Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Are You In it to Win it Spiritually?

"I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:"

This phrase came to me as I was running.  Or some might call it jogging.  Or wheezing.  Or stumbling.

On a cold, winter's night as my back grew sweaty even as my hands turned to ice...(weird how that works...) as it grew dark, and I heard a dog lunging at a broken fence wanting to eat me, and I thought about how easy it would be for me to slip on an unseen patch of ice on the sidewalk, the question came to me, as it has to many, "Is there really a good reason for me to be doing this?" 

When one asks that in a residential Antarctic miles from home, the mind has a tendency to draw blanks. (...okay, okay, I wasn't miles away. We all know I'm not in that good of shape...it doesn't take far once running in the cold and darkness for me to start wheezing and asking philosophical questions related to runner's nihilism.)  As my mind grasped for intelligent reasons, I tried to think if the Bible had anything to say about this, and my mind went to the above phrase.

"I therefore so run, not as uncertainly..."

Why do people run?  Or exercise or engage in any kind of athletic activity?  It's certainly not because it's always fun.  A lot of times if someone were to ask me how I was feeling after running, the phrase that might spring to mind is: "I'd have to get better to die."  But you see people doing it all the time!  Especially in Colorado.  It's because there's a greater payoff.  People want to be fit.  They want to be in shape.  They want to lose weight.  Etc.

Then there are the really serious runners who run races and stuff.  I've only run in a couple charity 5ks, so my track record (get it? track?) doesn't bear a lot of experience in this arena.  But I knew, even in those, that if I really wanted to win it was going to take a lot more effort and commitment than I had.  You can't just mosey fresh onto a racetrack without any training or discipline and expect to win.  You have to bring your body under subjection.

To win, you have to put forth a little more effort.

To win, a runner will train himself (or "herself" to be politically correct, notwithstanding being grammatically correct) and forgo the luxuries afforded by ordinary people who don't care about winning races.  They eat certain things and buy certain types of clothing and shoes and supplements and don't eat certain things and don't do certain activities and do insane things that others wouldn't.

To win.

But that's only if you want to win.  And I'm afraid, spiritually, many have latched onto our culture's "Everybody is a winner!  Medals and ribbons for everybody!" mentality.

I think sometimes we misunderstand the grace of God, and even do dishonor to the concept of the grace of God, by lowering the bar for people as much as possible.

We mistakenly think that because God's grace extends to even the lowest, dirtiest, most unqualified sinner that we need to make allowances for people's sin.  After all, that's what God does, doesn't He?  We're all winners in Christianity!  Everybody's welcome to come as you are!

Or is that a misunderstanding of God's grace?

I fear that we see grace as a cover-up rather than an enabling force.  And when we see it like that, I believe we mock it.

God's grace is so powerful, not because it lets just anybody in, but because when it lets anyone in, it is able to raise them up to a position of power and strength and confidence and victory to truly walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ!  (Or run, if we want to stay with our analogy.) 

I want to submit to you that God's true grace doesn't say: "Aww, I know you're pathetic.  But that's okay, because we're all pathetic here!  Just come on in, and don't worry about wiping your shoes on the mat!"

What if, rather, God's grace says: "I know you're pathetic.  I know you're weak.  I know you're weighed down and that sin easily besets you.  But you don't have to stay that way.  Come!  Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that easily besets us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God!"

What if God's grace says that?  Does that change your concept of it at all?

Now let me throw something else at you...

What if we had the attitude in Christianity of running to WIN?

Rather than worrying about leaving others behind, or trying to make people feel better for not being as good, what if we were striving to WIN?

"Whoa, whoa, now just hold the phone there Johnny Raincloud!  That doesn't sound very Christian!  We need to make people feel good so they keep running!  We fall behind to run with the rest of the pack to make sure everybody crosses the finish line at the same time!  How could you be so unloving?  Somebody take away his participation trophy!"

Before you haul me off to be tarred and feathered, take a look at this verse from the Apostle Paul.

1 Corinthians 9:24  "Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain." 

Paul tells us to run to WIN!  That's my translation of the last part of this verse.  And he compares it to a race in that everybody runs, but only one receives the prize.  That's what makes it a competition!

So in Christianity, obviously we're not running for wealth or fame or accolades or selfish reasons...or at least we shouldn't be.  So what is our motive?  What is our goal?

Interestingly enough, the Scriptures leading up to this familiar one are familiar but for another reason...

1 Corinthians 9:18-19, 22-23
(18)  What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.
(19)  For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.
(22)  To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
(23)  And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.

Paul said he had no choice but to preach the gospel.  That wasn't an option for him.  His reward was to go above and beyond the call of duty.  So what did going above and beyond the call of duty look like for him?

He made it very plain in the verses leading up to this that it is the right of a minister of the gospel to live financially off his work of preaching the gospel.  There is practical and Scriptural precedence for this.  But Paul didn't use this right.  Why not?  

"Paul, people are taking advantage of you!  Surely you could get more done if you stopped working and preached the gospel full time!  It's your right!  Use it!" ...  

The reason Paul didn't take advantage of this right was because he didn't want ANYTHING to be a hindrance to people receiving the gospel.  He went above and beyond for the sake of the gospel that had saved him, the gospel he loved.  Like Jonah, he was constrained to preach and at least give the message as a good watchman.  Anything beyond that, he did willingly and from his heart.

Why was Paul saying any of this anyway?  Sometimes we compartmentalize Scriptures so much to illustrate certain truths and principles that we miss the larger heart issues of what was being said.

He uses the example of the way he handled the ministry to back up the point he was making about how the Corinthians should live in chapter 8.  "Michael, this is getting a little out of hand...next you'll be taking us all the way back to Genesis..."  Wait!  Don't leave!  Stay with me!  I'm going somewhere and we're almost there!

He didn't HAVE to work and support himself.  He COULD have taken money from the Corinthians.  But he didn't use this right.  Why?  For the gospel's sake.  To save more men's souls.  He was free from all men!  Yet he saw himself as a servant to ALL.  Why?  That he might gain the more.  Paul wasn't just trotting down the racetrack to get by.  He wasn't content with settling with the bronze.  He was running with purpose.  He was running to WIN!  If his job was to save souls then he wasn't going to cut corners and just do what it took to get by!  He was going to bring his body under subjection and do what it takes!  He would become all things to all men!  Whoever they were!  That takes discipline!  That takes courage!  That takes determination!  That takes an attitude that's in it to win it!  And why not?  This is for the sake of Jesus!  The One who died to save us!  For the sake of the gospel that brought us this freedom!  Paul wasn't in it just to skate by...he was in it to win.  Win souls.  Win for Jesus.  Win for the gospel!  To maximize his potential!

Paul was desperate for the Corinthians to understand this.  They knew how to be Christians.  Look back to chapter 1 ("Augh, I knew he was going further back!") and you'll see that they didn't come behind in any spiritual gift and that they were enriched in utterance and knowledge.  They were good at what they did.  They had an answer for everything they were allowed and not allowed to do.  To the point where they were arguing and causing division (chapters 1-4) and even justifying fornication (chapters 5-6)!  By knowing so much, they were starting to miss the point.

And that brings us to meat offered to idols.  ("Of course...where else would it bring us?")

I've heard a lot of people use the mentality that the Corinthians had in 1 Corinthians 8 (and even use those particular Scriptures) to justify odd things.  Here's the point: the Corinthians had studied and come to the correct conclusion that it didn't matter if they ate meat offered to idols or not.  Idols weren't real gods...the meat is better anyway, and by golly, if we eat we're not any better, and if we don't eat we're not any worse!  It's just meat, after all!  And we shouldn't have to give up OUR meat for some superstitious nonsense about it being offered to idols.

A lot of people end there.  What they don't realize is that though Paul agrees with this assessment about the meat itself, that wasn't his point in writing 1 Corinthians 8.  His point (as is shown everywhere else meat offered to idols is mentioned) is that they shouldn't eat it.  Why?  Not for their own sakes, who could eat the meat with a clear conscience...but for the sake of others who couldn't.  In other words, he was asking the Corinthians to give up the RIGHT they had to eat that meat to save and uplift more souls.  To keep ANYTHING from getting in the way of the gospel.  The Corinthians were technically right.  They had the knowledge from studying it out about how the meat would or wouldn't affect them.  But how would their freedom and knowledge affect others with less knowledge?  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

A modern example (which, if you're inclined to be rubbed the wrong way, skip this paragraph), that I've heard people use the Corinthian reasoning on is modesty.  When talking about certain specific modesty standards and giving girls the reason that guys minds might be tempted to lust because of something a girl wears I've heard girls say phrases like: "Well, then they need to get their minds out of the gutter!  They can't choose my clothes for me!  I've prayed and I'm not convicted by this particular issue!"  Technically, they're right.  Many are knowledgeable about the issue and have good reasons for why they allow what they allow and are very convincing and correct that it won't send them to Hell.  But knowledge puffs up, while love builds up.

Here's my point...what rights are we willing to give up to win spiritually?

A runner can technically have whatever they want and still maintain a level of health and ability to run well.  But the ones who want to WIN will give up things that others may allow.  For the sake of the race.  To win.

If we want to win souls, we have to have the mindset of being in it to win it.  Ironically, I've heard people use the verse where Paul says "I am become all things to all men, that I might by some means save some" as a reason for lowering the standards of the church to look more like the world.  I don't believe that's what he's talking about there.  Grace doesn't lower the bar.  Grace trains people and enables them to reach above and beyond the bar!  (Whatever the bar is...I'm just using the phrase because I've heard it before.)

We do what it takes to win people!  We become all things to all men out of love, but that might mean disciplining ourselves a little more than we want to!  But are we in it to win it spiritually?

This isn't only about winning souls.  It's about winning in our Christian walk.  It's about winning in this life lived for the gospel.  It's about running as hard as we can, regardless of what others are doing!  I heard someone say once when it comes to an attitude of leadership, "Don't keep looking behind you, trying to bring others up to your level.  Then you're taking your eyes off Jesus.  Lead by keeping your eyes focused right on Him and running towards Him with all your might!  Then people will see your example and follow!"  I really like that.  Let's lead by running!  Running to win!  It doesn't mean we're selfish or self-focused.  It means that we are in this to win it.  We're not focused on anything but the face of Jesus and we're running towards Him with everything we have!

In closing, let the words of the Apostle Paul sink in.  And hopefully, his mentality will become each of ours.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
(24)  Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.
(25)  And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.
(26)  I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:
(27)  But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

Me in it to win it at a 5k!...in the ladies category, at least...
Okay, I never said I was the best example of this concept in my personal running life.