In my previous post I talked about how the Christian life will necessarily involve some pain and discomfort. In this article I will discuss two important measures we can take that will help us persevere through that hardship. Although these actions are basically two sides of the same coin, I think it is helpful to speak of them separately.
1. Remember That This Fallen World Is Not Our Home
First, remember that that we are not meant to settle here; don’t expect it to feel like home.
I enjoy speaking at Bible camps. There’s one spot in northern Canada that I’ve visited several times. The people are great and the setting is beautiful. However, it’s simply not a very comfortable place to stay. The cabins are old, the mosquitoes are massive, and the ground is covered in fine sand that gets everywhere. Everyone walks around in varying states of grubbiness all week. I have always had a wonderful time there, though; it never even crossed my mind to complain about the conditions. In fact, I hardly ever heard a camper complain about them either.
The reason no one griped, of course, is that we were camping! Camping is not supposed to be completely comfortable. If you had all the amenities of home, it wouldn’t be camping. The whole idea is to get away from home and rough it for a while. Neither the campers nor I complained because we weren’t expecting anything better. Those that complained didn’t understand camping. The rest of us realized that the camp was not our home and that we would leave it in a short time. We were at the camp not to settle down, but to accomplish certain tasks and then leave. I was there to speak; they were there to make friends, learn and have fun. After that mission was accomplished, we would all go get comfortable again. With that mindset, putting up with a little discomfort was not difficult at all.
On the other hand, if I had gone to the camp expecting to have all the luxuries of home or had gone there with a different objective than I did, I probably would have been miserable and ineffective. However, that would have been my fault for having improper expectations and for not realizing my true situation.
This is why God was so angry with the Israelites when they complained while crossing the wilderness. They should have remembered their situation and their mission and adjusted their mindset accordingly. They were sojourners in the wilderness, traveling campers as it were. That they expected all the comforts of the Promised Land (or Egypt) was not reasonable and showed they had strayed from their mission and forgotten what they were doing. Athletes in the middle of a race and soldiers in the middle of a fight should not expect to feel as comfortable as they do when they are home resting on the sofa. If they start to believe that races and battles should be comfortable, they will certainly lose.
2. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
The second principle goes with the first. Not only do we need to remember that this is not our home, but we also need to focus on the place that is our home. We need to keep remembering the goal of our journey, Heaven. We must keep our eyes on the prize.
Top athletes are driven by one thing: being the best. They are focused on the prize that comes with victory. To win a marathon, for example, one must have a single-minded obsession with winning and getting the prize. Only those who can keep that at the forefront of their thoughts, rather than the pain of the cramping in their thigh, will have a chance.
During their run to the National Hockey League finals one year, the coach of the Anaheim Ducks brought the Stanley Cup into the team’s dressing room so that his players could focus on it and envision themselves carrying it around the ice in victory. He wanted them to be clear about what they were sacrificing all their time and effort for. He understood that those who cannot see the goal cannot accomplish it. Of course, keeping your eyes on the prize does not guarantee victory – the Ducks eventually lost – but it certainly makes winning much more likely. Clearly seeing the objective of the struggle is essential.
In the same way, soldiers need to be able to focus on the purpose for which they are fighting. If they can envision the gains a victory will bring, sacrifice will come easier. Soldiers that can focus on the big prize will be able to face the struggle with the strength to make it through the pain. As soon as soldiers lose sight of that prize (or do not believe there is a reward worth fighting for), all is lost.
Applying this principle to the Exodus story, the Israelites should have kept thinking about Canaan, the land flowing with milk and honey. If they had kept the country of promise at the forefront of their thoughts, they wouldn’t have been so bogged down by the troubles that came their way. They needed to be driven, just as any athlete or soldier, by their desire to gain that prize.
For us, this means being driven by the reward of Heaven. We need to have a single-minded obsession with getting to our true home and enjoying that prize. The great men and women of faith certainly did. In fact, the primary characteristic of the heroes listed in Hebrews 11 is their obsession with Heaven. As we survey these saints, notice what motivated them: they realized that this world was not their home and they stayed focused on the prize they would receive at the end of their journey.
What Drove the Heroes of Faith
After praising the faith of Abel and Enoch, the author of Hebrews explains that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6). Trusting that God will reward his servants is an essential part of faith. Obedience flows from being sure that it will be worth it in the end. We trust that the reward will be great and focus on it as an encouragement to persevere. Look at the Abraham’s story, for example:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Heb. 11:8-10)
Abraham lived in tents as a sojourner, just like his descendents later would. And just like they should have but didn’t, he accepted his predicament without complaining. There are two reasons he was able to do this: Abraham realized that he wasn’t home yet and was focused on the future. He understood that one day he would lay aside his tent for the solid structures of Heaven and he continually looked forward to this reward.
After explaining what motivated Abraham, the author of Hebrews then summarizes the first part of the chapter by explaining that all the rest of the faith heroes were driven by their longing for Heaven as well.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:13-16)
Here is a perfect example of taking the two measures I have recommended. The people remembered that this world is not their home (“admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth”) and they kept their eyes on Heaven (“they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one”). God was proud to prepare a place for them.
Later in the passage we learn what motivated Moses to give up royalty and identify with his people. He had his eyes on the prize.
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. (Heb. 11:24-26)
Moses chose to give up the personal peace and prosperity of his life in Pharaoh’s palace so that he could gain a much bigger reward. His example was followed by many, many others. In fact, a few verses later we read about men and women who not only met with discomfort, but willingly gave up their lives so that they would gain “a better resurrection.” People don’t get more Heaven-focused than this:
Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Heb. 11:35b-40)
“The world was not worthy of them!” What a wonderful way to be remembered. These giants of faith did not receive their reward while on earth, but they weren’t expecting it on earth. The reward they had been promised was Heaven.
The practical application for us is clear: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1). We are to be like these spiritual masters. We are not to get bogged down by persecutions, the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth. We are not to let the desire for personal peace and prosperity keep us from running the race to the end. We are to keep our eyes firmly on the prize.
To finish the argument, the author of Hebrews then gives us the ultimate example to follow. In the matter of focusing on future rewards to get us through tough times, we are, in fact, to be like Jesus. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:2-3).
What enabled Jesus to persevere when he was at his lowest point? The joy set before him! Jesus had a clear vision of the reward he would receive at the end of his service. He saw himself sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God. According to this passage, Jesus was able to withstand the beatings and the cross because he had his mind focused on Heaven. He had his eyes on the prize. We are to do the same. Setting our eyes on the prize will keep us from growing weary and losing heart in the middle of the wilderness.
Paul so longed to win the prize of Heaven that the thought of sharing in Christ’s sufferings to get it was actually appealing to him.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:10-14)
Paul didn’t spend his life running the race and fighting the fight in order to lose. Paul wanted that reward, and he focused accordingly:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Paul succeeded in his quest. These are some of his last recorded words:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim. 4:6-8)
Paul longed for the day of Christ’s appearing because he knew that would be the day when he would finally get his prize. The race would be over, the battle won. He took this promise of Jesus seriously: “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12-13).
We need to meditate on that promise at all times. Whenever our vision of that great day becomes blurry, we are in danger of falling into the comfort trap.
Donald Johnson is the author of How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics