Monday, October 24, 2011

Strive for the Prize: part 3

The third piece of our strategy for running the race of life is to run with persistence. “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27 NIV)

            One summer I coached T-ball. It was one of the craziest experiences that I have ever had. The challenge in T-ball is to keep the children focused on the game. You have to be constantly calling them back to the game because they are so easily distracted. We had outfielders who chased butterflies and picked dandelions during the game. Sometimes they would get distracted and just walk off the field. We had to constantly remind the children to stay in their positions. It was not unusual for a ball to be hit to the outfield and have the whole team chase it down. We had some pretty wild games.

            We are often like those children playing T-ball. We are so easily distracted by the things of the world that we forget about the race. Paul pleads with us to stay focused on race. Like a good T-ball coach he demonstrated how to run the race well. Paul was not willing to just go through the motions of discipleship. He refused to be aimless but clearly directed all his efforts toward the goal. He disciplined himself so that he would not be disqualified for the prize. I am `     from competition because of a lack of discipline on and off the field. Maybe Paul had witnessed this too. He was determined that it would not happen to him. Paul made every effort to be in control of his physical, emotional and spiritual being. His greatest opposition was not from without but from within. He knew that at times he was his worst enemy. So he rigorously disciplined himself to stay in shape for the race. Paul was not afraid of losing his salvation, but he was concerned about losing his reward.

            As fully devoted followers of Christ we must guard against just going through the motions. Too many Christians lose the race at the end. We can get sloppy or careless and stumble over the finish line. We settle for getting the T-shirt that says participant rather than striving for the real prize. Godly discipline is what is needed to keep us on track. We cannot afford to just go through the motions because there is too much at stake. Eternity hangs in the balance.

            Sometimes we substitute running place for striving toward the goal. Running in place may look good but it doesn’t move us forward. Running on a treadmill will give you exercise, but when you step off you are in the same place where you started. I once saw a commercial that showed a group of people running on treadmills. Suddenly a runner broke through the window and began running through a field. It ended with the caption, “You are not a hamster.” God does not want us to run on a spiritual treadmill. He wants us to run the race in the real world. In order to run in the real world we need to go into strict training to hone our skills. Just like a personal trainer develops an exercise plan for his client, God has given us spiritual exercises that will help us run the race. He calls us to develop our spiritual muscles through prayer, study, service, and worship, just to name a few.

            Most of us tend to get in a rut in life. I recently read an article about exercising. It stated that most people limit the benefits of exercise by doing the same routine over and over. Our muscles become accustomed to the routine and stop developing. The article suggested that a person should vary their workout to keep their bodies’ metabolism active. We can get into a rut spiritually as well. We follow the same program year after year and wonder why we are not making progress. It is time for some serious examination of our workout plan. Instead of settling for the status quo we need to expand our spiritual disciplines for the greatest impact. We don’t have to be slaves to the past or to the latest fad. Instead we can trust the Holy Spirit. Like a personal trainer, to guide us into new areas of growth. Too many people are aimlessly running the race of life without making genuine progress. God has set the prize before us, now let us run in such a way as to win the prize!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Strive for the Prize: part 2

In addition to running with purpose we also need to run with perspective. In 1 Corinthians 9:25 Paul reminds us of the determination of a serious runner. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”

            In 2006 there were 37,954 competitors in the New York City marathon. Each of those competitors knew that there could be only one winner in their division. Each of those competitors had a goal for which they were running. Each goal was set from the perspective of the individual runner. For the elite runners the goal was to win. For most of the runners the goal was to beat a certain time or to attain a certain level of achievement. Each runner understood exactly what he or she was competing for.

            When it comes to running the race of life Paul tells us to set our sights high. He reminds us that the true competition begins on the practice fields. Serious athletes spend many hours training. They are willing to sacrifice many things to attain their goal. They may go on a special diet. They are willing to endure hours of difficult workouts. They may forgo social events in order to be adequately prepared for the competition. Athletes do all this training to win a temporary prize. It may be a ribbon or a trophy or even a cash prize. In the Isthmian games they won a simple laurel wreath. No matter what the prize is it will not last. Winning any competition is exciting but short-lived. For a few moments the winner stands in the spotlight and then it’s back to the practice field. The actual prize that is won can never compare to the effort expended to get it.

            In the race of life we are competing for a prize that will last forever. Unlike in an athletic competition each of us can win the prize. Paul tells us that God is ready to bestow the prize on each one who runs the race well. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8 NIV) The crown we are striving for is not fleeting but eternal. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade--kept in heaven for you,” (1 Peter 1:3-4 NIV)

            One of the dangers we face is developing a wrong perspective about the race we are running. We can let unhealthy competition sidetrack us from our goal. Churches do this when they start comparing themselves to other churches. The goal can quickly shift from making disciples to outshining the church down the street. Individual believers can lose their perspective when they start competing with other believers. Believers start arguing over things like roles, spiritual gifts and life-style. While these things are happening the race passes by. There is only one proper perspective and that is to run the race for the glory of Christ. When we run to please Him what other churches or believers are doing or not doing no longer matters.

            Examining our motives is an important part of keeping our perspective. Are we running out of habit? Is going to church just a part of our regular routine like brushing our teeth and reading the paper? Are we running out of tradition? Tradition is a powerful force in our lives. It serves a valuable purpose in placing us within the flow of history. But tradition for tradition’s sake is a serious barrier to running the race. Are we running out of guilt? Many people carry an enormous weight of guilt that chains them to a faith they don’t understand or even accept. Are we running the race to please our family? None of these things are the proper motivation for running the race of faith. Instead we should run with great joy and determination because we have been called out of darkness into the glorious light of Christ. Our true motivation is gratitude for what Christ has done for us and commitment to follow Him whatever the cost.

            The prize that we strive for is not temporal but eternal. We do not run for the fleeting praise of people or precarious power or the accumulation of things. We run for an eternal prize. "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Strive for the Prize

This week my daughter ran her last cross country race of her career. It was a bittersweet experience. She truly wanted to do her best knowing that she will not have this experience again. We have many opportunities in life to give our best for Christ. Each is unique and each is unrepeatable. As followers of Christ we need to constantly strive to win the prize not just put in our time.

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars
- Les Brown

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (NIV)

            Every year, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, thousands of runners gather at the Living History Farm in Urbandale, Iowa for the largest cross-country run in the country. Each one of the runners has a goal. Some are there to compete and win the race. Many are there to have fun and enjoy the challenge. My goal is to survive.
            In a limited way, the Living History Farms race is a picture of the larger race of life. There are many serious people who run the race of life to win. There are a number who live all of their lives in survival mode. There are a large number of people who just want to have fun. As Christians we know that this race of life is not just a 70 or 80 year endurance run. We know that it is a race for eternity. How we run the race does matter. The decisions we make along the way will affect us personally, as well as other people, for all of eternity. This is a race that ebbs and flows, it has seasons, and it changes course. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is probably the best summary of the race of life.
       “There is a time for everything,
        and a season for every activity under heaven:
        a time to be born and a time to die,
        a time to plant and a time to uproot,
        a time to kill and a time to heal,
        a time to tear down and a time to build,
        a time to weep and a time to laugh,
        a time to mourn and a time to dance,
        a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
        a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
        a time to search and a time to give up,
        a time to keep and a time to throw away,
        a time to tear and a time to mend,
        a time to be silent and a time to speak,
        a time to love and a time to hate,
        a time for war and a time for peace.”

            As we weave our way through the seasons of life, we need to keep our eyes on the goal and strive for the prize. Every good runner has a strategy for how he or she will run the race before them. When it comes to the race of life, the Apostle Paul gives us a three-part strategy for how we should run.

            Paul tells us to run the race of life with purpose. In 1 Corinthians 9:24 Paul writes, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”

            Most coaches, from time to time, have to deal with an athlete who is less than committed to the team. We see them at all levels of athletic competition. This kind of athlete has gotten the idea that he is a star and therefore should be the center of attention. They compete for their own glory. A good coach, when he becomes aware that this attitude is creeping in, will pull the athlete aside and confront the issue. He will challenge the athlete with an important question. “Why are you on this team?”

            Sometimes as followers of Christ we lose our focus. We begin to believe that the Christian life is all about us. It is about getting what I want in life and eliminating the things I don’t want. This attitude can creep into our lives so subtly that we don’t recognize it at first. So it is important from time to time for us to stop and ask ourselves the question, “Why am I a follower of Jesus Christ?”

            Paul was concerned that people understand what being a follower of Jesus is all about. To help us understand the race before us Paul draws an illustration from the world of athletic competition. In the ancient world there were two major athletic competitions. The first was the Olympic games held in Rome and the second was the Isthmian games held in Corinth. The people to whom Paul was writing would have been very familiar with the Isthmian games, just as we are familiar with the Olympic Games. . 
            Paul reminded his readers that a race is run for a purpose. All of the runners are striving for the same goal, to win the prize. Every runner knows that only one will win the prize. Yet they give everything that they have. No one runs in the Olympics just to run. They give their best. Each one runs with the hope of winning the prize. Each runner strives and pushes and strains toward the goal with every ounce of energy they have.

            Paul challenges us to live the Christian life with that same intensity. We are involved in a spiritual competition with eternal consequences. Just like no Olympic athlete would intentionally jog through their race, so we should not jog through ours either. Living the Christian life takes effort and intentionality. It requires that we keep our focus as we run.

            One thing that helps an athlete do their best is having a winning attitude. If an athlete believes he or she can win they will play with greater intensity and determination. As we run the race that is the Christian life, having a winning attitude will make a big difference. Sometimes we forget that being a Christian is more than just waiting for eternity. We are not here to mark time but to give our best for Christ and His kingdom.  

            Every athlete who aspires to compete in the Olympics knows that it takes maximum effort to get there. Before an athlete can compete in the Olympics he or she must compete in many preliminary races. Each race is important. Each race is a stepping stone toward the goal. At each level of competition the runner must prove himself. He must qualify for the next competition. As he or she masters each level they take one step closer to their goal.

            Paul challenges us to give our best effort to achieve God’s goals. As we progress in our spiritual journey there are many races to be run and many prizes to be won. Like a determined athlete we need to strive to win the prize at each level of the journey. Let me suggest three ways we can advance in our overall journey of faith.

            First, strive to grow in your relationship with Christ. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians he expressed his desire that they would grow deep and strong in their relationship with Christ. “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:16-19 NIV)

            Many believers in Christ begin their race with enthusiasm but fail to make significant progress. Their desire to follow Christ is genuine. They genuinely bow their knees to Him as Savior. But when the gun sounds they stay at the starting line.

            Recently I participated in the Living History Farms Race. There were over 6,000 runners gathered at the starting area. The atmosphere was charged with excitement and enthusiasm. When the gun sounded all of the runners surged forward. But there was another group of people gathered at the starting line. When the gun sounded they cheered, but they didn’t move. We call them spectators. Too many Christians chose to be spiritual spectators. They cheer on those who are growing in their faith, but they stay at the starting line. 

            Like any relationship, our relationship with Christ takes effort to develop. It is not enough to be satisfied with initial introductions. If we want to grow in our faith then we have to work on our relationship with Christ. This is called discipleship. Discipleship is not the next step for those who want to be more serious about their faith. Discipleship is the expected pathway of all believers. When the gun sounds God expects us to strive to get to know Christ better and better. Just like with any relationship this takes time and effort. At first we get to know the basics, but as our relationship progresses we can go deeper and deeper. Growing in our relationship with Christ is one of the most exciting things that we can do. It is a real, personal relationship that we can experience right now. We don’t have to wait until eternity to experience it.

            Second, strive to help others discover Jesus. One of Jesus’ clearest expectations of those who follow Him is that we would invite others to join us in the race. Before Jesus physically left His disciples for the last time He gave them these words of instruction. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8 NIV)

            All three of my children have run cross-country in school. One of the things that I have found fascinating and encouraging about cross-country is that it is a very inclusive sport. Everyone gets to run in the race. There are no bench players in cross-country. In addition, cross-country runners are great advocates for their sport. There is always room for one more. You could say that they are evangelists for cross-country.

            Jesus commanded us to invite others into the spiritual race. He wants us to be positive advocates for the journey of faith. A witness is someone who tells what they have seen, heard or experienced. Jesus said that we would be His witnesses. Wherever we go we demonstrate what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Our example can be either positive or negative. The more enthusiastic we are about our faith the more attractive our faith will be to others. No one wants to join a team where the other players are less than enthusiastic.

            As witnesses for Christ we invite others to join us on the journey. We don’t just invite people to run the race of faith, but to run the race with us. Another thing I like about cross-country is how the runners help each other. They encourage each other along the way. The older, more experienced runners help orient and train the younger, less experienced runners. That is the image that Jesus gives us of making disciples. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20 NIV)

            When we invite others into the journey of faith we come along side of them, helping them to grow in their faith. We intentionally incorporate them into the fellowship of believers, helping them get oriented to this new life. Then we instruct them about how to run the race. It is a cooperative effort as we encourage one another to do our best.

            Jesus has not asked us to make disciples on our own. He has given us the Holy Spirit as our coach and guide. Every athlete has learned to depend on his or her coach for guidance. A good coach can see things that the athlete might miss. A good coach brings years of experience, training and expertise to the table. A wise athlete learns to listen to the coach. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would coach us through the process of making disciples. We invite others onto the journey by the authority of Christ and through the power of the Spirit.

            Third, strive to bring glory to God through your actions. Peter reminds us that how we run the race matters. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV)

            It has often been said, actions speak louder than words. This is nowhere more true than on the journey of faith. Most people do not care about our doctrine. They want to know what difference our faith makes in our everyday lives. The way we live our lives either confirms or denies what we say we believe. Martin Luther is credited with this profound statement. “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary use words.” 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Is There Room in the Middle for Me?

Are God's Sovereignty and Free Will mutually Exclusive?

I want to suggest that God’s sovereignty and man’s free will are not mutually exclusive. When God created our world he placed Adam in the Garden. He gave him complete freedom to do what he desired to do with one exception. He forbade him from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God set before Adam a choice; he could obey God’s command and receive His blessing or disobey God’s command and face His wrath. We know what happened. Did God set Adam and Eve up? Did God make them disobey in order to set His larger plan in motion? I don’t think so. If that were the case then God is the author of sin, and the Bible clearly teaches that that is not true. So the logical conclusion is that Adam and Eve had genuine free will in that situation.

                Let’s look at it from another point of view. Are people accountable for their actions or has God determined how they will live? Consider Matthew 12:33-37 (NIV). "Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." It is clear from this teaching of Jesus that God is going to hold people accountable for their actions in the final judgment. If they truly do not have a choice about following Christ or not then on what basis can God hold them accountable? We do not vilify the lion for killing the gazelle because that is the nature of the tiger. The tiger has no choice. Yet we hold men accountable for killing animals, precisely because they do have a choice.

                Here is a current example. A man in our area is being charged in Federal Court for destroying pelican eggs and chicks because they are a protected species. But if a raccoon had done the same damage we would not have held the raccoon culpable. The man had a choice and the raccoon did not.
If God is going to hold people accountable for their actions then they must have a choice in the matter. The same is true of rewards. Jesus was very open about promising rewards to those who follow him and do the Father’s will. If a person really doesn’t have the free will to not do the Father’s will, then on what basis are rewards given? Without free will both rewards and punishment become at best meaningless and at worse arbitrary.

                Some might argue that the issue of free will and God’s sovereignty is primarily talking about salvation. God has predetermined who will be saved and who will not be saved. People have no choice in this matter. All the rest of life people have the freedom to exercise their will. There are a couple of ways this seems very wrong to me. First, it seems out of character for God to take away man’s free will regarding the most important aspect of their life and then grant them free will on things that don’t matter in light of eternity. Second, in 2 Peter 3:9 it states that God wants everyone to come to repentance. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. If this statement is true, then how can God willfully deny a person the opportunity to repent and be saved? Third, the Bible is very clear that God is love. John 3:16-17 articulates God’s plan for the world.  "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  These words are credited to Jesus. If God has predetermined that some will be saved and some will not be saved then either Jesus was mistaken or lying. I don’t believe either is true.
                I want to suggest an alternative view to the either/or approach to free will and God’s sovereignty. I affirm that God is sovereign and has the right and the power to do whatever He desires. That sovereignty gives Him the freedom to interact with humanity in a variety of ways without diminishing who He is. So, I suggest, that God has the right to call some specifically into his service, maybe apart from their will. Paul would be a prime example with his Damascus road encounter. Although you can make a case that Paul really was seeking God but was misguided in the way he was doing it. I also suggest that in the norm God openly invites people to receive the free gift that He has offered in Christ. Through the Holy Spirit God makes people aware of their sin and their lost state. He stirs the latent longing for God that is resident in every person because we are created in His image. It is up to the individual to respond positively or negatively. This is not a work or anything of merit but a simple response to God’s invitation. Last, it is very possible that God would harder certain individuals for a higher purpose, such as Pharaoh and Judas. I must confess that I still find it hard to accept that God would exclude a person from His presence for all of eternity against their will. What I am suggesting is that none of this diminishes God’s sovereignty. In fact it enhances it. If God is limited to act in the same way in every situation, then God is not sovereign after all but subject to some other higher power.

                That is enough for now. Let’s keep exploring. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Is There Room in the Middle for Me?

Sorry for the long lapse between posts. Sometimes life gets in the way. Today I would like to continue our conversation about finding a place in the middle of the theological spectrum.

Are Sovereignty and Free Will Mutually Exclusive?

                One of the questions that I have struggled with for many years is the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. Are these two things mutually exclusive? Is there a middle ground between these two concepts that preserves the integrity of both? To set the stage let’s take a quick look at each independently.

                According to Webster’s 7th new Collegiate Dictionary a sovereign is one who exercises supreme authority within a limited sphere. One who enjoys autonomy. Sovereignty is having supreme power, esp. over a body politic. A human example of someone with sovereignty is a king. A king has supreme authority over his kingdom. He can dictate the affairs of his subjects according to his will. In the purest sense there is no higher authority in a kingdom than the king. His word is law.

                When we speak of sovereignty as it relates to God we are speaking of His divine authority over all of creation and beyond. God has the authority to do whatever He desires according to His will. God is not limited by anything outside of Himself. Throughout the Bible we encounter examples of God’s sovereignty. For example Acts 17:26. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. Another example is in Proverbs 21:1. The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. These examples and many others show that God is supreme.

                Free will is the ability to choose. As persons created in the image of God we have been given a will. That will allows us to make choices in life. Unlike animals or plants that act primarily by instinct and are controlled by predetermined limits, human beings have the ability to interact with their environment and make creative choices. We are not bound by instinct to always do things the same way. This is a manifestation of the creative power of God in us.

                We can see the exercise of our free will every day in the myriad of choices that we make. Some of these choices are small and not very important. Some of these choices are of great significance and shape the course of our lives. As Americans we pride ourselves in our freedom; in our right to choose for ourselves the direction we will go.

                The Bible also speaks of our free will. In the book of Joshua we see Joshua confronting the people of Israel with a choice concerning who they would serve. "Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." (Joshua 24:14-15 (NIV)) In the book of Acts Peter confronted his audience with a choice. After boldly proclaiming the truth about Jesus’ death and resurrection he challenged the people to choose to follow Jesus.  When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?"  Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38 (NIV))

                Now here is the central issue before me. When it comes to a person becoming a follower of Jesus is it God’s sovereignty, man’s free will or some combination of both? I want to leave the question there for now. I believe in both God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, so I find myself caught in the middle. What do you think?