(Well, at least, not the one you’re hoping for)
(That is, if you’re hoping for the one I think you might be)
(I mean, there IS a breakthrough coming, but…)
(OK please just read the article.)
Don’t you get tired of fighting the good fight? Do you ever just get flat wore out hitting all your marks?
- Training your kids for righteousness
- Sacrificially loving your wife
- Keeping your mouth shut when you want to spout off
- Saying no when you want to buy something awesome but your spirit says, “No, dummy”
- Not eating another cookie when that first one was so good!
- Going to the stupid gym over and over
- Memorizing scriptures with your family
- Calling everybody together for family Bible/prayer time
- Going to worship gatherings (read: church)
- Keeping up with saving, giving, investing
- Avoiding pornography like the plague in a society that says it’s totally cool
- Keeping a wary eye on your phone, computer, tablet and all those siren tech voices
- Staying under the speed limit
- Prioritizing Bible reading and personal prayer
- Putting plenty of leafy greens on your plate
- Not overspending when you really want something
- Blessing instead of cursing
- Forgiving even when you’re wronged
- Watching others take credit
- Not lashing out in anger
Am I nuts or does this all get old at some point? I’ve been following Jesus for nearly 40 years. That’s a long time to be on the program, right? RIGHT???!!!!?
I was once taking a walk in the park with my dearly departed friend Allen Stickney, who discipled me for years in Dallas. He was carrying his colostomy bag, fresh from another cancer treatment. When a couple of women walked by, Allen said, “You know Steve, I noticed those were attractive women.” I was thinking, “Allen, those particular ladies haven’t been an option for you for about 45 years.” But he went on: “I’m in my late 60s. I have cancer. I may die from this. And I’m still fighting my flesh. Steve, there will never be a time when you will not have to fight against your flesh if you want the LORD. You will struggle and you will tire and you will keep fighting. It won’t ever stop.”
I’m not great at remembering anecdotes, but that one stuck. My attitude toward myself shifted a bit that day. I gritted my teeth a bit more. I felt the bubble pop on my own little private fantasy (you have it, too) that one day, IF I play my cards just right, I’ll eventually crest some kind of spiritual hill where the above bullet points (and a thousand others) won’t feel so much like work. Eventually, my flesh will synthesize with God’s Spirit, and “doing right” will be my natural inclination, and peace will come to me, and I can settle in, and perhaps start enjoying the ride a bit more. Yeah, well guess what?
That dream of someday not having to work at this?
It ain’t happening.
The finish line I dream of is a religious illusion.
Now, here’s the deal: you ARE going to experience breakthroughs (in spite of the misleading title above). You are. And God wants them for you. I don’t struggle with my pride the way that I used to. It’s still there, but I understand it and can cut it off way better. I don’t struggle with the need to be right in my marriage like I used to. Fasting is way easier than it used to be. I’m more patient with people and I can keep my self-righteous judgment in check… etc. Ground has been gained. We DO grow. We mature. And along the way, strongholds fall off. Spirits of rejection or fear or religion or bitterness really DO shrivel up and die. Addictions break. I’ve seen it over and over, and it’s happened for me.
However! There will NEVER come a time when following Jesus will not be a struggle. I will STILL have to pick up my cross and head toward crucifixion every single day, regardless of how intimate I get with my Father, or how mature I become.
I know now that thinking, “someday, I can stop fighting” makes me think of it (this imaginary finish line) as some sort of in-game badge, and that if I tap the buttons harder and faster, I can get there quicker. No, you can’t. That’s performance: it’s religious and it’ll burn you out. I’ve been there! Instead, God wants to sew faithfulness into you, and that will come with a sustainable level of sacrifice.
You don’t fast every day, you don’t have 12-hour quiet times… normally. It’s not sustainable. Discipleship is more like weight lifting, where it’s a manageable amount of weight that exhausts you in the short term so that you’ll be strong in the long term. Sitting under a tractor and pushing up is not weight training. You handle a life with God that way, and you will ultimately give up. I guarantee it. (Again: been there.) If you try to lower your head, put on a mean face, and try real hard for a few months, then expect to luxuriate in the rewards of your accomplishment, please- let me relieve you of that notion. “Getting there” is a vanity; “arrival” is never going to happen.
Allen’s life, in contrast to an explosion of self-effort and religious fervor said, “Stand up straight and get ready for a marathon, if you really want the Jesus life. God’s Spirit is going to make a man out of you, and it won’t always be an easy ride.”
So exhale, my huffer-and-puffer. That performance show isn’t going to do it for you. Instead, seek a life of faithfulness. Of consistently treating your flesh like an unruly child that needs oversight and direction from a level-headed manager. Let’s say this kind of thing to ourselves:
Dear flesh, (you soft, rebellious, sycophantic, selfish, proud coward, you)
A future in which you can someday coast, and stop suffering, is not possible. I will never be done fighting for intimacy with God… and it is always going to cost you. I will always have to hack away at the undergrowth of culture and comfort and passivity, for my own sake, and for those who walk behind me who want out of that same jungle. I will stoke my desire for God at every opportunity, and you, you whining, pompous slug, and your perpetually weak and base cravings for affirmation, coziness, and reward, are going to be repeatedly melted by the fire of truly righteous zeal. Get over it, Bucko, because we’re climbing a mountain of God, here, and the mountain isn’t getting any smaller. God gave me a WILL, and it’s not for decoration; it’s for dealing with YOU. As long as I live. I’m going to feed that muscle, and I’m going to starve you.
I’ve considered the cost, I’ve put my hand to the plow… and I’m never looking back. Your days of rest and relaxation were over when we met the Master, and those days are not returning. I must choose against you, and do that every day, until I die. Better men than me, who sacrificed more than I’ll ever have, paid the price every day to be a Friend of the Master.
I do not pity your long, slow death… because I aspire to join them.
Your Faithful Executioner.
Disciples talk this way to themselves. This is Paul’s beating his own body, “making it a slave.” “I die daily,” he would say. This is David’s personal pep talk: “Why so downcast, my soul? What, have you had a bad day? Get up off the floor and put your hope in God, Who saves every time, right on time, without fail. You will absolutely NOT despair; you will bless the LORD at ALL times. Do it. Now.” This is Job saying, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know: That in my flesh I shall see God.” Now these are some men!
Never forget, my friends, that you have 2 incredible gifts given you by God that will never ever leave you in this lifelong battle:
- A Loving Father who has given you His Own Spirit. Your Father has DESTINED you to be CONFORMED (that means that PRESSURE will be applied to you) into the image of His Son. He won’t stop at healing you; He’ll move you toward growth, equipping, and serving others. But He’ll never stop being your Savior, your Friend, and your Healer. He loves you and believes in what you’re becoming. If following Him is a marathon, He’s your coach, who pushes you beyond your known limits, AND He’s the cheering crowd, rushing to give you some delicious electrolyte spiked liquids to keep you feeling strong. The other massive gift furnished to you is:
- A team of like-minded dudes who’ll comfort, chasten, hear, urge, and cheer you. These are your pacers, who’re headed the same direction, paying the price as well, and inspiring you forward with their camaraderie. When you consider Paul, David, and Job above, do they remind you of any of the guys you rub elbows with? Any guys around you who embolden you by their faith, and challenge you in your own? Your answer is most likely ‘no’… which bites. But may I ask: are you a man like this to other men? Proverbs 11:25 says, “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” If you will up your game around men, you will soon see others rise to the challenge, or else start to distance themselves from you, withdrawing from any insinuation that there’s a higher calling on their lives. THIS IS HELPFUL. We all desperately need a crew of men we can trust to 1) love us no matter what, and 2) challenge us when we start falling back into sickly self-sympathy weenie territory. THESE ARE FRIENDS. Look for them, woo them, attract them, then lock them down when they appear! They are God’s gift to you and brother, you need them! 1 Corinthians says, “Let us consider how we may SPUR ONE ANOTHER on toward love and good deeds”. You don’t have to be from Texas to know what a spur is: a sharp piece of metal that you grind into a horse’s thigh until he jumps. It’s a bit painful, but effective, and NEVER ends in stagnancy. We should disband cozy Bible study groups that never have spurs in them. (This doesn’t mean you don’t care for each other, or give comfort in times of acute pain… but we should never let our human sympathy still the mutual spurs of discipleship. We so need them!)
We should disband Bible study groups that don’t have spurs in them.
My kids and I are reading through Pilgrim’s Progress (super hip; 1678. First novel written in English. Never been out of print.). God bless John Bunyan, the author, who put his protagonist, Christian, through all kinds of hell. It’s a primer on what the Christian walk is like. For a generation who has received a gospel that says, basically, “Following Jesus will do you good! It’ll help you and heal you and things will go better for you! Wait til you see what Jesus will do for you!”… We could use the swift kick in the pants that Pilgrim’s Progress offers. It’s reality. It’s based on the eternal truth of the scriptures, and not on the fantasies of our flesh. Christian has to say no to ease, and false help, and shortcuts… basically for the whole book. Get some Pilgrim’s into your diet; it’ll be like steel poured into the ol spine.
Oh yeah! And there’s also this:
IN THE CARDS FOR YOU.
For anybody who endures, letting Dad and the bros push you forward into your destiny… the rewards are sweet indeed. For starters (and I wish I’d been told this more growing up), we will see the goodness of the LORD right here, right now. His ways produce blessings of every kind, in this life! Then (and this really IS the biggie, though it’s often hard for us to appreciate it), we are rewarded as faithful servants after physical death. We will receive “a crown of glory that will never pass away”. There are throneS in heaven for those who let Him lead them all the way home. There are mansionS in His house. In short, your Father WANTS rewards for you. Big rewards. That last forever. Stand firm with this end always before you. When you get tired, rest. Get your breath, and press in again. Don’t give up amigos, and don’t let that flesh get the best of you.
On the contrary, may we gird up our loins, repent of any fear and rebellion we’re housing, and do what our Big Brother did. Jesus “set his forehead like flint” on Jerusalem, where He knew His cross loomed, ready to consume and destroy Him. He despised the shame of the cross, but endured it like a Son. He set his course, without wavering, on the goal that lay beyond the grave–life! And not just for Him but for us! He could have had that Angel Cavalry ride in to swoop Him up and deliver him from agonizing, searing, relentless pain. And He could have done that every day of His life, sidestepping the self-denial, asceticism, consistency, and endless submission that was required of Him.
But he refused.
May we go and do likewise, with our Father refreshing us and our brothers urging us forward, knowing that what lies ahead of us is permanent, while what we endure is temporary.
Let us not become weary in doing good,
for at the proper time we will reap a harvest…
if we do not give up.