Summary: How we regard difficulties and persecutions will have everything to do with whether we respond positively or negatively to them. Surprising to us, the very things designed by men to destroy faith cause it to thrive, when we have a godly attitude.
Jeanie and I recently read a book with a provocative name—The Insanity of God—by the pseudonymous author Nip Ripken. Of course, the title elicits the question, what is insane about God—a question the author never directly answers, but only becomes evident upon contemplation of his message.
It turns out he and his wife were veteran missionaries to Africa, where, among other things, they pioneered efforts to establish missions work in horribly war-torn and Muslim dominated Somalia on the horn of Africa. After losing a teenage son to illness in another part of Africa, they spent six years distributing food and supplies where the threat of persecution of Christians was so great that they didn’t dare preach Jesus. Nipken only celebrated the Lord’s Supper once, with four other Somali believers, and within a short time each of them was murdered by Muslim extremists in separate incidents on the same day.
They came home tired and disillusioned, wondering why God permitted such horrific persecution, and more than that, how believers in places where persecution was a regular part of life handled it. It launched Rip on a world-wide tour of interviewing believers in persecuted places to discover those answers. And the answer he discovered is the very answer provided for us in the Book of Hebrews, chapter 12, this morning. The insanity of God is that he actually uses something intended to destroy Christianity to build it up—He actually uses persecution and affliction to perfect His people and grow His church in every way.
Obviously, this is counter-intuitive in every way. It apparently was counter-intuitive to the Jewish believers in Judea in the first century. They were being discouraged terribly by their on-going experience of persecution, so much so that they were considering walking away from Jesus. Instead the writer to the Hebrews in Hebrews 12 tells them to let the Lord use persecution to lovingly perfect them for their good and God’s glory. That’s what both they, and we need to remember in any of the adverse circumstances we face in life: God uses those trials, and persecution, to perfect us for His holy purposes.
And there are at least three steps he mentions we need to take to keep on keeping on for Jesus. First, we need to lay aside every sin & hindrance to following Jesus. Second, we need to look to Jesus as the ultimate inspiration for endurance. And third, we need to let our Heavenly Father’s disciple work for our Good and God’s glory.
As we come to Hebrews 12, we come to the climactic exhortation in the entire book. The writer is now summoning the force of everything he has previously said, and especially of all the examples of faith in faith’s hall of fame in chapter 11, to encourage believers not only to persevere in the faith, but to run the race unrelentingly to the very end.
And in order to do so, he tells us to lay aside every sin and hindrance that might keep us from not just enduring but running the race of the Christian life to the end.
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us and let us run, not walk, but run with endurance the race that it set before us.”
Of course, the great cloud of witnesses are those he has just reminded us of in Hebrews 11, all those who by faith endured to the end believing in God’s promises, and whom we will join in the Kingdom to Come to experience glory with them. They are now on the sidelines, in the stadium, cheering us on as we play the game, run the race, complete the contest on the field of action. Their lives are inspirations to us that what we are doing can be done and can be finished with a flourish.
But in order to run the race of the Christian life successfully to the end, we’ve got to put off every sin, and any hindrance to running it. This year, we’re hoping we can once again enjoy the Olympics, after a year’s delay due to the Pandemic. Have you ever seen an Olympic competitor even attempt to run a race while carrying a backpack, or a suitcase? That would be ridiculous! And yet that’s the way we often attempt to run the race of the Christian life—encumbered or weighted down, distracted or discouraged by some sin that so easily entangles us. And boy, does it so easily entangle us, I admit from personal experience.
So the question you might justifiably ask, is how do I get rid of the extra weight, that sin that encumbers me? Well, I was recently having a conversation with a dear Christian friend who is a very devoted believer and has experienced tragic things in his own Christian walk, but still endures. He explained to me how he, in the midst of struggling with discouraging and even devastating thoughts and feelings, meditated on I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And as he focused on the conditional promise that we must confess sin in order not only to be forgiven, but to be cleansed, or purified, to get rid of our sin, he realized he must be disciplined to confess sin each time, in his mind, he began to entertain it, especially I imagine, by way of discouragement or depression. And since these thoughts were habitual and cyclical, initially he was confessing his sin dozens of times within an hour, but it was when he was so disciplined to do so, that he began to experience victory, the realization of the promise of I John 1:9: He was cleansed of his sin to the extent that He was disciplined to confess it every time he even briefly participated in it.