Some say that you know you are old when you quit looking forward and only look back. Maybe some truth hides in that slogan? As we grow older, we do reminisce more about the past and become less interested in changing for the future.
This is one reason dying congregations rarely turn around and why almost all evangelism in our country occurs in churches that have been planted less than five years. Christians seem to “grow old” quickly and become disinterested in the work necessary to reach out and enfold new believers.
The Apostle Paul refused to accept “spiritual” old age. His life and teaching warn us against spending too much time looking back on past successes and too little effort growing and changing for future ministry.
[Read Philippians 3.12-16. Pray.]
Prince Hamlet’s indecision is a main theme in Shakespeare’s tragedy: “so much emotion and so little action.” In the 1948 movie, Laurence Olivier plays the title role and the narrator introduces Hamlet by saying, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Someone called him, “the hero of hesitation.”
Brett Favre returned to Vikings’ Training Camp this week. One of my favorite lines in the excess of reporting called Brett, “Hamlet in a Helmet.”
Regardless of what you think of Favre or NFL Football or the Vikings organization, two things were said in relation to Favre’s return that are absolutely relevant to today’s text.
First, a Minneapolis reporter wrote: “It seems there is only one decision he is capable of sticking
with since he started flirting with retirement about eight years ago: Once he commits to a football season, he is all in.” All in—no one questions his dedication. Yes, he hesitates badly, but when he resolves to play, he gives 100%. He is all in.
Second, at his press conference, Favre clearly stated his goal in returning: “Whatever it takes for us to win. The bottom line is winning. I’m not here to set any records…. I’ve done it all. There’s nothing left for me to prove. I’m here to have fun and help these guys win.”
All in, and all in to win. That passion marks serious athletes. And the Apostle Paul must have enjoyed athletic competition as much as we do, because he used these images or metaphors to explain the Christian life.
1Corinthians 9.24-26: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.
Whether running, or boxing, or football, serious athletes are all in, and all in to win. And God insists that the same attitude and effort characterize the serious Christian. We must ask, “Is that true of us?”
Are we even in the race? Sometimes people drop out—sins tangle and trip us, distractions take us off the path, fears turn us away. Are we in the race?
If we are in, are we all in? Is our commitment to the life of faith one we are fully dedicated to? A lot of professing Christians enter the race half-heartedly, not to receive the prize. If the fight grows too fierce or the demands too difficult, we may give up. If we are in, are we all in, in to the end?
Are we in to win? People get discouraged in a marathon and slow to a walk. Are we pressing on, pursuing the prize, putting in the effort required to win? Or have we settled for shuffling our feet until the race is over and we can stop for good?
Paul was old, weary, beaten, mistreated, and now even imprisoned. Surely it is time to slow down, or turn aside, or even quit. Yet he writes: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. My eye is on the prize and I refuse to be turned aside!”
How do we keep pressing on when we would rather give up? Jesus warned that “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9.62). How do we prevent the temptation to turn back from entangling us? I see here six principles for remaining in the race.
1. We Find Reason to Press On In Our Imperfections (Philippians 3.12a)
To a congregation divided by pride, Paul, the premier pastor and church planter, the best known missionary, the writer of the majority of the New Testament, the last and greatest apostle—Paul points to his imperfections. He says to us, “Yes, the true Christian is a new creation, a child of God, a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Yes, we are justified and our glorification is secure. We have power for victory over sin and the promise of sanctification. But I do not yet completely know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings. So I press on; I pursue Christ; like a runner, I stretch toward the finish line. I have been at this more than twenty-five years, but in this life, none arrives.”
Just as a failing student pursues a tutor, or a near-sighted person an ophthalmologist, or an infected person an antibiotic, so those of us who do not know the fullness of God’s power at work in us go hard after Christ. If not, then we must either believe ourselves perfect or Christ inadequate. Either way, Jesus is not valued above all. I see in Paul’s statement some implications for our lives.
First, God reminds us of the power hidden in humility. If the Apostle recognizes his weaknesses, surely we must also.
Andrew Murray, Humility, 57-58: “I feel deeply that we have very little concept of what the church suffers as a result of its lack of humility—the self-abasement that makes room for God to prove his power…. Why is it that those who have given themselves up for Christ find it so hard to give themselves up for fellow Christians? It seems that the church has failed to teach its people the importance of humility—that it is the first of the virtues, the best of all graces and powers of the Spirit. It has failed to show that a Christlike humility is what is needed and is also in the realm of possibility. But let us not be discouraged. Rather let the discovery of the lack of this grace stir us up to greater expectation from God. Let us look upon everyone who tries us as God’s means of grace, God’s instrument for our purification, for our exercise of the humility of Jesus. May we have true faith in the sufficiency of God and admit to the inefficiency of self, that by God’s power we will serve one another in love.” Let us press hard for the self-abasement that makes room for God’s power.
Second, God equips us for patience. Those who accept their own weaknesses give much grace to others as they struggle. Pride shows itself in a lack of patience.
Third, God asks us about the process and progress. The Christian enters a marathon, not a dash. We need the mentality of a long-distance runner, not a sprinter. Faith does not provide quick fixes and simple solutions; instead, the Spirit makes us like Jesus as we slog through a long journey. Rising every day, rebuking our flesh for its sin and self-righteousness, and running to take hold of the promises of God is not a one-time-fix; it is the slow process of progress in the faith.
The Bible gives many reasons to press on in the Christian life. Doing so glorifies God, it confirms our conversion, it makes the truth which we profess visible, it provides the way through sorrow, it produce joy, and it witnesses to the watching world. All of those are good and true; and, here, God reminds us that we press on because we have not yet arrived. True Christians sense their inadequacies and go hard after Christ for the fullness his grace in their lives.
2. We Find Confidence to Press On In Christ’s Purposes (Philippians 3.12b)
We might wonder: why should I even try if the Apostle struggles and fails. Paul answers: because Christ has made you his own! We fight to die to self and live for Christ because he fights in us.
Galatians 2.20: I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me….
And the work of Jesus cannot be thwarted. “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….”
It would be like asking one of the young children, “Why do you go for long car trips stuck in that baby carrier?” Because my parents take hold of me and strap me in. Those whom Christ makes his own continue to press forward, regardless of the cost, without becoming self-reliant legalists, because the work we do is the result of Jesus’ work in our lives.
3. We Find Strength to Press On By Focused Determination (Philippians 3.13)
I grew up playing baseball; we often practiced base stealing. Young players want to watch the catcher while they run from first to second, but doing so always slows them down. The best base stealers keep their eyes straight ahead as they run toward the goal. Looking back saps your strength.
Surely this is one reason God recorded what happened to Lot’s wife. She looked back, longing for a life of ease and flattery to the flesh, and lost her life. The way ahead is not always easy, and we tend to idolize and over-emphasize the past. But the Christian life is lived looking forward, to the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
This does not mean, of course, that there is no place for self-examination, or learning from past failures, or rejoicing as we remember what God did for us yesterday. It does, however, warn us against being controlled by the past. The rear view mirror on the car provides valuable information to drive safely, but only as we look back for the sake of driving forward. We crash if we look too much backward.
Paul has sins and failures in his past, but guilt does not control his feelings or actions. The Philippians’ petty fights have hurt Paul and the church, which he brings up, but only to know what we turn from as we look forward. We all can speak for hours about past experiences; but are we willing to forget what lies behind to focus on the future? Memories of success can make us smug and self-satisfied and memories of failures make us hopeless and lethargic in our pursuit of God. Do not let past failures control our feelings. Do not hold hurts until they poison our hearts. Let us be single-minded about the ministry God calls us to do next month and next year. Paul found strength to press on by focusing forward.
4. We Find Encouragement to Press On From the Heavenly Prize (Philippians 3.14)
When we count every gain a loss and value knowing Jesus above all else, we lose some things in this life. Listen to some warnings from Jesus’ about the cost of discipleship:
• “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross….”
• “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 18.8-9).
• “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26-27).
• “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5.11).
• “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.44).
• “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two…. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5.39-42).
Clearly, making much of Christ carries a cost. Why do it? Why press on to this goal, when the journey means death to self? For the prize. Those who count their good works as rubbish gain the prefect righteousness of Jesus! Those with the faith to deny self obtain the riches of heaven. Those who trust Jesus enough to take up their cross find that fellowship with the suffering savior brings a joy inexpressible and filled with glory! (1Peter 1.8). True believers value so splendid these prizes that they say, “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Romans 8.18).
5. We Find the Will to Press On In God’s Resources (Philippians 3.15)
As a faithful pastor, Paul wanted those under his ministry to value likeness to Christ above all else. But the life of discipleship is hard, and not everyone has the faith to run with endurance. So what does the pastor say to people when he cannot get them to do what he wants? “Stay teachable, and in time God will reveal this also to you.”
When you lack the faith to walk by the Spirit, no longer gratify the desires of the flesh, do not despair. Continue to seek God and you will make progress in the faith; you will learn the blessing of death to self; you will put off sin and put on conformity to Christ. God does not abandon his own, converting them and then leaving them in the sty of sin. Seek God in prayer and scripture, in worship and fellowship, in service and ministry, and God will continue his work. In time you will find the joy of fighting the good fight of faith, of pressing on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
6. We Find the Need to Press On in the Danger of Decline (Philippians 3.16)
Fear of the future can paralyze. Running wears us out, so we stop. But there is no neutral in the race of life. We do not run on solid ground; sinful people in a fallen world race against a “moving sidewalk.” When we stop running, it moves us away from the prize!
So God reminds us to hold true to what we have attained. While we seek the Lord for faith to press on in the fight, do not become lackadaisical. Do not imagine that you can coast for a while, forgetting Jesus and failing to fight against the flesh. Falling away begins when we stop running forward, not when we turn around. Turning away comes later, after indifference allows us to drift from God. So while we seek God for faith to go for the prize, hold fast to what you have already attained.
Those of us who enjoy college football were shocked last season when, after five plays, just three and a half minutes into the game, Colt McCoy ran down the line and into the tackle of Marcell Darieus. Somehow a nerve was pinched in McCoy’s shoulder and he was out for the game.
But the freshman backup was not ready. This was supposed to be Colt McCoy’s coronation, not Garrett Gilbert’s debut. And while McCoy’s arm hung limp and useless, Gilbert could not find his helmet. Texas called a timeout to look for the quarterback’s helmet. Finally he found it and stepped into the brightest spotlight possible. His five turnovers helped Alabama take the national championship.
Things are very different for Gilbert this year. He spent spring practice leading the team. His helmet is the most important one at each game. He is pressing on to make Texas football his own.
If we are not prepared to run the race marked out for us, then we may not know where our helmet is. If we think that the game belongs to other players, we will not be ready. But in God’s game everyone plays, and we are to run so as to obtain the prize. Let us not miss our chance to show the surpassing worth of Jesus in the way we go for the prize of the upward call of the glory of God.