Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Hebrews 12:1)
In Bristol this weekend 12,000 runners took to the streets for the annual 10K race. I live near the Bristol Downs, where every day you can see casual joggers (headphones in; gentle pacing) and more serious runners (hi-vis Lycra; determined) out for their evening’s exercise. Occasionally I’ll join them, but without anything to train for I find it easy to give up early and head home.
The Christian life is often described as a race. Christians are like athletes, in a competition with rules (2 Tim 2:5). We’re to run to obtain a prize, running with purpose and discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). We’re to press on to the end, straining forward to what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13-14). We’re to persevere (Hebrews 12:1), or in the words common to many conversations I’ve had recently, we’re to keep going.
“Keep going.” A simple phrase, easy to say, but it often feels so difficult to do. For the Christian facing a difficult time—whether the stress of exams, overwhelming temptation or the black dog of depression—it can seem next to impossible. “Keep going? Exactly how do you expect me to do that?” We’re all too aware of our weakness and inability, and yet other Christians—the Bible even—seem to expect something that feels beyond us.
Often it can feel like no-one really understands how difficult things are. So we end up hiding away our feelings, saying “no one seems to believe me anyway”. At the other extreme we feel the need to prove that we’re struggling by self-destructing—turning to sin, self-harm, even suicide attempts to get people to “take this seriously”.
To the suffering, struggling Christian, the gentle encouragement to keep going can seem like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. We read verses like the one from Hebrews above, and angrily respond: “I can’t! Can’t you see I’m drowning here?”
When it feels like it’s impossible to keep going, what do we need to hear? Is God being unrealistic and pastorally insensitive when he calls us to “run with perseverance”?
The book of Hebrews actually gives us a perfect model of how to encourage the struggling. More than any other New Testament book, it calls Christians to keep going, to keep running the race, to keep fighting sin, to persevere to the end. But it does so by pointing them away from their own resources, and shows them the one who persevered through ultimate suffering, even to the point of death, and still kept going—the Lord Jesus Christ. The verse above finishes like this:
Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he 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 sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
I can’t keep going. It’s beyond me. I’ll never make it. What can I do? Do I give up?
By no means. We’re to “fix our eyes on Jesus”; to “consider him”, the one who kept going to the bitter end—and pushed through to resurrection life. He has gone through suffering and death to the joy of heaven, and he does so as our pioneer, our forerunner. We look to him—and as we do, we find that, miraculously, he keeps us going. He’s run the race already, and ensures we’ll make it too.
Struggling, weary, doubting Christian: keep going! Not because you’re strong, but because his hold on you is sure. Not because you are worthy, but because he has promised.
Keep going. Not because you are able—but because he is.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 23-24)
I will extol the Lord at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips.
I will glory in the Lord;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.
Glorify the Lord with me:
let us exalt his name together. (Psalm 34:1-3)
The psalmist calls us to join him in praising the Lord, and so often we can respond with a cynical laugh or a world-weary sigh. “Really? After the week I’ve just had?” Yet he calls us to praise him nevertheless, saying that even the afflicted have reasons to rejoice. Why?
I sought the Lord, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame. (v4-5)
Shame makes us hide away, afraid of being seen for what we are. Our sins are a dark stain we can’t remove. But those who look to him, by contrast, are radiant and shining.
This poor man called, and the Lord heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,
and he delivers them. (v6-7)
This is how the afflicted, the sinful, the weighed down can rejoice: the Lord hears them and saves them. The Sent One of the Lord delivers his people, saying to those that would condemn them, “No more! No further! My people are safe in my embrace.”
Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.
Fear the Lord, you his holy people,
for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.(v8-10)
You frail and weary people, taste and see! Knowing the Lord brings hope to the darkest times. Christ the Rock is your refuge, even from the righteous wrath of God. Ultimately, he gives you himself. And so those who seek the Lord lack no good thing—because they have him.
It is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee—it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee—it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that be the instrument—it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not so much to thy hand with which thou art grasping Christ, as to Christ; look not to thy hope, but to Jesus, the source of thy hope; look not to thy faith, but to Jesus, the author and finisher of thy faith. We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul. If we would at once overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by “looking unto Jesus.” Keep thine eye simply on him; let his death, his sufferings, his merits, his glories, his intercession, be fresh upon thy mind; when thou wakest in the morning look to him; when thou liest down at night look to him. Oh! let not thy hopes or fears come between thee and Jesus; follow hard after him, and he will never fail thee.
— Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Morning and Evening
Mike Reeves helps explain what theology is, in the context of Judges 6:25-28 (quoted from DIY Theology):
Theology is smashing up idols – smashing up the idols in our mind and in our world. And not just smashing them up but replacing them with (v26) proper kinds of altars to the Lord our God: replacing them all with Jesus Christ. So the story here is: Gideon is surrounded by the idolatry of the Midianite regime. and he begins the revolution against it by bulldozing Baal. And that is theology! It’s not just reading books, studying languages, whatever: it is about rebelling against the world order, not just the Midianites little regime, rebelling against the whole world order as it rebels against God. Rebelling against it, bringing down the system, utterly replacing it: that is theology. Theology is the revolution.
Our culture defines faith as being irrational, worthy of ridicule, something to be hated, to be discarded so we can stop worrying and enjoy our lives, but above all as dangerous, nonsensical falsehood. This is the sermon our culture preaches to us, which we absorb unconsciously. Faced with these lies, what are we to do? We turn to the one who speaks truth with authority – the Lord Jesus. Reeves again:
Christian theology is about clearing out all the junk in our minds that we’ve accumulated through years of just listening to the world, and replacing it with truth. It’s putting on the mind of Christ and so sifting out the lies in our culture. It’s washing our brains with the Mediator, rather than being brainwashed by the media.
God is a God who speaks. Ultimately, he has spoken to us “by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he also made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Without God’s revelation of himself, we can’t know what is true. But God has revealed himself through Jesus: eternally God the Son has been making his Father known in the power of the Spirit, and he continues to do so today.
Theology is the “true research: as we re-search reality afresh in the light of how God has revealed it to be”; “It’s walking through life with a torch on. It’s refusing to drift with the zeitgeist”. The world is constantly bombarding us with its own truth, but it doesn’t describe reality. The Bible tells us what’s really real. It shapes how we look at the world, and speaks into every part of life. We see ourselves as we really are . Above all, we see who the God of the universe really is. And when we see more of him – our Truine God, always good, gracious and generous, over-flowing with love – we find our love for him grows and our lives are transformed.
It turns out that not only is theology incredibly practical, it’s incredibly exciting too.
(Read more by Mike Reeves: Fear and Loathing in Las Vagueness. Also related: Talking to yourself. Originally posted 23rd March 2009, revised and updated 7th May 2013.)
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
Christians are those who are united to Christ. This is true in the past, present and future.
Past: “For you died”. Christians have died with Christ. In him, we have passed through the death we rightly deserve. Our sin has been dealt with once for all. “You have been raised”. Dead to ourselves, alive in Christ. New birth, new life.
Present: “Hidden with Christ”. When God looks at you, what does he see? His beloved child. “Seated at the right hand of God”. Christ is seated on the throne of the universe, and we’re there with him!
Future: “Will appear with him”. When Christ returns, we will be with him, and it will be glorious.
It’s no surprise that Paul calls us to “set [our] hearts and minds on things above”. These are amazing realities to be celebrated, rejoiced in, dwelt on, sung about. What joy to spend time warming our hearts with such wonderful truths!
However… we forget. We’re leaky. These things seep out of our minds as this world preaches an alternative message. “This life is all there is – so live for the moment. Do what feels good. Make the most of it.” This world seems so solid, its pleasures so tangible, and God begins to feel distant. “Heavenly realities? More like away with the fairies.”
With all these lies ringing in our ears, we need others to help us lift our sights to see what is real. Those of deep, strong faith to give courage to the struggling. Preachers who present Christ again, that our hearts might be captured afresh. Soaking ourselves in Scripture, individually and corporately. The world is constantly fighting for our attention; let’s help each other fight back.
So Paul writes later in Colossians:
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. (Colossians 3:16)
The word of Christ: the good news of Jesus. His death and resurrection, and our union with him.
Dwelling richly: always going deeper. Taking truths to heart, not filing them away. Longing to know more of Jesus.
Teach and admonish: lovingly speaking good news to each other, letting God’s word convict, correct and encourage.
Singing: both expressing and exciting our emotions of gratitude through singing Scriptural certainties to each other and to the Lord.
Tomorrow, as millions gather across the globe with brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s point each other to these heavenly realities. We died with him. We were raised with him. We will appear with him. Glory!
Come, ev’ry soul by sin oppressed; there’s mercy with the Lord,
and He will surely give you rest by trusting in His Word.
For Jesus shed His precious blood, rich blessings to bestow;
plunge now into the crimson flood that washes white as snow.
Only trust Him, only trust Him, only trust him now.
He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now.
Yes, Jesus is the truth, the way, that leads you into rest;
believe in Him without delay and you are fully blessed.
Come, then, and join the holy band, and on to glory go,
to dwell in that celestial land where joys immortal flow.
Only trust Him, only trust Him, only trust him now.
He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now.
Look at him who is ever looking at you. With whatever faith you have, however feeble and flickering and mixed with doubt, look at him. Look at him whatever faith you have and know that your worry about your lack of faith is itself a sign of faith. Do not look at your faith. Look at him. Keep looking, and faith will take care of itself.
My dear Friend, I am still a poor sinner and I have to look to Christ every day as I did at the very first. Come along with me!
The preacher began thus— “My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, ‘Look.’ Now lookin’ don’t take a deal of pains. It ain’t liftin’ your foot or your finger; it is just, ‘Look.’ Well, a man needn’t go to College to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man needn’t be worth a thousand a year to be able to look. Anyone can look; even a child can look. But then the text says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Ay!” said he, in broad Essex, “many on ye are lookin’ to yourselves, but it’s no use lookin’ there. You’ll never find any comfort in yourselves. Some look to God the Father. No, look to Him by-and-by. Jesus Christ says, ‘Look unto Me.’ Some on ye say, ‘We must wait for the Spirit’s workin’.’ You have no business with that just now. Look to Christ. The text says, ‘Look unto Me.'”
Then the good man followed up his text in this way:—”Look unto Me; I am sweatin’ great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hangin’ on the cross. Look unto Me; I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend to Heaven. Look unto Me; I am sittin’ at the Father’s right hand. O poor sinner, look unto Me! look unto Me!” …
I saw at once the way of salvation. I know not what else he said,—I did not take much notice of it,—I was so possessed with that one thought. Like as when the brazen serpent was lifted up, the people only looked and were healed, so it was with me. I had been waiting to do fifty things, but when I heard that word, “Look!” what a charming word it seemed to me! Oh! I looked until I could almost have looked my eyes away. There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that instant, and sung with the most enthusiastic of them, of the precious blood of Christ, and the simple faith which looks alone to Him. Oh, that somebody had told me this before!
Do you ever feel like you’ve failed so badly that you can’t relate to God?
You feel filthy. Pathetic. You’ve let him down – again.
Saying sorry doesn’t seem to cut it. It doesn’t seem enough. Your sin is too big for a mere apology. It requires something more.
So you try to deal with the guilt yourself. You beat yourself up. You tell yourself you’re a failure. You wallow in the guilt, because after all, it’s what you deserve. You repent of the same sins over and over, hoping that this time, deep down, you really mean it and God will forgive you.
We try to atone for our failures, resolve to try harder next time, and maybe then we’ll feel like we’re forgiven.
In all of this, what never occurs to us is that in trying to atone for our perceived offences, we commit a greater one – we doubt that Jesus’ blood can in fact atone for our sins in full. We forget the free and full forgiveness offered to us in Jesus and insist on adding our own acts of penance.
Saying sorry doesn’t cut it. Your sin is too big for a mere apology. It does require something more. It deserves death, judgment and hell. It’s that serious. Too serious to be dealt with by a week of wallowing in guilt. Too big for a few good deeds to make up for it.
Sin deserves death. Yet for the Christian, that death has already taken place. The cost of our rebellion has already been paid by another. Jesus’ death has done everything necessary. We simply look to him, and receive forgiveness as a gift.
Have you repented enough? Almost certainly not. There are sinful depths to our hearts that will take a lifetime to uncover. We will always need to repent.
Does that mean we can never approach God? Not at all. Jesus has done everything necessary for us to draw near. Beating ourselves up, punishing ourselves – it would never be enough. Wonderfully, for the Christian it is never necessary.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:19-23)