Wednesday, January 14, 2015

In the Race, He Perfects Our Faith

Do you ever feel like you are coasting along smoothly in life and then something pops up unexpectedly and gets you all tangled in knots?  Yeah.  I've been there.  More times than I've wished.

In fact, this has happened in our lives most recently.  It's in moments like these that I have to be intentional with what I choose to fix my attention on.  Fixing on the issue or the past just causes downward spiral futile thinking.  Speaking from experience, I beg you not to do this.

Many months ago I heard a message on "long-term thinking."  (I think it may have been a message by Rick Warren.)  Research studies reveal that successful people tend to be "long-term thinkers."  In other words, they go through life with their eyes focused on the future.  They don't allow hiccups and setbacks to cause them to stumble because their eyes are ahead on their prize, on their goal.  In a spiritual sense, believers need to be "long-term thinkers" too...with our eyes looking heavenward toward Christ.  It's in the looking backward and residing in "today's pit" that we lose our focus and perspective.  We are best to anchor our thoughts forward.

I was reading in Hebrews this morning.  I probably took too much time in this book, in this quiet place, for the laundry and the house were all sneering at me and taunting me in their neglect.  But the words and truths from chapter 12 captivated my attention.  As I sat this afternoon filling up on my overdue lunch of salt-prinkled hard-boiled egg, dill pickle, honeycrisp apple, salted almonds, turkey pepperoni and string cheese (self-admitted salt addict), I began to digest more than the food that was on my small plate.  Those Hebrews 12 words began to do a filling of their own too.

The chapter begins with these instructions:

"...throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith..." -Hebrews 12:1-2

I've heard and read these words so very many times before, but something in these passages today offered a connection and perspective I found hopeful.  Stick with me here.

Moving on in the chapter, we learn about God's discipline.  Ouch.  I know, not the most pleasant of topics.  But please don't stop reading here.  There's much more to discipline than punishment,  and I  challenge you today to view this discipline through a different lens.   Not to ignore it, but to look at it from an angle that inspires hope.

Let's read together:

"Endure hardship as discipline.  God is treating you as sons.  For what son is not disciplined by his father?...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.  " -Hebrews 12:7-11

There's a lot crammed into those verses; let's try to unpack them a bit.

When life throws us curve balls, it's easy to become hindered and entangled.  Sin will always do this.  But sometimes unexpected hardship does this as well.  The author of Hebrews instructs us to throw off and let go of these things that hinder...to not be consumed by them.  If our eyes are fixed on the struggle, on the why, on the lack of understanding, we will waste our time and our breath trying to figure things out.  We may never know or understand why bad things happen to good people or why good things happen to bad people.  It's really not our job or a worthy use of our time to try to do so.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not on your own understanding."
-Proverbs 3:5

I just finished reading through the book of Job, and even Job questioned why wicked people often prosper and why the upright sometimes suffer.  It didn't lessen the pain of his own affliction.  But trusting in God's sovereignty, omniscience, and omnipotence did.  We'd be well to do the same.

We are instructed to endure hardship as discipline.  When we think of God's discipline we often think of punishment.  We liken it to a child who has misbehaved or done something wrong and needs to be corrected.  If we view it from that lens, we may find ourselves living in a cycle of defeat.  Feeling unworthy, inadequate, and that we can't get anything right. But discipline isn't always punishment.  Hardship is discipline as well.  And it's for our own good.

Consider an athlete at the height of his or her game.  One may say successful athletes are "disciplined" athletes.  They are taught, trained, work hard, push through, and follow instruction.  Or take someone who has experienced significant weight loss or transformation.  We can assume that discipline in diet and exercise brought them to that place of success.  I am sure the discipline that brought success to either of these examples wasn't an easy-smooth-sailing ride.  It was most likely painful at times and required great perseverance.  But the discipline was for their own good because they were trained by it and eventually produced a harvest.

Backtracking to the first couple verses in Hebrews chapter 12, we are encouraged to run with perseverance the race marked out for us, to fix our eyes on Jesus who is the author and perfecter of our faith.  The race God has marked out for me may look different from yours, but we are both encouraged to run it with perseverance.  Our races may be unpleasant at times, and the discipline may even hurt.  But verse 10 reminds us that there's goodness behind it all.  For, it's in the race that He perfects our faith.

If we find ourselves in a place of hardship or discipline, remember our faith is being perfected in the process.  It is for our own good.  Though unpleasant now, "later on, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."(verse 11)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "trained" can be defined as "taught," or  "to develop or form the habits, thoughts or behavior of another"  We must ask ourselves, what is God teaching me through this hardship?  In many ways, our discipline is used by God to develop and form us closer to His image so that His thoughts become our thoughts and our actions begin to mirror His.

To "train" may also be described as "to focus, point or aim something" (typically a gun or a camera).  It's in the training, hardship, and discipline that our lives can be used to aim, focus, and point others to Christ.  Oh, how I desperately desire for God to use my struggles for His glory.  A harvest is coming for those who allow God to train them in the hardship.

The portion of passage I studied ended with verses 12-13:

"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."

Though seasons of hardship and discipline may often leave us feeling feeble and weak, they end up strengthening us and making our paths level.  God's discipline is for our healing.

We are all broken in one way or another.  We all have struggles and hardships that lurk around the path of the race marked out for us.  Take heart that much good is being worked out in the process.  A harvest is being produced behind the sweat and tears.  We are not being sent to our rooms and put in the time-out chair.  We are God's children who are being trained, strengthened and perfected as we throw off all that hinders, run with perseverance, and fix our eyes on Him.

Running along with you,