Running The Race (Part 8) – Getting Ready

      For the last eight months we have been considering what it means to run the spiritual race as a Christian. Obviously, we can’t be effective as a runner if we have failed to walk out the Christian life in obedience to God’s Word, according to the leading of the Spirit, and with the right heart attitude.

      One of the things I feel very passionate about is when we as Christians, who are part of Jesus’ Church, His living body, and called to be an extension of Him in service, must ask ourselves, and others, when the visible church is going to quit playing at church and become the CHURCH, the lively stones that make up the spiritual house of our Lord and Savior. There may be a lot of religious posturing, but how much of it is genuine and produces fruits unto everlasting life? Pastor, Evangelist, and Author Vance Havner summarized the environment that is present today, “This is a day of anarchy in the world, apostasy in the professing church, and apathy in the true church.”

      It is clear that there is a spiritual vacuum in this nation and it is being filled with an activism that has no moral boundaries, a social gospel that is void of salvation, a tolerant New Age attitude that promotes a false light, and the Muslim religion that knows no grace. In some cases our churches have become tombs where some have become part of the pew, while being indifferent to their high calling to be co-laborers with Jesus Christ in the great harvest field. Others have become actual activists who fervently promote change through radical social issues that still leave souls lost and hopeless. All of these movements, philosophies, and false religions cannot forgive or save a person.

      Humanity is clearly broken and the true Gospel is not about man doing good things; rather, it is about man realizing that he stands under condemnation, doomed, and on his way to being separated for eternity from his Creator and giver of true life. Good works will accompany salvation, but they are not the means of a person being saved. Salvation totally rests with what a person believes and does with Jesus Christ. I like what J. Gregory Mantle said about this subject, “Our works are either living or dead. ‘Dead works’ are works which have in them no breath of spiritual life. The corrupt root from which they spring is indwelling sin. All duties not animated with a loving regard for the glory of God are ‘dead works.’ They are legal works; service after the law of a carnal commandment, perfunctory and mechanical—and not after the power of an indissoluble life.”

      Before we can run this spiritual race we have to honestly address the old man, that fallen disposition in us. We have to quit giving our youthful lusts a pass, while trying to reform the old man by changing the appearance and action of the outward man to comply with some religious standard or image. A man can change the outside all he wants, but if the inside has not been revived, transformed, and sanctified by the Spirit, he is still very much lost.

      It is hard to face our real foe, that selfish disposition.  We try so hard to make peace with the old man, dull a boastful conscience against moral infractions while covering ourselves with religious garb that simply hides the darkness that looms behind it. I don’t know about you, but I learned a long time ago that my human tendency is to selfishly desire accolades without paying the price to know God. I’ve always wanted to do great things for the kingdom of God while still settling into the routine of ordinary living that was void of real faith.  I envisioned myself being part of something extraordinary without being faithful with those things that seemed insignificant in everyday life and challenges.

      Through the years I have wrestled with my attitude over everything from resenting the godly process evident in my faith walk, to stepping over my selfishness to be faithful, while denying my fickle, carnal feelings about a matter and simply doing right. I’ve had to wrestle with being envious when God blessed another saint, while comparing myself with those whom I considered “inferior.” If you are human no doubt at different times in your life you have struggled with the same issues. I want to state that facing these human feelings doesn’t mark actual failure, but ignoring them and giving them a pass will end in failure.

       As I look back at those wrestling matches, the one thing I am thankful for is that God is not only longsuffering, but He is faithful to finish the work He has begun in me (Philippians 1:6). My inner man has been and will be a work in progress, and my life constantly under construction until that day this physical body is put off. I can’t tell you how many times I acted like the spoiled American that I was, thinking that I deserved special treatment because I was serving God, while assuming I would be immune from the challenges of life, and that in the end I would somehow dance my way into heaven. Even though such Scriptures as Acts 14:22, “Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God,” stated differently, I still held to the unrealistic presentation that being a Christian made me exempt from experiencing the tough challenges of life. It was J. Gregory Mantle who put these types of challenges in a realistic light, “The Christian is trained in the gymnasium of affliction, and when the conflict is over he reaps peaceable fruit.”

      It took me awhile to realize the challenges were necessary for spiritual enlargement and growth. The different challenges were directed at the quality of my faith, my inner character, my state, and my attitude. For example, the Apostle Peter is very clear that our faith will be tested to identify our real point of dependency (1 Peter 1:5-9). Our character will be forged with adversity, bringing us to a state of humility and changing our attitude.

      It is important to once again point out that God is after our heart attitude. Attitude in this case does not just point to the condition of the heart but how we look at a matter. The big problem with the heart attitude for Christians is that there is an unholy mixture of the world and the things of God. We can have a tender heart towards God, while harboring a worldly attitude towards spiritual matters. Such a state points to spiritual immaturity which will manifest itself in unbelief. This is brought out in Hebrews 4:2,”For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.” True faith must be applied to what we know is true and then we need to respond accordingly.

      A carnal attitude will cause us to wander in the great spiritual wilderness of confusion, mediocrity, and defeat. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we will be walking parallel to the promises of God, but never really entering into them. Even though we will receive manna from heaven we will end up lusting after the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic from Egypt because our palates still want to taste the things of the world.

      I say all of this because it appears that much of the visible church in America has maintained a worldly attitude towards the way it perceives agendas, success, and happiness. Instead of promoting the unseen kingdom of God, much of what is being emphasized today has nothing to do with the saving of souls, furthering God’s kingdom in people’s hearts, or ensuring that people are lovers of God and His Word; rather, it is about big buildings offering entertainment with Jesus tacked on, failing to be sanctuaries where believers are being prepared to partake of God’s Word and to worship Him in order to be effective in serving Him. Worldly methods are being instituted to bring in “unchurched people” to hear a feel-good message rather than the hard-core truth of sin and the hope of God’s provision of Jesus which is the only means to address sin and take care of it. It promotes how people will benefit from being a Christian rather than what it means to become one who is taking on the very image of Jesus.

      This brings us to the subject of attitude. An athlete who does not first adjust his attitude to take on the many disciplines and challenges of his or her sport will remain nothing more than a “wannabe” athlete. Good intentions may make a person feel good at the end of the day about half-hearted attempts, but it will not secure the prize at the end of the race. The closest “wannabes” will ever get to receiving a coveted prize will be in their imagination. This is true for Christians. It is not enough to want to be a godly, effective Christian, you must be willing to daily deny self to take up the torch of the Gospel in preparation to run the race and finish the course.

      What kind of attitude will come out of refined faith, godly character, a humbled state, and the steadfastness to finish the course? Again it comes back to having a right attitude. As long as we maintain a worldly attitude towards any aspect of our Christian life, we will be constantly challenged with the detours of the world.

      The Bible is clear about the attitude we must adopt to finish the course. Hebrews 11:13 gives us this insight, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

      The Apostle Peter made this statement in1 Peter 2:11, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.” The correct attitude we must adopt is that of being a stranger in the world and a spiritual pilgrim in our pursuit for God. It is vital we understand these two attitudes because they will respond differently in relationship to the world.

      A stranger is a person who does not belong in a particular setting. These individuals are simply passing through strange territory in order to arrive at a certain destination. Strangers have no agreement with the places, the ways, and philosophies of the people of the land they encounter in their journey. They will not fit in the present culture because everything they encounter will seem strange to them. They will not speak the same heart language, understand the reasoning behind certain practices, nor will they possess the same appetites and perceptions. They are simply foreigners on their way home.

      Jesus clearly stated that the world will hate believers because they do not belong to it (John 17:14). We are to separate from the thinking, ways, and practices of the world because there can be no agreement between these two conflicting kingdoms (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). In fact, to belong to the world makes us enemies of God, revealing that the love of the Father is not in us (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17).

      The more we come into agreement with the world and take on its attitude, the more we will walk like the world. As Christians we are to divorce ourselves from allowing the world to influence our attitude. The more we expose ourselves to the Lord and let His attitude be established in us the more we will walk contrary to the world and will not be tempted to give way to the world’s corruption (Philippians 2:5).

      Pilgrims are different than strangers. Their journey is a spiritual journey. They are not trying to arrive at a particular destination; rather, they are in search of a special place. Most pilgrims are marked either by persecution for their faith or a deep restlessness to find a place where they have the freedom to know and worship God according to their conscience and religious teachings.

      When we think about the humble beginnings of this nation, we have to recognize that some of the first settlers were pilgrims. The first picture that most Americans have concerning the first pilgrims is not of pilgrims at all, but of Puritans who came later. Pilgrims were peasants, while Puritans came from the higher class of the British society and dressed in their black and white attire. Peasants wore everyday clothing and were being persecuted because they believed in a total separation from the influences of the world on their religious life. Puritans on the other hand tried to influence the religious thinking of their time without much success, which later resulted in many migrating to America.

      When the first pilgrims came to the new land seeking religious freedom from oppression, they not only left the old behind, but they were willing to lose their very life. Their desire to secure the freedom to worship God was so passionate that they risked all to escape the oppressive political climate of their time. To them, the freedom to worship God was worth any cost required of them. Many of the first pilgrims paid with their lives. Out of the 103 that arrived in the new land, 53 of them did not survive the first winter.

      This is why Jesus’ command to the disciples was to deny self of their rights to partake of the world and become crucified to its influences, allowing them to follow Him into the abundant life (Matthew 16:24; John 10:3-10). In our initial born-again experience we all start out as spiritual pilgrims, poor in spirit, seeking a place of spiritual freedom while fleeing the oppressive sin that enslaved us. Our deep abiding desire is to come to a place where we truly worship and serve a loving God.

      Until there is such liberty, Christians can’t follow Christ or effectively run the race. They must first adopt the right attitude towards the world in order to ensure a right attitude towards the Lord. Until they do, they will see no need to redirect their affections upward to become a stranger in and to the world and reject any mediocrity like a pilgrim to develop a passionate desire to gain Christ (Colossians 3:2; Revelation 3:15-16). This passionate desire will ever motivate the believer to pursue a greater life, a greater revelation of Jesus, transforming his or her inner man to take on the very likeness of Jesus Christ.

      What can we learn about being a stranger and pilgrim? In the Old Testament time they had refuge cities for strangers who were simply passing through the land (Numbers 35:13-15). These strangers had no interest in remaining in the area they were traveling through but they needed safe places to rest. For the Christian, Jesus is our place of refuge. We are to seek shelter and safety in Him as we travel through this present age from the lion, Satan, who seeks to devour; the wolves who would prey on our vulnerability; and the robbers and murderers who would rob us of spiritual treasures, kill our resistance to their advancements, and destroy our life in Christ (Matthew 7:15; 10:16; John 10:10 1 Peter 5:8).

      This brings us to the problem that becomes apparent when a Christian possesses a worldly attitude. Since the world influences their thinking they will fail to see the danger that lurks behind such influences. They will be dulled down from discerning what is really going on and will fail to seek Jesus as the ultimate place of refuge and spiritual rest. That is why the Bible is clear that we must become crucified to the world and it crucified to us (Galatians 6:14). In essence, we must mentally and emotionally become a stranger in the world in order to become a spiritual pilgrim.

      The Apostle Peter implies in 1 Peter 2:11 that we must become strangers and pilgrims in this world in order to be victorious in abstaining from fleshly lusts which war against the soul. In his second epistle, the apostle made it clear that we must be partakers of Jesus’ divine nature after escaping the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Peter 1:4). We see in Peter’s first epistle that we are instructed to first take on the attitude of being strangers and pilgrims in the world to overcome lust, and once we do we can begin to partake of the divine nature of Christ. Whether we call it the great exchange or we talk about letting go of the old in order to take on the new, the same principle applies in both concepts. You cannot mix the things of the world with the things of God. There must be a complete separation from the world in every area of our Christian walk in order to partake of the things of God. If the separation does not occur, the things of the world will pervert the things of God and the things of God will be defiled and rendered useless.

      Hebrews 11:16 brings out the real focus of a spiritual stranger and pilgrim in this world, “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God for he hath prepared for them a city.” In Hebrews 11:9, it tells us that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were sojourners in the land promised their descendants and that they dwelled in tabernacles. Tabernacle is a tent and not a home or palace. It can be picked up and moved at any moment. The Apostle Peter pointed out in 2 Peter 1:13-14 that his body was a tabernacle.  It is important that I point out these saints of old were strangers, aware of where they were and where they were going, and not a vagabond like Cain who had become lost to the things of God and was trying to find a place in the world where he would cease to be a wanderer.

      Christians, we live in tabernacles, bodies. We are to be sojourners in this world and pilgrims that are seeking a new world, a city made by the hands of God. Nothing holds us here except the physical which will one day give way to the spiritual. The question is how rooted are we in this present world? How many of us have put deep stakes down to claim an earthly inheritance rather than pursue a heavenly one? How many are ready to walk into heaven because that is our real destination to live with our God forever and how many will trip into heaven by the grace of God because they are more like vagabonds than strangers in the world, and how many are like Lot, they will have to be dragged by the mercy of God into a place that will seem more foreign to them than the world they live in?

      These are questions we must answer to determine if we are trying to graduate from walking towards heaven and running into it, or whether we are being spectators waiting for the right time to slide into heaven, or perhaps we are settling for sitting in the middle of the road until someone rescues us from our lack of initiative and apathy towards God’s kingdom.

      I don’t know about you, but each year for me has defined my desire to be with the Lord even more so because this world is making less sense, is offering even less than it did before, and is becoming darker. It is clear that my attitude towards it is lining up even more with heaven. Has, and is, your attitude changing towards the world?