Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How to Run a Race (Part 2)

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, 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 3:12-14

The Winter Olympics are over, and the medal count is in. Russia won more medals than any other country. I know this because we track the medal count. In fact, it is hard to avoid hearing the medal count if you are watching any American coverage of the Olympics. We don't track which country has the most athletes compete or which country has the most fourth place finishes. We track which country wins the most medals. The Olympics is all about the medals. They are the reason the Olympians expend all that effort training. They are the reason the Olympians put off other normal life activities like getting married or having kids. In the balance, Olympians believe the chance to win a gold medal is worth it, so they strive to win with a singular focus and with every muscle in their bodies.

There is a prize for us as Christians too. A prize so great that the Bible says it's worth forgetting our old way of life and straining toward it with a singular focus. What is this prize?
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ... (Philippians 3:7-8)
The prize for which we strive is knowing Jesus. The Apostle Paul tells us in this passage that knowing Jesus is far better than anything else in the world. Everything else is like garbage compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus and Paul has gladly traded it all away in order to focus exclusively on knowing Him. That's what the Christian life is really all about isn't it? A closer relationship with Jesus. Of course it is. This is our prize, and unlike Olympic medals, we can take this prize with us when we die! The prize of knowing Jesus is eternal and the race we run as Christians is all about winning this prize.

Until we value knowing Jesus like this, we will never run a good race. Until we long to know Him above all else, we will constantly be distracted by lesser concerns. What we need is the singular focus of an Olympic athlete applied to the Christian faith. We need to fall so in love with knowing Jesus that everything else appears to us like garbage in comparison to its greatness.

Do you love Jesus like this? I know that I'm not there yet. This type of love affects every area of your life. It affects:
•How you raise your kids
•What you do with your money
•What you watch on TV or in movies
•Even your professional aspirations

I need God's work to move forward in my life in this area. If you do too, then join me in praying this prayer.
Lord, help me to fall more in love with you every day so that this world seems less and less attractive to me. Show me, Father, what I need to give up in order to run after knowing Jesus with all that I have. May I consider even the good things that stand between me and knowing Jesus to be trash compared to that great prize. Draw me ever nearer to your, Father. In Jesus' name, Amen.

For further reading...
  • Luke 14:25-25- See especially verse 33. We are called to give up everything in pursuit of Christ.
  • Jeremiah 9:23-24- Boast in knowing the Lord.
  • John 17:1-5- See especially verse 3. Eternal life is knowing the Father and the Son. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How to Run a Race (Part 1)

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, 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 3:12-14

The modern Olympics find their origin in the ancient Olympics which took place from over 700 years before Christ to almost 400 years after him (source). The New Testament was written during the time the ancient games were taking place, so several New Testament authors allude to the Olympic Games. In today’s passage, the Apostle Paul likens the Christian life to an Olympic race. He wants to teach Christians how to run a good race, and he boils his advice down to this: forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead. Over the next two weeks, we will look at these two pieces in turn.

First, Paul tells us that we must forget what is behind. The word Paul uses for forget means “to forget, neglecting, no longer caring for, given over to oblivion” (source). Paul is saying that Christians need to make a clean break from their way of living life before they accepted Christ. We must completely abandon it, because as long as we are looking to live like the past we cannot strain toward the life God calls us to.

“What was behind” for Paul is laid out in verses four through seven. Paul’s former way of life was full of religion and ritual lived out to try to earn God’s favor. The problem? God doesn’t grade on a curve. He doesn’t consider our worthiness in relation to other people, but in relation to His own holy perfection. Scripture tells us that our righteous deeds are all like filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Thus, Paul could never be good enough or perform the rituals well enough to stand before our perfect God having earned His favor. Thus, Paul learned that it is only the grace of God applied to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus that has the power to make us worthy of God’s acceptance. Having left this old way of relating to the world and to God behind, Paul is dead set on never turning back to it.

How do we live this out though? What is behind for us? For many of us what’s behind is not all that unlike Paul’s background. Many of us grew up in various forms of legalism trying to earn God’s favor as well. Others most certainly did not. Others grew up in the world with no religion to speak of, living for the moment, and doing whatever would bring pleasure or dull the pain. Whatever your background is, Paul’s exhortation holds. We must all neglect our old way of living. We must give it over to oblivion and make a complete and clean break. The tendency to fall back into old habits and old ways of relating to God is strong for all of us. So what can we do to prevent it?

Warren Wiersbe pulls a helpful illustration from these verses. He says that Paul is conjuring the image of runners in a race who all of the sudden decide to look behind them as they run. Can you imagine the comical and disastrous scene that would unfold if all the runners in an Olympic race started looking behind them as they ran? They would all but certainly collide and fall all over each other. His point, of course, is that it is just as disastrous and silly when Christians try to strain forward to their high call in heaven as they look backwards at their old way of living life (Be Joyful, p. 108, 1974).

So how can we avoid looking back? We all know that Olympians must have a carefully controlled diet if they are to compete at peak performance. So too, Christians must control what they take in spiritually. The most helpful thing I have found in my own life is a steady diet of the Word of God. I must be careful to remind myself that when I read the Bible daily I am not doing so in order to somehow impress God, but rather I am doing it for myself. I need to daily look into the mirror (James 1:22-24) of God’s Word and be reminded of my own sinfulness, God’s grace, and His unending forgiveness. This alone has the power to kill the arrogance of self-righteous legalism, or the ongoing shame and guilt tied to my sin. So, daily read God’s Word for your own health, and remind yourself not to turn back to your old way of life. Remind yourself that Christ saved you from that empty way of living. You left it behind. Don’t look back. Don’t keep the artifacts and the relics of that old life around to trip you up.* Make a clean break and give your old way of living over to oblivion.

For further reading...
  • James 1:22-24- God's Word is a mirror that we not only need to daily look into but we also need to act on what we see.
  • Isaiah 64:6- ALl of our righteousness is like filthy rags before God.
  • Luke 9:62- No one looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.
  • I Corinthians 9:24-27- Do you not know that not all the runners in the race get a prize.
  • Luke 14:33- Jesus asks for a clean break from our old life. He says that we must give up everything to become His disciple.

*Although there is no direct quote to be noted. Much of my thought in this last paragraph has been shaped by Paul David Tripp's book Dangerous Calling (2012). More specifically the idea that I need to daily read God's Word to be reminded of my own sin and be met with God's grace has been brought back to my attention by Tripp. Also, he applies the words "artifacts" and "relics" to refer to those holdovers of our pre-Christian selves that we find popping back up in our lives from time-to-time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore; those who are loyal have vanished from the human race. Everyone lies to their neighbor; they flatter with their lips but harbor deception in their hearts. May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue— those who say, “By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”
Psalm 12:1-4

Flattery seems harmless enough. So what if we "put a little extra butter on the bread" to make someone else feel good about himself? But flattery isn't just bending the truth a little in order to be nice to people. Flattery is buttering someone up with smooth words in order to get something from them. Flattery parades as something that is all about the other person. In reality it is always about the flatterer. He or she wants something and is willing to lie and deceive to get it. They flatter either in the hopes that it will endear them to the person who can give them what they want, or in order to gain the trust of someone whom they plan to betray and steal what they want from. Flattery is nothing more than manipulation for your own ends. The psalmist is right when he says "no one is faithful anymore... Everyone lies to their neighbor; they flatter with their lips but harbor deception in their hearts."

Listening to flattery is dangerous. Most people agree that flattery sets such an alluring trap because we are all a little too eager to read our own fan mail. We aren't suspicious of flattery because it feeds the vanity that already resides in our hearts. "Finally!", we think. "Someone recognizes me for how great I am." This unchecked and often unnoticed pride makes us all too willing to believe flattery's lies. Proverbs 29:5 rightly warns, "Those who flatter their neighbors are spreading nets for their feet." People don't flatter us to build up our self-esteem, but to take from us what they want. They are baiting us. The employee compliments his boss in order to get a promotion. For men to flatter women with lies in order to get sex is so common a dating practice today that it is hardly even looked down upon anymore.

What are we to do against those who would attack us with such deceptively friendly methods? How can the poor protect themselves from those who gain power through flattery and then use it to extort the needy? Turn to the Lord! Psalm 12 continues: "'Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,' says the Lord. 'I will protect them from those who malign them'” (Psalm 12:5). What an encouragement for the afflicted to hear that God Himself will come to their rescue! But dare they trust God's word? You can almost hear the afflicted scoff. "Sure! God says He will arise and protect me. It sounds too good to be true to me." But the psalmist anticipates this response. "And the words of the Lord are flawless, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times" (Psalm 12:6). He tells us that God's words are not like the flatterer's. God's words can be trusted. They are pure and true. Thus, we can say in confidence, "You, Lord, will keep the needy safe and will protect us forever from the wicked, who freely strut about when what is vile is honored by the human race" (Psalm 12:7-8).

So what can you do in the face of flattery?
  1. Turn to God for protection from those who would afflict you with power gained by deceptive means.
  2. Ask God for wisdom and discernment to identify flattery when someone tries to use it against you.
  3. Regularly read God's Word. It is only as we view ourselves in the light of the truth of His Word that we gain a realistic view of ourselves. This is the best way to kill that remaining pride in our hearts which makes us so susceptible to flattery.
  4. And guard your mouth! Remind yourself that the believer should never resort to flattery and manipulation in order to gain for himself what God is so very capable of providing for His children already.

For further reading...

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

When Enemies Loom Large

Psalm 5 tells the troubled heart where to find hope in the face of circumstances or enemies more powerful than itself. I can imagine Israel singing this psalm in times of trouble and learning from it the best course of action.
Listen to my words, Lord, consider my lament. Hear my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly. (Psalm 5:1-3)
There were many places David could have taken his cry for help when his enemies abounded. He could have assembled his mighty warriors to create a battle plan. He could have entreated a neighboring country to come to his aide. He could have tried to blunt the worry of his troubles through drink and other pleasures. But David runs to the Lord. He prays persistently morning by morning, placing his needs before the Lord while he waits in faith.

Do you face troubles or enemies today that are more than you can handle on your own? Pray persistently in faith.

But David does not stop at prayer. He intentionally shifts his perspective from the difficulty of his circumstances to the excellence of his God.
For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness; with you, evil people are not welcome. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence. You hate all who do wrong; you destroy those who tell lies. The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, Lord, detest. But I, by your great love, can come into your house; in reverence I bow down toward your holy temple. (Psalm 5:4-7)
There are times in this world, when your circumstances will not align with what you know to be true of God's character. In those times you can either focus on your circumstances or you can focus on God's character. This world is unjust. It is filled with our sin and thus is filled with pain. This is the very reason we look forward to heaven. It is there that justice will be served finally. It is there that every tear will be wiped away. In the meantime, when the cruelty of this world finds your door, run to the Lord for help. Comfort yourself with the truth that He intervenes even in the here and now. And remind yourself of His righteous character: that He judges the wicked and upholds the righteous. When your whole world seems hopeless, take comfort in the truths of who God is. Trust that His character has not changed and that He will bring justice eventually.

Having reminded himself of God's impending judgment on the wicked, David appeals to the Lord for aid in maintaining his own righteousness.
Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies— make your way straight before me. (Psalm 5:8)
Apart from some level of righteousness we have no reason to expect God to rescue us from our enemies. If we are in fact the wicked, then our circumstances just may be God's judgment on our sin. Thankfully, God has extended an offer of grace to all sinners. Because of Christ, we can all accept His forgiveness and ask Him to lead us in righteousness from this point forward.

David prays specifically for God to defeat his enemies in verses nine and ten then finishes his song with one last request of the Lord and one statement of praise.
But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you. Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield. (Psalm 5:11-12)
After lifting his prayer up persistently to the Lord, reminding Himself of God's great character, and establishing his right relationship with the Lord, David is now free to praise God in faith. David honors the Lord by stating that He blesses and protects the righteous. This act of worship is also an act of expectant faith for David. He praises God, and in the same sentence foreshadows what His faith tells him the Lord will do for Him.

Sooner or later trouble finds us all. It is the nature of the world we live in. When it does find you, remember this psalm. Pray persistently to the only one who controls your destiny. Shift your perspective from focusing on how big your problems are to focusing on how great your God is. Make sure that you are right with the Lord so that nothing in your relationship prevents Him from acting on your behalf. Then praise the Lord in faith for all that you expect He will do for you.

For further reading...