My father used to coach track and field, specifically running. For many years he coached a girls’ cross country team. Unlike the 100 metre dash where participants finish milliseconds apart from each other, long distance and cross country runners usually don’t have someone running right beside them. So the only way to see if someone is closing in on you is to turn your head and look behind you. This will cost you precious time, may cost you a personal best and may cost you victory. Any good coach will tell you to run your own race and don’t look back.
The Apostle Paul gave that same advice to the people of Philippi, (Philippians 3:12-14) and it applies to us as well. Paul had been regarded as a Christian leader for about 30 years when he wrote this letter, and he encouraged people to follow his example. (Philippians 3:17) But he also wanted to make it clear that he did not believe that he had reached the top level of spiritual maturity. He was still running the race too. He was still striving toward the goal that he outlined in Philippians 3:10-11. The word translated goal (Philippians 3:14) is actually a goal mark, the finish line. The analogy of running a race was a common metaphor in Paul’s writings, (I Corinthians 9:24-27, II Timothy 2:5, II Timothy 4:7) and he uses it again here. His audience would have been very familiar with the Greek games which we now know as the Olympics, and so they would have understood his imagery.
When Paul says that he is forgetting the things that are behind, (Philippians 3:13) he does not mean that he literally cannot remember. Unless some health reason affects our cognitive function, we cannot force ourselves to not remember, though sometimes that ability would be highly desirable. What Paul means is that he won’t let his past failures or successes influence him. Sometimes we dwell on our failures and replay in our minds what we should have done differently, even though the damage has already been done. Sometimes we think about our successes and believe that we have already attained our goal. That reminds me of a different race, the one between the tortoise and the hare. The hare was so confident of his ability to outrun the tortoise that he stopped and took a nap. The tortoise toddled right past him. We should not assume that the last success we had is enough. Instead, like Paul, we should focus on the future and continue striving to be more like Christ.
Serious runners are devoted to their sport; they train, they follow a healthy diet, and they focus on what it takes to do their best. Paul encourages us to have the same devotion, discipline and determination. We will face obstacles. Like the cross country runner we will encounter hills and valleys and a few potholes along the way. We must do our best to get through them with God’s grace. Keep running the race. Don’t compare yourself with others. Set your standards based on what God desires from you, and don’t look back.
I walked into the grocery store yesterday morning, but unlike the many people looking at the large variety of flower arrangements just inside the door, I was there to buy food. When I got to the check-out, there were two lanes open—the express lane and a lane dedicated to flower sales only. Yes, it was Valentine’s Day, the one day a year set aside to celebrate love with hearts and flowers, red and pink. Now as much as I think that you should show your love every day of the year, I don’t have a problem with setting aside one day in particular to make a point of showing it. I think mothers should be celebrated every day of the year too, but if it weren’t for Mother’s Day, we might not ever get around to saying thank you.
My problem with Valentine’s Day is more about people's perceptions of what love is. Real love is not all about hearts and flowers. It’s not always pretty. Love is about commitment and sacrifice. When you make a vow to love someone until death separates you, that is going to take some work. For all those who made or accepted proposals of marriage yesterday, you need to realize that a time will come when those warm fuzzy feelings will wear off, and you will have to face reality. I hope that you never have to face devastating things together, but you might, and you will certainly have to face daily routine—jobs, laundry, bill paying, choosing between one person’s wishes and the other’s. Are you willing to put someone else’s needs and desires above your own? Are you willing to risk your life for them?
John 15:13 tells us that there is no greater love than laying down your life for someone else. This is what Christ did for us. God loved us so much that He sent His son (John 3:16) to pay the penalty for our sin, to be our substitute so that we would not have to face the punishment that was intended for us. (Romans 5:8, I John 2:2, I John 4:10) It is hard to imagine that kind of love, but that is what Jesus commands in John 15:12. Love others as I have loved you. There is no greater love than laying down your life for your friends. You are my friends if you love each other this way. (John 15:12-14 LC paraphrase) Do you think that you are ready to show that kind of love? Peter thought he was too, (Mark 14:31), but after the rooster crowed in the morning he realized the truth. (Mark 14:66-72) Loving as Jesus loved is a lot to live up to, but this is what true love means.
Do you ever have days when you just don’t feel like doing anything? I think that’s okay as long as they are balanced with days where you are all fired up to do something great too. I know that I always feel better at the end of a day when I’ve accomplished something, and preferably several things. Just like the fig tree in Luke 13:6-9, we are meant to be productive.
The fig tree in this parable was planted in a vineyard. That means that it was in a place where it would be tended by a viticulturist—the gardener. It received better care than most fig trees, so one would expect it to be healthy and fruitful. In the same way, we are cared for by God, given His grace, blessings and power. Philippians 4:13 tells us that we can do all things through Christ’s strength. We, however, have to act; we need to make use of that power.
When the owner of the fig tree saw that the tree was still not providing any fruit after three years, he decided it was time to get rid of it. The gardener asked for a reprieve, for one more chance, and he would work even harder to help that fig tree. We serve a God of second chances, a God of mercy. We often get another chance just as that fig tree did. In the same way that the gardener interceded for that tree, Christ and the Holy Spirit (and often friends and family) are interceding for us. (Romans 8:34, Romans 8:26) But the chances won’t last forever. At some point we need to make a decision about whom we will serve; if we choose not to serve God, we will be cut off from Him.
And it will be God who decides. The gardener was the one who asked for the reprieve, and he was the one who would do the extra work to try to make the tree more fruitful, but in the end it would be the owner of the tree who would cut it down. We are not the judges who will determine each other’s fate; God is.
Matthew 6:19-21 outlines for us what our attitude toward money and material possessions should be. It is not that we need to take a vow of poverty, but we need to prioritize what is important to us. It is not wrong to have money or material possessions, but it is wrong to rely on them as our source of provision, for all good gifts come from the Father above. (James 1:17) Anything that is of earthly value is temporal and subject to destruction or theft, but things of eternal value can never be taken away or destroyed. God, however, as in all things, gives us the freedom to choose what matters most to us.
Let me be clear: It is not wrong to work for earthly wealth. As a matter of fact the Bible warns us to be diligent rather than lazy. (Proverbs 19:15, Ecclesiastes 10:18) It is not wrong to have material possessions. God knows that we need clothing, food and shelter, (Matthew 6:32) and that we need money to negotiate our way through this life. The important point here is where our priorities are. The acquisition of material goods should not be our end goal; they should help us to reach our end goal which should be to live as God has called us to live. That doesn’t just mean putting some cash in the offering plate on Sunday. It means living in a way that pleases God. One of the ways we can do that is to provide for the less fortunate around us. (James 1:27)
Interestingly, Matthew 6:21 says that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. It is not the other way around. We can make a conscious choice about what we do with our treasures, and our hearts will follow. If we choose to use our treasures in the pursuit of God’s kingdom, He will provide the rest. (Matthew 6:33)
Something I said in my last blog post (John 1:14, January 7) inspired me to look up Colossians 3:23-24. My question from the passage in John was how would it change your life if Jesus moved in next door? Colossians 3:23 tells us that it doesn’t matter what we are doing, or what human person asked us to do it, we are really working for God.
From the previous verse we see that this passage refers to slaves working for their masters, but in today’s context the principle would apply just as well to employees, children and students. How do you react when your boss asks you to do something that isn’t technically in your job description, or you feel is beneath you? What is a child’s usual response when asked to clean his room? What about students who let other members of the group carry the load on a group project? Would it make a difference if Jesus had asked you to do it? It’s true; your boss’ motives may not be as pure, selfless and forward-thinking as Jesus’ are, but her authority still needs to be respected.
Verse 23 also tells us to work with enthusiasm. The King James version uses the term heartily; the original Greek means from the soul. Now think about this for a minute. When you are doing the dishes or the laundry or taking out the trash, are you doing it with enthusiasm? These are not the most glamourous tasks, but they deserve the best of your ability. They may seem like thankless jobs, because there’s a good chance that no one ever says thank you for doing them, but the Lord will reward you. When you are working for Him, what others think won’t matter to you.
You may not get a raise or promotion by working those overtime hours when your boss asks you to at the last minute. You may not get an A on that group assignment, or a bonus in your allowance for cleaning up your room. Earthly rewards are not always fair or reliable. Sometimes you get praise for what others have done, and sometimes you don’t get the praise you deserve. Sometimes it seems like your efforts are quickly forgotten. God doesn’t forget. Your reward from God will not be based on the amount of talent you have, or how popular you are, or how much money you earned. The reward He gives you will be for your attitude and your faithfulness. Did you give God your very best effort? Jesus will be doing your final performance review; are you ready?