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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

March 22, 2002

Harder than It Looks

I have often heard Christians talk about wanting to finish well. The further I travel in my walk with Christ, the more I understand this desire.

Don't get me wrong: Beginning the Christian walk is momentous. But it is in continuing and finishing well that we truly learn what it means to put our trust and hope in Christ, rather than in ourselves and what we can accomplish.

I believe a great disservice is done to seekers and new Christians when we emphasize the moment of relinquishment, the decision to follow Christ, as the culmination and the hardest part of the walk. To hear some Christian leaders talk, once one is a new creation in Christ it's nothing but blessing after blessing thereafter, and the hard part is over.

In fact, the decision that brings a person into Jesus' family is only the beginning of a journey that, if we are faithful and teachable, will do nothing less than transform us into the likeness of Christ.

There's a lot God wants to do with us — and through us — for the sake of bringing others into fellowship with him, and advancing his Kingdom.

Along the way, there is much for us to learn and to suffer. I am convinced the only way we get through the journey is to constantly depend on God, continually focusing on him and not on the circumstances or desires of our own lives.

This is harder than it looks.

*****

Not everyone who starts well finishes well. There are many people in the Bible who get a certain way along in their walk with God, and falter.

Saul, the first king of Israel, was such a man. When Samuel anointed him, Saul received a new heart and an infusion of the Lord's Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit's empowerment, Saul prophesied along with the prophets of Israel. God favored him and his efforts against Israel's enemies. But Saul faltered. He disobeyed Samuel's instructions and offered a sacrifice that was not his to make. Later, he cheated on the Lord's explicit instructions to destroy all of Amalek, and saved some of the spoils for himself. For acts like these, God took the kingdom from Saul. He spent the rest of his life tortured, bitter and haunted by his obsession with David.

The Judean king Uzziah also started well, obeying the Lord, who granted him success in his reign. But the success went to Uzziah's head. "When he became strong, his heart was so proud that he acted corruptly, and he was unfaithful to the Lord his God..." (2 Chronicles 26:16). Uzziah brazenly thought he could offer incense to God, a duty of priests. God struck him with leprosy, and he was quarantined for the rest of his life, his kingdom taken from him.

There's Judas, of course. There's Ananias and Sapphira. The tragic case of the unnamed man of God in 2 Kings 13. And countless more who stumbled but did not get up again.

*****

What happened to these people — and what can we learn from them so it does not happen to us?

Several sins seem to show up again and again in their stories:

  • There is a loss of focus. The person forgets who they are serving, and why.
  • There is arrogance. The person starts overstepping the bounds God has set for them and begins to think they can play other roles.
  • There is a self-reliant attitude of "Thanks for the help God, now I can take it from here on my own."
  • There is the disobedience while giving the appearance of obedience. The person believes they can get away with a sin or disobey a command, and not only pull the wool over other people's eyes, but God's as well.
  • There is rebellion, a longing for a situation or role that is more or different than God has provided.

*****

Through Christian history and in the church today, these are the kinds of sins that plague God's servants. They haunt and humble me, especially when I consider how often I have either skirted or committed them myself. Some Christians wrestle and emerge victorious. Others fall, but like David, repent and keep going. But there are so many who, like Saul, continue down the wrong path for the rest of their days.

Take a moment to think and pray about people you know — perhaps even yourself — who are struggling to continue well.

*****

I have found continuing well in Christ is a constant battle. In times when I am fighting to stay aright, I look to touchstones — Ebenezers (1 Samuel 7:12) — that remind me who I am and who God is.

One of these has been the hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." When I find myself despairing, when I feel like quitting the whole venture and taking the wide road everyone else seems to be on — I return to this hymn and pray it as my own prayer.

Not long ago I set out to learn more about the hymn's author, whose words have carried me through so many rough times.

Robert Robertson was a member of a youth gang in 18th century England. One evening, he and his companions had fun forcing alcohol on a gypsy woman, then made their way to a revival meeting led by George Whitefield. They hoped to ridicule both the preacher and the people who came to hear him.

Instead, Robertson found himself drawn to the message, and after a two-year struggle, he came to know Jesus. He became a Methodist pastor and at age 23 wrote the words to this hymn:

Robertson knew himself well. He really was prone to wander. First he wandered within the faith. He soon left Methodism and became a Baptist preacher. Some time later, still restless, he wandered from the faith, embracing, and apparently dying, a Unitarian.

Late in life he was riding in a stagecoach with a woman who was leafing through a hymnal and began humming "Come Thou Fount." She showed him the hymn and told him how great it was. He tried to change the subject, but couldn't. Finally he said, "Madam, I am the unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds to enjoy the feelings I had then."

For whatever reason, somewhere along the way something happened to Robertson's walk with Christ, something from which he did not recover. He wandered so far during his journey that he did not continue or finish well.

*****

How can we steer clear of what happened to Saul, to Uzziah, to Robertson? How can we cultivate a heart like David's, who repented when confronted with his sin and returned to God?

Many of the principles are found in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. This famous allegory is ultra-realistic about the struggles of continuing and finishing well in the Christian life. Bunyan shows his characters confronting and overcoming obstacles such as despair, indifference, doubt, works righteousness, the love of money, malice, cruelty, vanity, lust and ignorance.

The characters persevere by keeping their eyes focused on Christ and what he has done for them, by encouraging each other, and by believing the truth of the Gospel.

  • They remember who they are serving, and why.
  • They are constantly made aware of who they are, and are humbled as a result.
  • They realize that in their weakness they can do nothing on their own.
  • They realize there can be no hidden sin — everything is known by God
  • They accept the path God has provided for them — and when they stray, they repent and turn back to it.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. It is only by my dependence on your strength and empowerment that I am able to continue in the Christian life at all. Help me to continue well, that I may end well. Amen.

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