Today's Decisions Determine Who You'll Be Tomorrow
Desiring God 2007 National Conference
Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints
This message appears as a chapter in Stand.
Paul prayed that Christians might be “strengthened with all power according to [God’s] glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father” (Colossians 1:11–12).
We’re called to a life of endurance empowered by Christ, and accompanied by joyful thanksgiving. Endurance requires patience, because reward for today’s right choices will come, but it may be months or years from now, or not until we leave this world. Those who drum their fingers waiting for the microwave to finish demonstrate that patient endurance doesn’t come naturally.
Paul challenged his disciple, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). Soldiers expect hardship and are trained to face it. As comrades locking arms in the service of our Commander, Christ’s humble warriors are to live out, on enemy-occupied territory, what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction” (Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, [InterVarsity Press, 2000]).
Today’s roadblocks and distractions make endurance in the Christian life seem unattainable. Our temptations aren’t worse than those in first-century Corinth. But televisions, computers, and even cell phones bring into our homes what used to be found only in back alleys. In our technological Corinth, temptations are only a keypad or mouse click away.
Failure to endure — in marriage, jobs, church, or any part of life — has become normal. A consistent long-term obedience, without periodic diversions into sin and unfruitfulness, seems an impossible dream. Sin has become so common, so expected, that holy believers are either elevated as heroes or dismissed as legalists.
In our disposable society, we use something up, then toss it (whether a paper plate, a spouse, a church, or a career). The stick-to-it philosophy is a relic of another age — something monks once did, but we can’t. And why should we? Who wants to work hard or become bored by staying a course when endless alternatives call to us?
But the essence of the Christian life cannot change with culture. Paul’s words to the Colossians and Timothy are words to us. We should not shrink from hardship. We should endure it with patience and thanksgiving. We are to follow Christ from start to finish, repenting quickly of our sins and moving forward in deeper devotion. Yes, there will be dry times, but overall, the arc of spiritual growth will steadily rise higher, not trail off so our lives end in a wasted whimper.
Endurance is Christ’s call to follow him, to finish strong for God’s glory. There is no higher calling, no bigger privilege, no greater joy.
Reunion with Those Who Endure
Nanci and I attended a thirty-year reunion of our church college group. Forty came. Five from our original group had died. Most of those present had lost a parent or two; some had lost spouses, siblings, or children. A few marriages had died; two people had suffered mental breakdowns, others financial meltdowns. Some had children on drugs and in jail; several had cancer and other illnesses.
Yet it was a beautiful evening. Person after person kept saying, “God has been faithful.” We lingered late, tears wondrously mixed with laughter.
We sang our old Scripture songs from the early 1970s. Instead of being disillusioned because they hadn’t panned out, we were encouraged because they’d proven truer than we’d realized back then. God had indeed been “our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). We had learned — some from great hardship — that God alone can bear the full weight of our trust. Admitting our imperfections, we experienced together the sweet fragrance of perseverance and spoke of anticipating a better world.
Understandably, some old friends couldn’t come, due to distance, health, and schedule conflicts. But some didn’t come because their love for Christ had grown cold. They had not endured. Why? The question could be answered different ways. My answer for our purposes is this: their hour-to-hour and day-to-day choices set them up for spiritual distraction and failure.
Technology brings into the home what used to only be found in back alleys.
Nanci and I walked away that night with a renewed commitment to finish our lives well. I pray that you will live the years ahead so that when you receive an invitation to your reunion, you’ll want to come and hear — and share — what God has done. Don’t make a series of choices that will make you into the person who wants to stay away.
Endurance in a Cause
At the editors’ request, I will share my personal story of perseverance in a cause. Please understand that I don’t consider myself a hero. On the contrary, I am humbled by and deeply grateful for God’s sustaining grace.
I grew up in a non-Christian home. When I came to Christ as a teenager, Tozer, Schaeffer, Lewis, and Bonhoeffer mentored me through their books. In 1977 I became a pastor of a new church. In the early 1980s I joined the board of the first Crisis Pregnancy Center in the Northwest, in Portland, Oregon. Nanci and I opened our home to a pregnant teenage girl and helped her place her child for adoption. We had the joy of seeing her come to faith in Christ. To this day she remains a dear friend, a courageous spokesperson for unborn children.
As the years went on God increasingly laid on our hearts the plight of the unborn. (If you don’t understand who unborn children are, what follows won’t make sense to you. See my book Why Prolife? or abortion-related articles at www.epm.org; or consult www.abort73.com.)
I read Scripture that said, “Rescue from death those being led to slaughter” (Proverbs 24:11). And, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves . . . defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8–9, NIV). I couldn’t escape Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s courage: publicly criticizing Hitler, and calling upon the German church to stand up for the Jews. Francis Schaeffer’s call to defend the unborn affected me profoundly.
In January 1989, knowing it would greatly complicate my life and my pastoral ministry, I began participating in peaceful, nonviolent civil disobedience at abortion clinics. Hundreds of pastors across the country did the same.
I went to jail for a few days, just long enough to experience my first taste of dehumanization. For instance, a jail nurse assumed I was lying about being an insulin-dependent diabetic. She refused access to my medical equipment, which had been confiscated at my arrest. When she heard why I’d been arrested she said, “Tell me you’re a rapist or a murderer, but don’t tell me you’re one of those anti-abortionists, because that makes me mad.” Disgusted with my insistence that I had a medical condition, she actually threw a handful of supplies at me.
Throughout my life at home, in school, and in sports, I was accustomed to being believed by those in authority. My wife, children, and church trusted me. Suddenly, behind locked doors with criminals, I was the object of distrust and derision.
On another occasion a judge sentenced me to two days in jail. I was put in chains from wrists to ankles, while cameras flashed all around me. I was pushed and shoved and taken to jail, and then strip-searched with two dozen naked men. A leering guard mocked and made sadistic comments to some of the men.
It was just a hint of what some people, guilty and innocent, have experienced. But I have never forgotten it. Though it was the most dehumanizing two days of my life, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It paled in comparison to the suffering of Jesus and of unborn children. But it was enough to make a permanent impression, giving me a reference point to the sufferings of others (and helping me to write of the persecuted church, as in my novel Safely Home).
An abortion clinic won a court judgment against me and a few dozen others. We’d been sued for $2,800, the cost to the clinic of the ten abortions we prevented one day. We were also held liable for the abortion clinic’s attorneys’ fees — another $19,000. I told a judge I would pay anybody anything I owed them, but I would not hand money to people who would use it to kill babies.
In April 1990 my church received a court order demanding that every month they send a fourth of my wages to the abortion clinic. To keep the church from having to decide between paying an abortion clinic and defying the court, I resigned.
The only way I could avoid garnishment was to make no more than minimum wage. Fortunately, our family had been living on only a portion of my church salary, and we’d recently made our final house payment, so we were out of debt. God led us to start Eternal Perspective Ministries. To this day we continue to be part of our church, though I could no longer serve as a pastor.
Endurance as a Family Decision
In February 1991, nearly two years after I resigned from the church, we were set for a major courtroom trial. Given the political climate, it seemed almost certain that we would lose this case, lose our house, and because of financial constraints have to remove our girls from the Christian school they loved.
The night before the trial, my attorney called with amazing news: “Randy, I just received a fax from the abortion clinic. They want to drop you from the lawsuit.”
Incredible. Suddenly the house was no longer in jeopardy. The girls could continue in school. We’d be saved the burden, tension, and spotlight glare. “But . . . why would they drop me?” I asked the attorney.
“I figure it’s because you are a pastor and a writer, so you get a lot of press. You’ve been explaining why you feel compelled to stand up for unborn children. Maybe they think they’re better off without you. But because they’ve dropped you at the last minute, you have to agree. Obviously you should, considering what’s at stake.”
I sat down with my wife and my daughters who were then nine and eleven years old. They’d been praying right along with us, and they’d watched from across the street one time when I was arrested. (Nanci and I believed that if we sheltered our children from life’s difficulties, we would rob them of the opportunity to see God at work, rob them of the privilege of praying, and rob ourselves of experiencing the benefits of their childlike prayers.)
I explained to Nanci and the girls what the lawyer said, then asked, “What do you think we should do?” Karina, our eleven-year- old, replied, “Daddy, if the abortion clinic thinks they’ll be better off without you on the case, I think God wants you there.” Nine-year-old Angela instantly agreed.
“Remember, if we lose the case — and we probably will — we could lose our house, and we might not be able to afford your school.” They understood perfectly. As much as Nanci and I wanted to climb out of the pressure cooker, we agreed with our daughters. We prayed about it together over the next hour. Then I called the lawyer and floored him by saying, “We’ve decided to stay on the lawsuit.”
Four weeks in court followed, where we witnessed an amazing series of false accusations. We saw clinic employees testify that we screamed at women, grabbed them, spit on them, and called them sluts and whores. We watched the judge — who made clear to the jury how hostile he was toward us — read the newspaper while we were testifying. He literally screamed at a pastor who had observed one event and was quietly testifying as a character witness. (If someone else had told me, I wouldn’t have believed it, but I was there.)
The judge ordered a directed verdict, telling the jury they must find us guilty and should impose upon us a judgment so large that we would never do this again. Though there was no violence and no property destruction, it was the largest judgment on record against a group of peaceful protestors: $8.2 million. I used to joke that $8.2 million was more than I made as a pastor in an entire year!
Prior to being sued I had divested myself of all ownership of everything from house and cars to bank accounts and book royalties. Though we have never failed to pay anyone else all that they’re due, by God’s grace we have never handed money to an abortion clinic. I continue not to own any assets, and my minimum-wage salary prevents the abortionists from taking anything.
Needless to say, many don’t agree with our strategy, but we believe it is the only God-honoring course of action, in light of the alternatives. This situation brought controversy and complications to our lives, but God taught us to trust him and be patient, for which we are profoundly grateful.
To Endure, Love Jesus More Than the Cause
One thing I’ve learned about endurance in a cause is: don’t be primarily motivated by anger. Yes, there is such a thing as righteous anger. God is furious about the mistreatment of the poor and needy and defenseless. But our “righteous anger” is too often self-righteous anger. Whether you are fighting human-rights violations, slavery, prostitution, pornography, drugs, crime, drunk driving, or abortion, keep your eyes on Jesus or you will either burn out or rely upon your own strength, not his. By God’s grace, we never lashed out at abortion clinic personnel. My wife weekly stood outside the clinic and talked with several staff members, including the manager, sharing the love of Christ.
There’s significant wear and tear upon those called to pro-life work, jail ministry, street ministry, helping the poor, aiding substance abusers and those with sexual addictions, and fighting pornography. If you’re going to endure, you must have a passion for Jesus that’s bigger than your passion for the cause. Otherwise, even if you don’t burn out, your cause will take the place of your Lord, thereby becoming an idol.
Lose yourself. Not in a righteous cause but in a righteous God who calls us to a variety of causes and sustains us wherever he calls us. Don’t be a single-issue Christian. Chuck Colson’s heart is huge for prison ministry, but much more. Joni Eareckson Tada cares deeply about the disabled, but she cares about far more. Chuck and Joni love Jesus, and that love wells up in ministries to prisoners and the disabled. That’s how you find staying power in a cause — seeing that it isn’t an isolated issue. It’s part of the larger scheme of God’s kingdom work.
If your life is centered on being against abortion or pornography or homosexual marriage, that isn’t enough. William Wilberforce didn’t just oppose slavery. He was in love with Jesus, and it was Jesus who sustained him through the abolition of the slave trade. It was Jesus he thanked three days before his death, when he heard the news from the House of Commons that all remaining slaves in Britain and her colonies had been declared free.
To endure in a cause, keep reminding yourself it’s about Jesus: “The King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it for one of the least of these brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40).
And if it’s not about Jesus, why is it your cause?
Families Grow through Enduring Hardship
I also learned that endurance in a cause can help build the character, faith, and insight of children. Early on we determined that though we would never sacrifice our children, we would sacrifice with our children. As I said, our children were willing to lose the only house they’d ever lived in and the school they loved. Given the outcome of the trial, it appeared they would.
As it turned out, God intervened, and we lost neither house nor school. I know God has rewarded my daughters for their willingness to sacrifice for the cause of Christ and the unborn. Instead of tearing our family apart, it knitted us together. Well-meaning people warned us that our children would suffer due to my choices. But we believed children suffer not when their parents do God’s will, but when they don’t.
Our children benefited in other ways, some of them difficult. When they were pre-teens, they stood with us one day across from an abortion clinic, holding large intrauterine pictures of living pre-born children. A limousine drove by slowly, then the back window came down, four feet in front of us. Out shot a man’s arm, making an obscene gesture. The surprise came when we saw the man’s face. It was the current mayor of Portland. No kidding. We had quite a family discussion about darkness in the human heart, including the hearts of some leaders.
Another day our daughters attended a rescue with their mother and saw all that happened, including my arrest. The next morning I read the newspaper’s account of the story. I handed it to my daughter Karina, who read every word. Stunned, she started crying. “Dad, this isn’t true. I was there the whole time. That’s not what happened!”
Nothing I’d said to my children about the world’s lies and media distortions compared to the firsthand lesson learned from the newspaper that day. Those little girls today are the godly mothers of our grandchildren. Had they not been part of the cause with us, they might never have learned many lessons that served them well and helped them begin a long obedience in the same direction.
To Endure, Consent to Being Unpopular
If you are not willing to be misunderstood and vilified, you won’t endure in any worthwhile cause. I was speaking to a group of pastors in 1990 when one of them raised his hand and asked, “Why do you go to abortion clinics and scream at women and spit on them and pull their hair?” When I told him I’d never done such a thing, and never would, I asked him, “Why would you believe the newspapers instead of coming to me as your brother in Christ and asking if it’s true?”
If you insist on being respected and praised, in society or in the church, you will walk away not only from the cause but from your Lord. Jesus said, “No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Who are we to expect the world to treat us better than it treated Jesus? Followers of Jesus should expect injustice and misrepresentation, and we dare not be preoccupied with our rights and reputations.
When false testimony was given against us in court, a key verse for me was 1 Peter 2:23, which says of Jesus: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” When I found myself misjudged by both unbelievers and believers, I found peace in knowing that God is my judge. Given my failings, that thought had not encouraged me before, but suddenly it did!
Nanci and I learned to have thicker skin when it came to people’s disapproval. One of the greatest enemies of a long obedience in the same direction is the desire to be popular, whether with the world or the church. If your eyes are on anyone but Jesus, you’re not going to have the stamina to put up with criticism. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). There’s great freedom in being able to accept that some people will never like you because your beliefs offend them. You can talk with them and pray for them, without craving or needing their approval.
One of the greatest enemies of perseverance is the desire to be popular.
Paul said, “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). Jesus is the Audience of One. We will stand before his judgment seat, no one else’s. We should long to hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Live for the approval of others and you will not live for Christ’s approval, and therefore you will not endure.
To Endure, Trust God to Bring Good out of Adversity
In our lawsuits and having to leave pastoral ministry, what the abortion clinics intended for evil, God intended for good (Genesis 50:20). Some of that was evident at the time, but much became evident as years went by. (How many years had passed before Joseph clearly saw God’s purpose in his adversity?)
We saw innumerable amazing stories come out of the lawsuits. For instance, God opened a door for me to share the gospel with a prominent lesbian and abortion activist. She later came to faith in Christ. I remember a man surrendering to Jesus outside the clinic doors, and two abortion clinic employees walking away from their jobs when it dawned on them what they were doing.
For a variety of reasons, it has been seventeen years since I last engaged in civil disobedience. Endurance in a cause does not mean that you must always do the same thing. The cause was and is unborn children, not a particular strategy. I believe God called me to one method for a period of time, just as he called me to work with pregnancy centers years before that. Now we give substantial funds to support the pro-life cause. I still speak up for the unborn in messages, writings, and personal conversations. I applaud those who have spent most of their lives in this and other righteous but unpopular causes, doing far more than I have. May they joyfully endure, to God’s glory.
One other fruit of the trials God took us through was that I surrendered ownership of my book royalties. Through our ministry, 100% of these royalties goes to God’s kingdom: missions, famine relief, pro-life work, and aid to the disabled, prisoners, and persecuted Christians. Shortly after we gave all the royalties to the Lord, my books were suddenly on the best-seller lists. Royalties increased dramatically, as if God was saying “now that the books belong to me I’m going to really use them.” Our ministry has been able to give away several million dollars as a direct result of those events that some considered terrible and tragic. Looking back, we’re deeply grateful it all happened.
Some time ago, the ten-year judgment from the abortion clinic expired. Our ministry board told Nanci and me that they wanted to grant us the future royalties, which they felt we’d earned. Nanci and I talked and prayed about it. God had faithfully provided for us during the previous ten years and graciously allowed us to support great causes through the royalties. So why would we want to change that arrangement? We didn’t need a higher standard of living. With joy in our hearts, we said, “No thanks.”
Months later the abortion clinic got the judgment extended for another ten years. We’ll always be grateful we didn’t know that would happen when we made our decision. What we learned through the original trial still serves us well today. God has given us an indescribable joy in knowing that every dollar of royalties made from my books is being invested in eternity.
Endurance Takes More Than Sincere Desire
In the final analysis, endurance will be a measure of the kind of character and integrity we develop. The remainder of this chapter applies to all believers in the cause of Christ, not just to those particular causes.
I asked a gathering of thousands, “How many of you, in five or ten or thirty years from now, want to be sold out to Jesus Christ, a disciple of the King, empowered by the Holy Spirit, saturated in his Word, and yielded to his will?”
Ninety percent of the hands shot up. They meant it. Then I told them the bad news: many who raised their hands would never become that person. They would not finish well. It’s easier to raise a hand today than to make the kinds of choices day after day after day after day that result in a long obedience in the same direction.
Every day we are becoming someone — the question is, who? Author Jerry Bridges, hearing me address this, told me that Dawson Trotman, founder of The Navigators, used to say, “You are going to be what you are now becoming.”
Scripture speaks of this process of character development: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
You become like what you choose to behold. Behold Christ, you become Christlike. Gaze upon superficiality and immorality, and it’s equally predictable what you’ll become.
Who you become will be the cumulative result of the daily choices you make. “The path of the righteous is like the first light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until day” (Proverbs 4:18). This is why Scripture continually warns us against wrong choices: “Do not enter the path of the wicked and do not walk in the way of the evil. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on your way” (Proverbs 4:14–15).
Our choices flow out of our hearts, and therefore we must take care to guard them from contamination: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23, NIV). What’s the most effective way to contaminate a water supply? Poison it at its source. If you don’t guard your heart from the world’s values, you will be conformed to the world (Romans 12:1–2). It takes no more effort to be conformed to the world than it does to float downstream. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds is to swim upstream against the current. Renewing our minds requires conscious, deliberate effort.
You will become the product of what you choose to delight in and meditate upon. Psalm 1 is a powerful formula for endurance: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
We all meditate, and we’re all shaped by the object of our meditation. We take our attitudinal and behavioral cues from it. This week, will I be shaped by situation comedies, soap operas, and newspapers, or will I be shaped by Isaiah, Luke, A.W. Tozer, and Charles Haddon Spurgeon? It depends on how I choose to spend my time.
You will become what your daily choices make you.
Psalm 1 says the one who continually meditates on God’s Word “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither.” Trees don’t choose where to place themselves, but we do. We determine what our sources of nourishment will be, which in turn determine whether we bear fruit or wither.
Endurance Is Never Automatic
Following Christ isn’t magic. It requires repeated actions on our part, which develop into habits and life disciplines.
Christ-centered endurance doesn’t just happen, any more than running a marathon or climbing a mountain just happens or having a good marriage just happens.
Endurance requires a good plan, with clear and tangible steps that are taken one after the other. The farmer tills the soil. The weeds have to be removed. He doesn’t say, “Lord, please remove the weeds.” He prays, “Lord, give me your strength as I pull these weeds today.”
The athlete doesn’t say, “Lord, go out there and win that race.” He says, “God, empower me to run hard and do my best, and if you so desire it, to win.”
The key to spirituality is the development of little habits, such as Bible reading and memorization and prayer. In putting one foot in front of the other day after day, we become the kind of person who grows and endures rather than withers and dies.
Ten years from now, would you like to look back at your life, after you’ve made consistently good decisions about eating right and exercising regularly? Sure. But there’s a huge gap between wishes and reality. The bridge over the gap is self-control, a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). The key to self-control is discipline, which produces a long-term track record of small choices in which we yield to God’s Spirit, resulting in new habits and lifestyles. Spirit-control and self- control are interrelated in Scripture, because godly self-control is a yielding of self to God’s Spirit.
Most of us know the difference between eating cottage cheese and Krispy Kremes. Or the difference between a daily workout and spending life on a couch. Likewise, there’s a difference between whether you read the Bible or you don’t, whether you spend the evening watching American Idol or Survivor or reading the Bible or a great Christian book. While the difference today may seem small, the cumulative difference will be great.
Many people say they want to write a book. What they really want is to have written a book. Talking about writing a book is very easy. Writing a book is very difficult. That’s why there are more talkers than writers. And that’s why more people talk about the Christian life than live it.
We want the fruit of the spiritual disciplines, but often we’re unwilling to do the work they actually require. We want the rewards without the sacrifices.
One of my favorite websites for young people is www.TheRebelution.com, directed by Alex and Brett Harris. They challenge young people to “Do Hard Things” (the title of their first book). They’re saying, “Let’s not be a generation of self-centered materialists; let’s discipline ourselves to follow Jesus and do hard things to his glory.”
The life of endurance requires us doing many hard things. But these hard things are the very ones that bring purpose, joy, and satisfaction to our lives.
Endurance Involves Daily Choices to Do Good Works
I know what some readers are thinking right now. Doesn’t this emphasis on cultivating discipline in the Christian life sound legalistic, an attempt at works-righteousness? We shouldn’t be talking about works, just grace, right?
Wrong. While the Reformers opposed works-righteousness, they never opposed righteous works. Indeed, God honored a multitude of righteous works, and a spirit of disciplined endurance, to bring about the Reformation. It is God’s sovereign grace that empowers us to do good works, which are central to our calling:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this not from your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8–10)
Notice that this text doesn’t say God has prepared doctrines for us to believe, but works for us to do. He has a lifetime of good works laid out for us. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved to do good works by his power and to his glory.
Scripture frequently depicts God’s empowerment of us alongside our effort to live out the empowered Christian life: “Him we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone . . . that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For to this end I toil, struggling with all his energy that he so powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28–29).
So, if you wish to persevere, ask God to empower you to put one foot in front of the other. Then start moving your feet. When the alarm goes off in the morning, ask God for strength. But don’t ask him to levitate you out of bed, flip the Bible open, and turn the pages for you.
Endurance Means Keeping Discipline’s Purpose in Front of Us
In Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life Donald Whitney tells the story of six-year-old Kevin, whose parents enrolled him in music lessons. After school every afternoon, he sits dejectedly in the living room and strums a guitar while watching his buddies across the street play baseball.
One day Kevin is visited by an angel, who takes him to Carnegie Hall. Kevin witnesses onstage a great guitar player. Kevin’s awed by the man’s skill and the beauty of his performance. Finally the angel asks, “What do you think, Kevin?” His answer is, “Wow!”
Suddenly they’re back in Kevin’s living room. The angel tells him, “The wonderful musician you saw is you in another fifteen years.” Then he adds, “But only if you practice!”
Kevin is energized. Now he has a vision, a purpose for his daily disciplines. Practice can still be hard, but it’s worthwhile because he sees its purpose, he sees what it will make him into.
“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7, NASB). The Greek word for discipline here means to exercise.
Exercise isn’t glorious, any more than guitar practice is glorious. I help coach high school tennis. We’re constantly working on things in practice that will help us in competition. Teams that don’t practice don’t win. Athletes who don’t practice don’t excel or endure in their sport.
Whenever I’m tempted not to exercise, which is often, I remind myself of the purpose of exercise, the end result, and the rewards it brings. Also, the consequences of not exercising. I do the same with the spiritual disciplines, rehearsing their purpose and results, as well as the consequences of not doing them. This motivates me.
When was the last time you spent time with God, studied Scripture, or read a great book and later regretted it? Why do we neglect what most enriches us and brings us joy and contentment?
“The key to spirituality is the development of little habits.”
If you don’t have the purpose of that discipline clear in your mind, you’ll turn off the alarm and stay in bed. If you’re determined to start the day with God, you’ll have to drag your body out of bed. There’s no such thing as spiritual disciplines without the physical disciplines that make them possible.
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. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24–27)
After telling Timothy he should endure hardship as a good soldier, Paul says, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hardworking farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops” (2 Timothy 2:3–7).
What do soldiers, athletes, and farmers have in common? They all take physical action. They are disciplined. They are deliberate. They work hard. Only then do they enjoy the pleasure of victory and harvest. Without hard work, no Christian will endure.
Dallas Willard says in The Spirit of the Disciplines:
It is part of the misguided and whimsical condition of humankind that we so devoutly believe in the power of effort-at-the-moment-of- action alone to accomplish what we want and completely ignore the need for character change in our lives as a whole. The general failing is to want what is right and important but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy. This is the feature of human character that explains why the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it a reality. (Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives [HarperCollins, 1991], 6)
Offering Our Bodies for the Life of Endurance
Endurance requires a lifetime of yielding your body to the Holy Spirit.
Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God . . . and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6:12–14, NIV)
What can we do without our bodies? That’s the significance of Romans 12:1–2:
I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (NIV)
Notice the interrelation of mind and body. It’s not just that we should renew our minds and expect that our bodies will follow. Rather, we offer our bodies to place ourselves where our minds can be renewed.
We use our hands to write the check and put it in the offering plate. Where we put our treasure through the physical discipline of giving, our hearts will follow (Matthew 6:21).
We open our mouths to share the gospel. We move our legs to run from immorality. We avert our eyes to avoid looking at someone with lust.
Bodily actions open a Bible and turn off a television. To read a book or listen to God we have to make a concerted effort to turn our ears and eyes away from this loud, invasive world.
We’re not only spiritual beings, we’re physical. If we don’t offer our bodies as living sacrifices, our minds won’t be renewed. Why? Because our minds will only be fed and shaped by the input our bodies provide them.
Consider again Psalm 1. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” In each case, there is a physical action — walk, stand, sit. To meditate on the Word involves opening it with our hands, looking at it with our eyes, or speaking it with our lips.
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time” (Ephesians 5:15–16). Why not redeem two hours of your day that you would have spent on television, newspaper, video games, phone, working overtime, or hobbies? Change your habits. Spend one hour meditating on and/or memorizing Scripture. Spend the other hour reading a great book. Share what you’re learning with your spouse and children, or a friend.
Listen to Scripture and audio books and praise music while you fold clothes, pull weeds, or drive. Say no to talk radio or sports radio, not because they’re bad but because you have something better to do. Fast from television, radio, and the Internet for a week. Discover how much more time you have. Redeem that time by establishing new habits of cultivating your inner life and learning to abide in Christ. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit; for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Give Jesus first place in your life. Don’t just let your life happen, choose what to do with it, or in the end you’ll wonder where it went. If you’re going to persevere as Christ’s follower, you must consciously choose not to squander your life or let it idle away, but to invest it in what matters.
Choosing Companions for the Life of Endurance
You will become the kind of person you choose to spend time with, whether at work or school or church or the coffee shop. “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
Talk to those who’ve endured, and you’ll find they’ve chosen good friends who raise the bar instead of lowering it. Make sure your friendships are centered on Christ. If your closest friends don’t follow Jesus, you’ll have all kinds of daily reasons not to follow him. If they do follow Jesus, positive peer pressure will hold you accountable to the life of discipleship. “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). Whom we choose to spend our leisure time with will dramatically shape our lives.
Television and reading both put us in someone’s company, and remove us from someone else’s company. You decide: will you be different because you put yourself in the company of Spurgeon rather than Seinfeld? Over the long haul, will you grow closer to God and your family and your neighbor by watching television, or by turning it off and doing something that matters, something that’s an investment in eternity?
A great way to endure in the Christian life is to study and pattern your life after followers of Jesus who have lived a long obedience in the same direction. To do this, you must read history and biographies. Take your cues from dead people who still live rather than the living who are dead. Compare reading a biography of William Wilberforce or Amy Carmichael to watching The Simpsons or a sitcom. Which will help you grow in Christlikeness? Take your eyes off celebrities and put them on followers of Jesus. Ask yourself, what did they do to become who they became, and how can I arrange my life to follow their example?
You needn’t read just about pastors or theologians. Stanley Tam is a businessman who declared God to be the owner of his company, U.S. Plastic. R.G. Letourneau, the inventor of earth-moving machines, gave 90% of his salary to God.
God has also placed in your church examples of a long obedience in the same direction. Find them and spend time with them. Sit at the feet of the wise, not fools.
Bad books are poor companions; good books are great friends. I’ve just finished rereading Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. This morning I was reading C.S. Lewis, and his fingerprints are still on me this afternoon. I enjoy good movies and a limited amount of television. But the fact is, had I spent the day watching television, I wouldn’t have progressed in a life of discipleship.
That’s why I’m deeply concerned about the plummeting literacy rate, especially among young men. Increasingly, boys spend their time on video games, movies, television, websites, iPods, and phones that have everything from text messaging to Internet to television. They are reading significantly less than boys of previous generations. Boys who don’t read become men who don’t read. If someone’s not a reader, he’s not a reader of God’s Word. Unless this trend is reversed — which will not happen without decisive intervention — it will result in a tide of unrighteous thinking and living, as well as a vast crisis of leadership in tomorrow’s church.
We are in serious danger of losing coming generations to shallowness, immorality, and heresy because they are not digging deep into Scripture and great books grounded in Scripture. Families and churches who are committed to building Christian character that will endure must address this problem head-on.
Enduring by Anticipating Our True Country
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:13)
He was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God . . . they were strangers and exiles on the earth . . . seeking a homeland . . . they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:10, 13–16)
These passages speak of looking forward to our home in heaven. On the New Earth as resurrected people we’ll forever dwell with our Lord Jesus, reigning over God’s creation as he first intended. Yet many Christians are not looking forward to this. They are looking forward to no more than promotion or retirement. With such unworthy and short-term dreams, they cannot endure the hardships of discipleship or enjoy its pleasures.
Consider how hardship looks from an eternal perspective:
The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revelation of the sons of God . . . the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption. (Romans 8:19)
For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. (2 Corinthians 4:17–18)
One day we’ll be with the Person we were made for, living in the Place we were made for. Joy will be the air we breathe. We will be forever grateful there for the persevering grace extended to us by Jesus, King of kings.
We should remind ourselves regularly that the best is yet to be. We have yet to reach our peaks, and when we reach them in the resurrection, we will never pass them. This assurance will help us here and now live self-controlled and disciplined lives of deferred gratification, knowing that eternal rewards await us in the presence of our Lord, the Headwaters of Eternal Joy.
Humility, Generosity, and Purity as Paths to Endurance
Clothe yourselves . . . with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. (1 Peter 5:5–6)
Choose pride and you get God’s opposition. Choose humility and you get God’s grace. This is why the proud fall away while the humble endure. It’s why none of us should ever view ourselves as celebrities, only servants. We are God’s errand boys and girls. And what a privilege that is!
God humbles us in the ways he knows best. Two of the best things God ever did for me were to give me a chronic disease (insulin-dependent diabetes), and abortion-clinic lawsuits that forced me to resign as pastor of the church I loved. I wouldn’t have chosen either, but I’d gladly take both rather than give up what I’ve learned about trusting God. Through our thorns in the flesh God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Perhaps the two greatest ways God takes down the proud are the two greatest threats to endurance in the Christian life: our culture’s twin idols of Money and Sex.
The Idol of Money
Jesus warns about being choked by “the deceitfulness of riches” (Matthew 13:20–22). Wealth promises what it never delivers: fulfillment, contentment, joy. Things have mass, and mass has gravity, and gravity puts people in orbit around things. They become our center instead of Christ.
Those deceived by the health-and-wealth gospel often fall away when illness, suffering, and poverty strike. They imagine God has broken his promises, because they’ve ignored promises such as “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Christians around the world know suffering and glorify God in their suffering, enduring to the end. Prosperity theology, entitlement theology, is not from Jesus — it’s the creation of Christianized western materialism. Any gospel that is truer in California than in China is not the true gospel.
“The best is yet to be.”
As I address in my books The Treasure Principle and Money, Possessions and Eternity, giving is the only antidote to materialism. One of the best ways to persevere in your faith is to give away more, leaving yourself with fewer vested interests in what distracts you from Christ and more in what draws you to him. As Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
So why not determine a finish line of what you and your family need to live on and give away the rest to God’s Kingdom? What you keep will not satisfy you; what you give will loosen Money’s hold on you and help you experience the grip of Christ’s grace.
We know the prayer warriors in our churches. Where are the giving warriors? Where does the next generation look to be mentored in giving? How can we expect them to live lives of Christian perseverance when they have learned from us to be Christian materialists?
The Idol of Sex
Sexual immorality is the other great deterrent to enduring in the Christian life. Countless Christians, including church leaders, have been shipwrecked through one unwise choice after another that leads eventually to moral ruin. Those who imagine they’re not in danger of being robbed will leave cash out in plain sight and fail to lock the door. Those who think sexual immorality won’t happen to them likewise make unwise choices in where they go and what they do and with whom they spend time that virtually guarantee it will.
Satan has targeted us for immorality, and society provides no end of ammunition. Tragically, even most Christian homes provide access to it. Christian parents must stop being naive and start protecting their children. If you have a teenage boy with Internet access in his room, you might as well fill his closet with hundreds of pornographic magazines and say, “Don’t look at them.” If that seems harsh, you don’t understand how many young men, including those in the church, are becoming enslaved to pornography in their own homes. (And how many Christian girls are visiting chat rooms and flirting with men.)
A lasting legacy of Christ-centeredness cannot be left by those captive to lust. When we allow our children access to pornography, chat rooms, and much of what’s found on MySpace, as well as television and movies saturated with immorality, we are undermining anything they are learning about Jesus. These things pull them away from Jesus, never toward him.
If we and they are to endure in the Christian life, we must topple the Sex idol and guard our hearts, giving ourselves to Jesus anew each day, each hour. Only then will we be set free from the bondage to sin that now dominates popular culture. Only then will we be able to protect our children. Certainly we will never succeed in guiding them and guarding them from what is enslaving us.
Conclusion: The Elliot Brother You Don’t Know
January 2006 was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the five missionaries martyred in Ecuador. That month in our church services I interviewed Steve Saint, son of Nate Saint, and Mincaye, one of the tribal warriors who killed the missionaries and later came to faith in Christ. One of Ed McCully’s sons joined us when we were invited by Jim Elliot’s family to have dinner in Portland at the house Jim grew up in.
There we were, with family members of three of the five martyrs, along with Mincaye, who is like family to them now. Also with us were Jim Elliot’s older brother, Bert, and his wife, Colleen. In 1949, when Bert and Colleen were students at Multnomah Bible College, they were invited to Peru by a missionary. They became missionaries to Peru years before Jim went to Ecuador.
That January when we met them they were on a furlough. When we were talking about Peru, Bert smiled and said, “I can’t wait to get back.” Now in their eighties, they’re nearing their sixtieth year as missionaries. Until that weekend I didn’t know anything about these people. Bert and Colleen Elliot will enter God’s Kingdom “under the radar” of the church at large, but not under God’s.
Bert said something to me that day I’ll never forget: “Jim and I both served Christ, but differently. Jim was a great meteor, streaking through the sky.”
Bert didn’t finish by describing himself. But I’ll describe him this way: a faint star that rises night after night and faithfully crosses the same path in the sky, unnoticed on earth.
Unlike his brother Jim, the shooting star.
I believe Jim Elliot is experiencing great reward. But I wouldn’t be surprised to one day discover that Bert and Colleen Elliot’s reward is even greater.
Multitudes that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:2–3, NIV)
Bert and Colleen Elliot have lived a long obedience in the same direction. Whether we follow God to leave our country or to stay here, all of us are likewise called to a life of faithful endurance, empowered by Christ.
Wouldn’t it be great to get to the end of our lives with as few regrets as possible?
So let’s ask ourselves, when our life here is over, what will we wish we’d done less of and more of? In terms of character-building choices, why not ask God to empower you to spend the rest of your life closing the gap between what you’ll wish you would have done and what you really have done?