ask them to help you conquer your fears. One of the most common commands in the Bible is, “do not be afraid.” God doesn’t want you to live in fear. Paul’s words to the Romans still hold true for us today. “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." Romans 8:15 We can trust our heavenly Father.

Have you ever felt like you were just going through the motions, and it didn't really bother you? That is called complacency. I think this is one of the obstacles that hinders us most often in running the race. We all like to be comfortable but it is possible to become too comfortable. Complacency allows us to coast along in life without giving much effort. An “I don’t care” attitude runs counter to everything Jesus taught. What we do with our lives matters for eternity. Jesus warned us that we will be held accountable for the things we say and do. “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” Matthew 12:36 When we forget that there is something of significance at stake we become vulnerable to being tripped up.  

We need to ask God for the courage to throw off the things that trip us up, to divest ourselves of the obstacles that so easily entangle us, so we can run the race of life well.