"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." Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)
We are so full of good will. We want to live for God in the details of every day life. We want to honor the rich tradition of the faith we are a part of by following in the footsteps of those who have lived before us. We want to run the race marked out for us with patient endurance. But the reality is that our good will doesn't often get us the mileage we desire. Like a long winding river weaving through a canyon, the pressures of life erode our faith and wear down even the strongest intentions.
And it's not the catastrophic pressures that take the greatest toll on us. It's the everyday grind of seemingly trivial occurrences which build up over a lifetime that ultimately take the greatest toll. It's those persistent, nagging health problems that trail us every day. It's the unresolved grief, the consequences of past sins, the face of the person who you cannot forgive, the grinding turmoil in your family and marriage, the financial distress, the wear and tear of everyday household sins. It's the steady drip which is multiplied daily over a lifetime that causes the most damage.
Self-inflicted, changeable realities.
The writer of Hebrews tells us to take some aggressive action with these pressures. First, he asks us to look at those pressures we have the power to change. He tells us to, "...throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles."
The truth is that most of the pressures we face are self-inflicted. We choose things that are good, but that maybe aren't the best choices for us. We overcommit ourselves at work, at home, at school, and let things pile up. We associate with people who don't have our best interests at heart, or who place unfair expectations on us, or who have a knack of getting us into bad situations. We make bad choices that are out of sync with the wisdom of God's word and we are left picking up all the broken pieces. We apathetically hold on to the same ineffective patterns and habits that have held us back since early adulthood or even since our childhood. Or we make sinful choices that have very real consequences and in this way we bring all kinds of unnecessary pain and problems onto ourselves.
For those things we have the power to change, the author of Hebrews urges dramatic action. Change them! Throw off everything that hinders you. Throw off the sin that entangles. Get in the race and run with perseverance! Say "no" to the good so you can say "yes" to the best! Take responsibility. Change your circumstances. Order your life God's way. Take in God's word so you can make better choices in your life, work, and family. Obey. Flee temptation.
The admonition in Hebrews 12:1 isn't anything profound. It is basic common sense. Change the things you can change. Alleviate the pressures you can alleviate. Do the kind of common sense things motivational speakers and authors get paid tens of thousands of dollars to tell people to do. You don't need any more information!
Stubborn, unchanging realities.
On the other end of the spectrum are those stubborn realities that we cannot change. These stubborn realities are hardships that have the potential of wrecking our faith. Hardships can be relational in nature. An employee trying to survive in a hostile work environment. A husband or wife struggling with an unfaithful spouse. Parents trying to raise a rebellious child. A teenager trying to resist peer pressure.
Hardships can be physical in nature. An illness, like cancer. A handicap or other physical limitation. An embarrassing scar or birthmark. An injury. Hardships can be spiritual in nature. Persecution for your beliefs or values. The price tag or short-term loss for doing what is right and godly. Hardships can be circumstantial. Having your home destroyed in a fire or tornado. Losing something of great value. Suffering the loss of a loved one. Becoming the caretaker of a parent or family member.
Hardships are anything that have the potential of wrecking our faith. They are things that cause us to become distracted. Hardships may cause us to question God's existence and to doubt his love and fairness. They are things that can become a crutch or an excuse for us to not change. Hardships can leave us playing the role of victim instead of taking responsibility. They are things that can develop into a bitter root that first destroys us, before sapping the life out of all the relationships around us. All of us have hardships. Sometimes we trivialize them, but they are just as real as the hardships of the person sitting next to us.
I remember last year at about this time. Our basement got flooded and we had over ten thousand dollars in damage. We discovered that termites were once again spreading throughout the walls of our home. Our dog got into our crawlspace and seemed to have swallowed some rat poison. I had a severe gout attack in my left foot that left me immobilized for over a week.
Compared to others' troubles, these hardships may seem rather trivial or insignificant. But last year these hardships were my hardships. They were extremely demoralizing. They caused tension for Lara and I. They affected everything I did. I found myself becoming impatient and irritated. At the root of this stress was the fact that I couldn't control the weather. The medicine wasn't working quickly enough for me. The remodeling of our basement was moving slowly and our house was a mess for months. It was like a dark cloud was hanging over my head for several months. My list is different from your list. But the remedy is just the same.
The writer of Hebrews gives us three strategies for overcoming our hardships.
In hardship, fix your eyes on Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 12:2-4 (NIV) tells 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. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood."
The author of Hebrews encourages us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author, originator, and perfecter of our faith. When facing hardship our tendency is to fixate on the problem at hand and to worry about it. Our instinct is to place faith in ourselves and to resolve the matter in our own way, in our own wisdom, in our own power, with our own resources. More often than not this seems quite effective. We don't want to be like those people who never take responsibility or lift a finger to better their situation.
But to our discredit the very last step we take, and often after all other avenues of action have been exhausted, is to come before God in prayer. Prayer is an acknowledgement that a given hardship is bigger than us. It is an acknowledgement that we need to trust something outside of ourselves. For too many of us prayer is a kind of last resort. It's unnatural.
Last week we read Hebrews 11:6 (NIV) that says, "...and without faith it is impossible to please God." We typically view hardship in a negative light until we realize that hardship can turn our hearts toward God in a way that nothing else can. Hardship brings us to our knees in prayer. Hardship causes us to look beyond ourselves and beyond a given problem to see Jesus Christ.
Without hardship it is doubtful that we would ever find a reason to fix our thoughts on anything outside of ourselves. We should thank God that he has configured our world in such a way that the one quality we need most to please him is the one quality that we are most likely to embrace when we reach the end of our rope. Hardship causes us to reach the end of our resources, our power, and our wisdom, and forces us to turn to God.
Instead of obsessing about our hardship and getting angry with God, we need to look to Jesus and see that he too suffered unfairly. Jesus had to live a life of faith. He had to endure the cross, with its scorn and shame. He had to suffer the opposition of sinful men. Jesus had to live a life of faith and trust in something beyond himself. Hardship should cause you to see Jesus like you have never seen him before.
In hardship, receive God's discipline and instruction.
Hebrews 12:5-6 (NIV) tells us, "And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: 'My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.' "
Hebrews 12:7-11 (NIV) continues, "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 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."
I want you to listen carefully to what I am about to say. Not all hardship is the discipline of God. When the World Trade Center collapsed, a lot of godly men prematurely declared that the attack was the judgment of God. They said that God brought that evil on America because we don't allow prayer in our schools, etc. If you begin believing every hardship in your life is the discipline of God, you will have more doubts about God than assurances. God will become a monster who inflicts cancer, AIDS, and SARS, and who destroys homes with tornados, and snatches jobs away, and brings pain according to his whims.
Not all hardship is the discipline of God but some hardship is the discipline of God.
When facing hardship we should fix our thoughts on Jesus, realizing that hardship is a school of faith in which we learn to trust God in new and exciting ways. God speaks to us through our pain. He perfects our faith through our pain. He makes us holy. He draws us into deeper fellowship. He trains us in righteousness. When he disciplines us, it is out of love. He is acting in our best interests and for our good. God's discipline should never dishearten us, but should serve as a reminder that God loves us enough to discipline us and bring us into submission to his will.
When you look at the hardships in your life, what is God teaching you? Do you take those hardships as a sign that God no longer loves you? Or do you see your hardships as proof that God is active and involved in your life and that he loves you and wants to deepen your faith? Do you see that he has a plan for your life and wants to a produce a harvest of peace and righteousness in you? Do you understand that you are a son or daughter, saved and redeemed for eternity? During hard times fix your thoughts on Jesus. Draw near to God. But also receive his discipline and instruction with the right spirit.
During hard times, maintain an eternal perspective.
Hebrews 12:12-17 (NIV) says, "Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 'Make level paths for your feet,' so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears."
During hard times we might be tempted to forfeit our inheritance. Instead of drawing near to God and deepening our faith, we might instead become self-absorbed and bitter. We might slip further into sin and ungodliness. We might curse God for not giving us the life we want, but instead giving us a life of hardship and pain. Esau lost the bigger perspective of things. Instead of waiting on the promised inheritance of his father, Esau opted for a temporal gain. He traded away his inheritance for a bowl of soup and it probably wasn't that good of a soup! He wanted instant gratification instead of waiting on something much greater.
The same temptation presents itself to us every time we face hardship. We want quick answers and quick solutions. We want something better now, forgetting that the price may be our inheritance later. Our hardships teach us to trust in something outside ourselves, but they also teach us to look beyond the moment and into the future. This life isn't our destiny. We have a promised inheritance in heaven that waits for us. We can let go now because we are holding onto something much greater! We can see beyond this moment because our thoughts are fixed on Jesus.
Hebrews 12:18-29 (NIV) is the final word of the writer of Hebrews on hardship. "You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: 'If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.' The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, 'I am trembling with fear.' "
"But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel."
"See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, 'Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.' The words 'once more' indicate the removing of what can be shaken— that is, created things— so that what cannot be shaken may remain."
"Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our 'God is a consuming fire.' "