“In America, worry has become part of our national culture. You could write on countless American gravestones the epitaph: ‘Hurried, Worried, Buried.’"
I first read those words by John Haggai 15 years ago, but they seem uniquely suited to our current Age of Anxiety. An article from the Daily Mail Online says that 2012 could be “the most frightening year in living memory.” It begins with these ominous words:
The dawn of a new year is usually a time of hope and ambition, of dreams for the future and thoughts of a better life. But it is a long time since many of us looked forward to the new year with such anxiety, even dread.
The article mentions the possible collapse of the Euro, trouble in the Middle East, the rise of China, and the possibility of a global recession. “In the Middle East, the excitement of the Arab Spring has long since curdled into sectarian tension and fears of Islamic fundamentalism.” A long comparison of the world in 2012 with the world in 1932 leads to this sobering conclusion:
The lesson of history is that tough times often reward the desperate and dangerous, from angry demagogues to anarchists and nationalists, from seething mobs to expansionist empires.
Thus we enter what may be the most important twelve months in the last 80 years. Pundits grow rich by offering predictions that amount to nothing more than educated guesses. No wonder the rest of us feel shaky and uncertain. I did a radio broadcast last week with a friend who told me on the air that he felt very uneasy about the road ahead. Partly he said that because of the way the world is going and partly because of some very personal concerns.
I can’t blame anyone for feeling a bit worried right now.
I can’t blame anyone for feeling a bit worried right now. Even though the Bible says “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6), most of us are anxious about something. One writer called worry “a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind.” Someone else said that worry is “the interest paid by those who borrow trouble.” To quote John Haggai once again, worry is “anxiety over the future that dominates the present.”
Surely that stands as a good description for the fear that grips many hearts around the world. Against the prevailing uncertainty in these early days of 2012, we have a clear reminder from our Lord in Matthew 6:27,
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”
Think about it. Can you add an hour to your life by your worry? No, but your worry may actually shorten your life by causing so much stress that your health breaks down. Jesus gave us this practical admonition that seems well-suited for these days:
“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34).
You’ve got plenty of trouble right now. Why borrow trouble from tomorrow?
There are at least seven reasons why worry is counterproductive:
It wastes time that could be spent in better ways.
It focuses on the problem, not the solution.
It causes us to assume responsibility that belongs only to God.
It paralyzes us with fear.
It saps our joy.
It drains our energy.
It keeps us sidetracked when we could be doing God’s will.
There is no perfection in this life.
If we want to get off to a good start this year, we need to begin in the right place. Our text helps us at the level of personal motivation by revealing the heart of our faith.
It begins with a very frank admission.
I. A Humble Evaluation
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect“ (v. 12a).
There is a refreshing honesty about these words. If anyone had reason to brag about his accomplishments, you would think it would be the Apostle Paul. But he doesn’t do that. Despite having met the Lord on the Damascus Road, despite having preached across the eastern Mediterranean region, despite being an apostle called by God, despite writing letters inspired by the Holy Spirit, despite all that he had endured, he does not brag about anything he has said or done.
None of that matters to him.
He knows that he is a sinner saved by grace. In another place he even calls himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Despite all that he had done, he makes no claim of being perfect or having arrived in his own spiritual journey.
There is no perfection in this life.
That fact is hard for some people to grasp. Several times lately I have had the chance to share a truth that is both simple and profound. Whenever we face a difficulty in life, we must begin by saying, “It is what it is." That’s not easy to do. Often we would rather play games, make excuses, cover up, pretend, ignore the obvious, and live in fantasy land.
There is no getting better until you say, “It is what it is.”
You can’t get better until you come to grips with reality. “It is what it is.”
It’s hard to admit your marriage is in trouble.
It’s hard to admit your career is on the rocks.
It’s hard to admit your dreams are smashed.
It’s hard to admit your children are struggling.
It’s hard to admit you’re broke.
It’s hard to admit you have a problem with alcohol.
It’s hard to admit you’ve got a critical spirit.
It’s hard to admit you’re filled with anger.
But there is no getting better until you say, “It is what it is.” It’s like going to the doctor and discovering that you have cancer. We have a dear friend who faced that bad news just a few weeks ago. Because she is young and in great physical condition, the news hit her hard. But she and her husband have not flinched from the bad news and are throwing themselves into the chemotherapy with all the strength and hope and faith they have, buoyed by the prayers and love of many people. I cannot say at this point what the final outcome will be, but I applaud our friends for facing the challenge head on.
So it is with all the trials of life. First we begin by saying, “It is what it is.” And then by God’s grace we move on from there.
We must repent of our repentance.
Notice that Paul plainly says, “I have not yet obtained.” One translation says, “I do not claim that I have already succeeded.” J. B. Phillips renders it in very pithy English: “I do not consider myself to have ‘arrived’, spiritually." That’s always a danger, especially for those who have been Christians for a long time. It’s easy to become such a “professional Christian” that you look down your nose at the struggles of others and go, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like that man.” It’s easy to become insensitive to sin because you think you are above it. Martin Luther remarked that pride is so deep within us that we must “repent of our repentance,” by which he meant that even our repenting is tinged with pride, e. g. “Look at me! I’m honest enough to repent of my sins. I’m not like you. I don’t cover things up.” Sin is so much with us that even our confession contains within it the seeds of our next transgression.
Were it not for grace, none of us could ever stand before the Lord.
Jesus is a wonderful Savior, and he is everything we are not.
I wrote the following Facebook status update (borrowed and rephrased from my friend Mike Calhoun) for January 1, 2012:
Good thought to start the year . . . I’m not as strong or as wise as I think I am, but God is stronger and wiser than I can imagine.
As of this morning 87 different people have “liked” that update. That’s a huge number of “likes” for me. I think people like it because it expresses a truth we all know but can’t quite say out loud. In our better moments we know the truth about ourselves:
We’re not as smart as we think we are.
We’re not as clever as we think we are.
We’re not as wise as we think we are.
We’re not as good as we think we are.
We’re not as strong as we think we are.
The only thing that keeps us going is this. Jesus is a wonderful Savior, and he is everything we are not.
The supreme purpose of my life is to discover His purpose for me!
He is strong.
He is wise.
He is good.
He is holy.
He is righteous.
He is loving.
He is merciful.
He is the way, the truth, and the life.
And he is all these things all the time far more than we can imagine.
II. A Holy Aspiration
“But I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (v. 12b).
Pause for a moment over that last phrase: “Christ Jesus took hold of me." The whole Christian life can be found in those six words.
Christ found me.
Christ saved me.
Christ has a purpose for my life.
The supreme purpose of my life is to discover his purpose for me!
1. It takes a lifetime.
2. It involves hard work and concentration (I press on....).
3. It leads to progressive growth in grace.
4. It develops the character of Christ in me.
III. A Hearty Determination
“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead" (v. 13).
Note the fierce concentration implicit in the words “one thing I do.” Here is a secret that applies across the board. To excel in any area of life, a person must say, “This one thing I do,” not “These 20 things I do.” A single-minded focus in any endeavor generally wins a great reward.
A person must say, “This one thing I do,” not “These 20 things I do.”
A great artist must say, “One thing I do.”
A gifted teacher must say, “One thing I do.”
A championship athlete must say, “One thing I do.”
A single parent raising her child must say, “One thing I do.”
A student who wants to graduate with honors must say, “One thing I do.”
Greatness in any arena comes to those who can say with the Apostle Paul, “One thing I do.” In his case, it meant looking to the heavenly goal of winning the prize. That phrase covers all that God has for us when we finally stand before Jesus Christ and hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord."
Most of us would rather say, “Many things I do” and it would be true because we are fragmented people. But Paul (who was the consummate man of action) could truthfully say, “One thing I do.”
Do you know what you are doing?
Perhaps it would be good for each of us to look in the mirror and ask, “Do you know what you are doing?” We’re all good at making lists. I’m rather good at it myself. I can make a list as long as my arm and then trick myself into thinking that my list equals my life. Or I can think that as long as I’ve got a list, I’ve got a clear purpose. But it’s not true. A list without a purpose is just a list. It keeps me busy (or at least looking busy) but what good is a list without a larger purpose?
Paul clarifies his purpose with two key phrases:
A. Forgetting what lies behind.
In Charles Bracelen Flood’s book Lee: The Last Years, he tells of a time after the Civil War when Robert E. Lee visited a woman who showed him the remains of a grand old tree in front of her home. There she cried bitterly that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Union artillery fire. She waited for Lee to condemn the North or at least sympathize with her loss. Lee paused and then said, “Cut it down, my dear madam, and forget it."
Surely this is a good word for a new year. What are we to forget?
The attacks of our enemies.
The praise of our friends.
We need “holy amnesia."
Let us lay aside even the accomplishments of the past year, our claim to fame, our name in the lights, the good things we think we have done, the stuff we do to make the world glad that we get out of bed in the morning, all the things we brag about, all the medals and honors and all the awards.
As the football coaches like to say, “Last year means nothing." How right they are. If we lost, it means nothing. If we won the Super Bowl, it means nothing. Whatever happened in 2011, you’ve got to let it go. I ran across a writer who said that we need “holy amnesia” about our victories and our defeats. That strikes me as entirely biblical. As long as we’re looking back, we can’t move forward.
B. Pressing on to what lies ahead.
When famed missionary Dr. David Livingstone returned from Africa to England, he was asked, “Where are you ready to go next?” “I am ready to go anywhere,” he replied, “provided it be forward." This must be the attitude of the child of God every single day. “Lord, I am ready to go wherever you lead, no matter where that takes me.” So many of us make our list and say, “Lord, if you don’t mind, I’m busy today so could you just initial this at the bottom, and I won’t bother you anymore.” But that’s not how it works. When people ask about the “secret” of God’s will, I tell them it begins in the morning when you say, “Lord, let me take the next step with you today."
If Paul were here today, he would say, “Press on!!!!”
Several days ago I watched a football game in which a key play near the end involved a runner stretching out for the goal line. As the opposing team gang-tackled him, he stretched the ball out as far as he could. Did the ball in fact break the plane of the goal line before he fell to the ground? At first it was hard to tell in the pile of players. But one replay showed that just barely, by a matter of inches, he had pushed the ball across the goal line.
That’s the sort of effort that wins in football and in the Christian life.
IV. A Heavenly Inclination
“I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (v. 14).
In the spiritual life, direction makes all the difference. True believers aren’t in heaven yet, but they aim their steps in that direction. In Paul’s case that involved both a sanctified forgetting and a resolute pushing forward.
In 1905 a young man from a wealthy family entered Yale University. His family intended that after completing his degree he would enter a suitable career in America. But God gripped his heart with the needs of China and he volunteered to go to that country with the gospel, much to the dismay of his family and friends. He left America but never made it to China, succumbing to a disease before reaching that distant shore. After his death, a note was found in his Bible that summarized his life: “No reserves. No retreats. No regrets.” I wonder how many of us could say the same thing?
Paul said, “I haven’t arrived yet, but I’m still climbing!”
If he were here today, he would say, “Press on!!!!”
We have too many “amateur Christians.”
It’s not enough to start well. You also have to end well. Someone has commented that the chief problem of the church today is that we have too many “amateur Christians." I think he meant that we have too many who just dabble at their faith. They are like the man who jumped on his horse and rode furiously in all directions.
Let me pose three questions for you to consider:
1. What is the goal of your life?
2. Why do you get up in the morning?
3. Why are you still here?
No one can say with certainty what the new year will bring or if we will even be here twelve months from now. But that thought should not alarm us in any way. To all our worries the Lord says quite simply:"Fear not.”
Will things get worse? Fear not.
Will I lose my health? Fear not.
Will I get cancer? Fear not.
Will I keep my job? Fear not.
Will my loved ones undergo hardship? Fear not.
Will my investments collapse? Fear not.
Will I run out of money this year? Fear not.
Will tragedy strike in my family? Fear not.
Will my children disappointment me? Fear not.
Will others ridicule my faith? Fear not.
Will my cherished plans come to nothing? Fear not.
Will my dreams turn to ashes? Fear not.
Will I face death this year? Fear not.
We of all people ought to be optimistic as we face a new year. We have a great future because we have a great God.
Chin up, child of God. Stop staring in the soup.
So chin up, child of God. Stop staring in the soup. Pull those shoulders back. Put a smile on your face. Take your troubles, wrap them up, and give them all to the Lord.
As the old chorus says,
Cheer up, ye saints of God.
There’s nothing to worry about.
Nothing to make you feel afraid,
Nothing to make you doubt.
Remember, Jesus never fails,
So why not trust Him and shout,
You’ll be sorry you worried at all tomorrow morning!
When we look at the world economy teetering on the brink of collapse, there are reasons for all of us to be concerned. But is it any worse for us than it was for the Apostle Paul in the first century? Living under a pagan Roman emperor whose values were far from Christian, Paul nevertheless found many reasons to press on for Jesus.
So we launch out with great faith into the new year. We’ll have our share of hard times, but overriding it all is the promise of God who said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
Lift up your head.
Be of good cheer.
The Lord is with you.
Fear not and Press on!
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