Abel. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. Sarah. Joseph. Moses. The people of Israel. Rahab. Gideon. Barak. Samson. Jephthah. David. Samuel. The prophets. (Hebrews 11, the list of the faithful.)
“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.” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV)
First of all, thank goodness the people included in this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ are flawed to various degrees, just like I am! When I was younger, I used to mistakenly imagine Christians of the past in heaven looking down at me disapprovingly and being disappointed/disgusted – not to mention Jesus or God’s perspective. (Couldn’t even bring myself there.) That sort of watchful ‘accountability’ is terribly disheartening, and resulted in my greatly desiring to let no one get to know me, lest they discover what all these heavenly witnesses knew better. Nevertheless, I know better now: Jesus’ perfect sacrifice is my identity, as with all of those in that cloud of witnesses. None of us could stand before God but for Christ, even if some appear somewhat more righteous than others. (Truthfully though, it also helped my acceptance of this truth to discover how others too were more sinful than I had first assumed, and that I wasn’t too sinful to be forgiven, or too damaged to be made new. Due to the helpfulness of this discovery for myself in making my acceptance of salvation in Christ a joyful thing, it has since been a personal conviction to freely share my dirt as is appropriate to the situation, but regardless of my own discomfort.)
Returning to that verse in Hebrews, the ESV Bible mentions “weight” rather than things that hinder, and the New KJV uses “ensnares” to describe sin rather than entangling. A snare, being a trap, is more active than the action of entangling, which seems more passive. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: we are bound and held captive by sin. Kinda like a slave. Last summer I received a copy of Slave by John MacArthur which I will finish this summer. (On my word, I shall!) It emphasizes the very Biblical but unsung idea of switching loyalties from being a slave to sin to being a slave of the Lord Jesus, and how this second ‘slavery’ is, in actual fact, freedom from sin and the various burdens of a sinful nature.
Recently, at a women’s retreat, I’ve been privileged to be read a list of hindrances by which we may be trapped, and these made me sit up and pay rapt attention.
- false accusations
- worry and fear
- pain of past and present hurts
- circumstances (health, physical limitations, finances, jobs…)
This made me sit up because as a Christian, I tend to unthinkingly categorize everything negative as sin when not every burden is technically sin, even if it resulted from sin or could result in sin in some way. The point is, though, that both burdens and sin are debilitating to our ability to run the race, to be a new creation, to have the courage to go and be a witness, to rejoice and to worship. Burdens are a yoke of slavery that prevents us from living as those who have been freed.
Anyhow, imagine a hot air balloon, the pictorial theme of the retreat weekend. Being tethered to the ground prevents it from soaring, but soaring willy-nilly is dangerous. Like us, when the balloon is tethered to Christ as a guide, then it can soar freely in safety.
But I don’t always feel like I soar, or am safe!
Where is Christ then? And there, something that John Piper said brought comfort: One of the greatest heartaches of the Christian walk is our slowness to change.
Didn’t Jesus wash me clean? Aren’t I free now? That certainly is a heartache of mine.
The following verse is so wonderful I’ll state it twice, in different versions:
“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14 ESV)
“…because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:14 NIV)
I promised spectacular grammar in the title of this post, and there it is. That Jesus “has made perfect” is stated in present perfect tense, which deals with a past event that has present relevance. (E.g. “I have lived in Vancouver.” I can call myself a West Coaster, but Eastern Canada is my home now.) On the other hand, “those who are being made holy” is in present continuous tense, which deals with events that are in progress now and will be in progress for an unspecified time yet. These two different time tenses happen in unison. Perfect. Holy. Finished and still in progress.
The good news, as I was reminded that weekend, is that “being on the way is proof that we have arrived.” Are we there yet? No, but yes. So keep going, whether the way is slow, tortuous, or quite circular at times. Take heart in the good news of the gospel of grace, and our sanctification that follows. “Our fight against sin is not simply to become perfect, but because we are.”
The funny thing is, when we are weak and struggling through little fault of our own, it is easy to turn to God and rely on Him. In stark contrast, when it is our folly, our lack of self control, our empty purpose, our pig-headed stubbornness, our self reliance, our apathy, our resentfulness, our bitterness, our unwillingness to forgive or anything else like that which has caused us to stumble, struggle and be faint, or even caused others to be hurt, it is harder to rely on God. “Do I have a right to?” subtly comes to mind.
Yes. Most assuredly so. You didn’t earn the right, but Jesus earned it for us, and at this time, you need to rely on the one who sanctifies us. You just gotta suck in your pride and look upon glorious, undeserved grace.
My favourite image from that hot air balloon themed retreat was that of the fire in the burners. In those times of fire and trial, our dependence on and closeness with Christ in the uncomfortable environment of hot air gives us lift to soar that a mild and cool environment does not. It’s like the special treat of trials, almost like a consolation prize, except that it’s much more, and conversely, is really the point of the trial, I would say. It’s hard to complain about difficulties when you see that God is bringing you closer to Himself through these things.
One last scribble that I took from just the first talk of the retreat: Living for Christ – waiting for our emotions to catch up.