I Press on Toward the Goal–Even When My Feet Are Dragging

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“Straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward” (Philippians 3:13-14, NIV).

Paul wouldn’t have chosen such words as “straining” and “press” if he had harbored any delusions that an effective Christian life was a casual stroll. We aren’t all called to the level of hardships that Paul endured, but we all have struggles that tempt us to wonder whether being welcomed into Heaven with a “Well done” will really be adequate reward. If I were to write my own version of 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, it would go something like this:

I want to be an effective servant of Christ. I work as hard as I can, but it seems all I receive in return is more struggles, plus the constant specter of clinical depression awaiting a chance to imprison me again. I have endured uncertain income, capricious clients, overloaded schedules, spoiled plans, horribly timed interruptions, and inconvenient mechanical failures. On top of everything else, no one seems to give me any credit for all the effort I put into staying on track and maintaining self-control. What happened to God’s promise not to let me be tempted beyond what I can bear?

Would it be that bad to take a lower spot in the eternal Kingdom in exchange for an easier ride on Earth?

Still, the Holy Spirit rarely allows believers to stay content with an attitude of “Thanks for saving my soul, Lord. Now just let me alone to enjoy this life, and I’ll see You in Heaven.” Accepting God’s offer of Heaven inevitably comes with the “side effect” of allowing Him free access to our consciences: we can brush off His promptings, we can snub Him and grieve Him and procrastinate indefinitely on following His instructions–but we never completely silence His determination to remake us in Christ’s image from the inside out. And if that purpose is best served by letting us go through hard times, so be it.

That said, if we are going through hard times, it isn’t necessarily because we’re failing to cooperate with God’s best purpose for our lives: as in Paul’s account of his experiences, often those who are most in God’s will have the hardest struggles. “God works all things out for good” can mean He uses the hard times to shake us out of complacency–or to keep us on the trajectory from amazing accomplishments to even more amazing accomplishments.

Where do I, personally, fall on that scale? Somewhere in the middle, moving forward in two-steps-forward-one-step-back-two-steps-forward fashion. Cooperating with God’s purpose, but not without a lot of whining and foot-dragging. Longing for major financial and vocational expansions to judge my progress by, but finding that “how many times this week have I felt miserable without expanding into conscious thoughts of self-pity?” seems a more relevant yardstick.

Someday soon, I expect that my outward achievements and my inside spiritual growth will gain noticeable speed. By then, God should have me thoroughly trained in accepting that this upward hike won’t end on a plateau where I can rest for the next thirty or forty years. The “goal” and the “prize” to which we’re called come only when we reach Heaven–we’re allowed rest stops along the way, but there’s no moving the finish line back to our present location. On the brighter side, this race isn’t about establishing speed records or getting there before the next runner–just about finishing well and running well.

And don’t beat yourself up if right now your “running” feels more like “trudging.” Even the heaviest steps forward are progress.

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Inside Out

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My weekly Bible study group has just begun a series on Discerning the Voice of God, by Priscilla Shirer and Tony Evans. The opening video includes a discussion of how we often don’t hear God speak because He doesn’t speak in the ways we were expecting–especially when He chooses to whisper, asks us to get our hands dirty, or assigns simple tasks when we wanted something spectacular.

One time we often get not-quite-what-we-wanted answers is when we ask God to change our circumstances, and He replies, “Let Me change you first.” It’s not just with other human beings that judging by outward appearances instead of by the heart can get us in trouble. We also judge the quality of our own lives by how well our surrounding circumstances are pleasing us–and we react indignantly when someone suggests that our own habits and attitudes may be contributing to our dissatisfaction. Even when that Someone is God.

Like it or not, God cares more about what’s going on inside us than what’s going on around us. After all, our circumstances are temporary, but our souls are eternal (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:18).

How can we best cooperate with God to improve our lives from the inside out?

Determine to Obey

Embarrassing as it is to admit, I have many times prayed, “God, take care of this situation however You think best,” then sulked when He didn’t reward my “submission” by making things come out the way I really wanted. At least I’m in good company. There’s no shortage of Christians who think they want to know God’s will, but are semiconsciously thinking, “Let God tell me what He wants me to do–so I can decide whether I want to do it.” Unless you’re prepared to follow God’s instructions no matter how far outside your comfort zone they take you, He can hardly be blamed for not bothering to tell you something He knows you won’t bother listening to.

Be Prepared for Some Uncertainty

If you aren’t tempted to ask, “God, are You sure?” when you first get marching orders, you’re sure to ask it down the road when you’re doing what you believed was God’s will–and it seems to be getting you nowhere or making things worse. Or perhaps other believers whom you consider mature and discerning are expressing doubts, and you figure they ought to know.

If you thought you heard God’s will clearly but now aren’t so sure:

  • Don’t try to reason it out on your own or even with the help of other Christians. Go back to the Source: pray about the situation and admit your doubts, asking God again to show you His will.
  • If you still aren’t sure, but know that the path you are taking is consistent with Scriptural principles and that it calls to your heart, continue forward in faith that so long as you stay in touch with God, He’ll personally make sure you stay aimed in the right direction. We often forget that the One Who keeps the planets in orbit can’t be deterred by a few stumbles on our part.
  • Whether you feel immediately reassured or not, do stay in touch with God and pray regularly that He will guide you. A common mistake among believers is to trust God’s leading until we’re sure we’re on the right path, then figure we can go it alone from there. It’s usually a couple of bends past that point that we wander off into the woods.

Be Spiritually Disciplined

Prayer, regular reading of Scripture, worshiping with other believers, and maintaining our integrity are essential to continuing in God’s will and in spiritual growth. Often, the oldest-and-simplest approaches really are the best.

  • Sick of hearing complaints and negativity everywhere you turn? My free list of "100 Ways to Live as an Optimist in a Pessimistic World" provides 10 x 10 life hacks to counter such attitudes. Get your free copy by signing up here, and you'll also be registered to receive twice-weekly emails of Christian mental-health and encouragement topics.

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    Bible quotes used in this blog are from the New Living Translation or the New International Version (1984). See http://www.biblegateway.com/ for copyright details.
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