Friday, March 27, 2009

omega talk: being tested


Who was the fastest person in the Bible?
Adam. The Bible is quite clear that he was first in the human race.

Speaking of races …

Did anyone here, by chance, run in the Austin marathon back in February? (Has anyone ever run a marathon? Heard of a marathon?) Good, we have a lot in common. I too have a history of competitive racing. Of course, it’s been a while, but back in 1994 I ran in the All Saints’ fifth grade 5K charity “fun run.” I didn’t win or anything, but I did receive a green “honorable mention” ribbon for my efforts. And so, all in all, I deem the race a success. Mainly because I finished. And as I’m sure you can imagine, finishing a race is a glorious thing.

But the most enjoyable part is always the beginning, or phase I as I call it. Phase I is when the race begins – because in phase I, running is actually fun. The body’s loose, the heart’s pumping, the blood’s flowing, and the sun’s shining. In phase I, your body feels like a well-oiled running machine. Now, how long this stage lasts depends on a runner’s athleticism and conditioning. For me, it lasted seven feet.

I wasn’t what you’d call “fit” back in fifth grade. And after the first of five K’s, I shifted from phase I to phase II, which is when running gets difficult. In phase II, your whole body aches, you can’t breathe, and the temptation to stop is overwhelming. And frankly, I wanted to stop, but I heard a voice. “Keep running,” it kept repeating. Keep running, keep running, keep running …

Marathon runners have a name for Phase II. It’s called “hitting a wall.” And to run well in phase II – to hit the wall and keep going – this is the ultimate test of a runner – because races are won or lost at “the wall.” You see, whenever we hit a wall we have to make a decision – we either quit or we invest everything in finishing well. Because starting a race is easy – anyone can do that. But to finish well – that’s glory. And finishing well, in a very real way, is the goal of Christian discipleship.

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” the writer of Hebrew says. In other words, “let us not quit whenever we hit the wall. Let’s do all we can to finish well.” This capacity to finish well is what the Bible calls perseverance. Perseverance is that virtue that enables us to honor long-term commitments – lifetime commitments – especially when honoring them becomes difficult.

Now, obviously, this raises a question: why is it so hard to finish well in the first place? The easy answer – we hit a wall. Or to put it in Biblical terms, our faith is tested. “Being tested” is what makes perseverance in the Christian life hard.

Now, we need to go ahead and acknowledge that as students – or as former students – we come to the table with a dysfunctional view of what “being tested” actually is. In other words, we can’t take what we’ve learned about “being tested” in the classroom and apply that to our spiritual life.

For example, let’s consider the parable of the unfair teacher. I mean, this guy’s impossible. He gives one test a year, and your entire grade is based on this one, impossible final. And for kicks, let’s just say you’re studying the American presidents. Well, you’ve studied pretty hard. You know the material. But when you walk into the classroom on the day of the test, you see 44 pictures on the wall – not of the presidents’ faces – but of their feet. And your test is to identify each American president by looking at his feet. Well, that’s an unfair test – an impossible test. Passing this test would be, shall we say, quite the feat.

And so you complain. “This test isn’t fair and it can’t be done.” “Then I’ll be forced to fail you,” your teacher responds. “Fine, fail me then” you shout, and then you storm out of the classroom. “Wait, I need to know your name,” the unfair teacher shouts as you’re leaving. “You’ve failed my test, you’re going to fail my course, and so I need to know your name.” And so you take off your shoes, show him your feet, and say “you tell me.” Get it?

The point behind the parable of the unfair teacher is this – each of us brings a skewed view of being tested to the table. You see, the purpose of the tests that we’re used is to evaluate us on a system of “works righteousness” – to use a theological term. In other words, we’re evaluated on how well we perform. After all, have any of you ever seen the word grace on one of your syllabi? Didn’t think so. You and I don’t associate being tested with fairness, or with love, or with competent teachers for that matter. And in our world, being tested isn’t always fair, and it’s rarely an act of love. But in God’s world – or in God’s kingdom – things are different. And so with that in mind, let’s hear what Paul has to say to the Corinthians:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. These things happened to them to serve as an example to us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that isn’t common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide a way out, so that you may have the strength to persevere. (1 Cor 1, 3, 5, 11-13)

How many of you have ever seen a sign like this? Or perhaps you’ve seen those electronic signs that say something like “slow down: 64 deaths on this highway last year” or “320 speeding tickets issued last month.” The purpose of these warning signs is simple: they want you to consider what’s happened in the past so that you don’t make the same mistake – so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

When it comes to the Corinthians, Paul is very concerned with history repeating itself. You see, a lot of the Corinthians are Gentile converts – people that don’t know a lot about the history of how God initiated a relationship with the people of Israel. And yet, here they are at the very center of God’s plan to save the world through Jesus. The Corinthians are like actors who have stumbled onto the stage in the middle of the play and they don’t even know what act they’re in. And so what Paul is doing in today’s reading – a portion taken from chapter 10 – is trying to help the Corinthians see what’s happened so far in the “play” of salvation so to speak. Paul wants the Corinthians to see how the characters in the previous act – the people of Israel – managed to get things wrong – how God’s people were tested, hit a wall, and were unable to finish well. You see, it’s not that the Corinthians aren’t believers. It’s just that Phase I has come to an end and the Corinthians have reached a place where perseverance isn’t easy.

And because Paul’s rooting for the Corinthians to finish well, he retells the story of the Exodus. Paul wants this story to be a “warning sign” for the Corinthians. And because time only permitted us to look at a portion of chapter ten, I’ll give you a brief recap of this foundational Biblical event. A long time ago God chose a nomad named Abraham and promised that through his children the entire world would be blessed. But over time, Abraham’s children became slaves in the land of Egypt, and so God used Moses to set Abraham’s children – the Israelites – free. But to get to the Promised Land, the Israelites first had to travel through the desert. The distance between Egypt and Canaan, by the most direct route, was 250 miles – about a month’s journey. But did it take the people of Israel a month? No. It took forty years.

If you’ve never done the math, that’s a whopping 0.0007 miles per hour. To put this in perspective, a snail travels at .03 miles per hour. In other words, a snail can go from Egypt to Canaan in less than a year. And so the question is, why did it take Israel forty?

In part, God wanted to test his people. It’s not that God didn’t know a quicker way. It’s that the shortest and the easiest way, from God’s perspective, wasn’t the best way. God wanted to spend time teaching the Israelites about His character and about His laws. God wanted the Israelites to learn obedience before they entered the Promised Land. And God wanted to test their character, their faithfulness, and their allegiance to Him alone. In other words, it wasn’t enough for God to just bring them to the Promised Land. God wanted to transform these former slaves into people that were truly free. And in order to do that, the people of Israel had to be tested.

Now, phase I of the Exodus was awesome and exciting, but this too lasted about seven feet. Because then God began to test his people. For example, God sent the people bread from heaven and the people complained to Moses because it wasn’t pizza. Or another example – when God called Moses up the mountain to receive the Law, He told the people to wait patiently. But instead of obeying, they made a golden calf, worshipped it, and then had an orgy. If 60 is a passing grade, the people of Israel made a negative 42. In other words, the majority of the people that God saved from Egyptian slavery were tested and failed miserably. And so the question is, why did they fail?

It’s a complicated question, but in short, I think they failed because they didn’t understand God’s character. What they didn’t know was that the Promised Land was so much closer than they could ever imagine. It’s not that they didn’t believe God was trying to teach them something. They just thought that God was an unfair teacher. And what they failed to understand is that being tested presupposes grace. Let me say that again – being tested presupposes grace. You see, only after rescuing the people of Israel from slavery – an extravagant act of grace – did God begin to test them. And God did so to teach the people of Israel about His character and about His laws. God wanted them to learn obedience in order to transform them into people that were truly free – into a people that were faithful to God even when they hit a wall.

Now, before moving on, I want to acknowledge two things. First, I’m not a big fan of using scare tactics to motivate people. It’s like 1 John says, “God is love and perfect love casts out all fear.” But like Paul, I do think we should take the Bible’s warning signs to heart. Many have started the race and quit, and we don’t want history to repeat itself. It’s like Jesus’ parable of the sower – sometimes the seed is planted in good soil and bears fruit, but sometimes it falls on the rocky ground, springs up really quickly, and then withers because it doesn’t have any depth. Starting a race is easy. But finishing well, that requires depth. And being tested, above all else, is about becoming a person of spiritual depth.

The second thing I want to acknowledge is that for many of us, the idea of a God that tests us is a little foreign and maybe offensive. But never forget that being tested in God’s world is different than being tested in our world because being tested by God presupposes grace. In other words, God only tests those with whom He’s initiated a relationship. And when God tests our hearts, it is always an act of love. You see, it’s not that God doesn’t know what’s in our hearts. It’s that we don’t always know what’s in our hearts. And sometimes God tests us to bring that into the light.

The author of Hebrews writes the following about Jesus: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. For we have [a teacher] who has been tested in every way as we are, but did not sin.” (2:18, 4:15) When it comes to our life with God, we’re all at very different places. Maybe we’re young in the faith and following Jesus seems really, really easy. Or maybe we’re seasoned disciples and we’ve hit a few walls along the way. But regardless of where we happen to be, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Because for a reason unknown to us, we’ve been placed in the final act of God’s plan to save the world. You and I have been invited to run the only race that’s going to matter when all is said and done – and we we’re not running for some honorable mention ribbon, but like the Bible says, for a crown of glory that never fades. And if that seems a little overwhelming to you, just remember that in Jesus, we have a fair teacher, a competent teacher, and a loving teacher – a teacher who knows from experience what it means to hit a wall and to keep going; a teacher that became human to run the race with us and to run the race for us; a teacher that ran it to the end – all the way to the cross.

The life of faith is a marathon. The excitement and enthusiasm of Phase I – it only lasts so long. Because ultimately there is a cross. And what God wants, and what Jesus died for, is to gather a people for himself who see the cross, embrace the cross, and then make a decision to finish well. God’s looking for people who, when tested, trust in the goodness of His character – for people who truly believe that He’s a fair and loving teacher – a people who are willing to bet set free.

Remember – the Promised Land is so much closer than you could ever imagine. Jesus is so much closer than you could ever imagine. And so keep running …


Anonymous said...


scaredofhippos said...

You couldn't possibly have been in 5th grade in 1994!!!!!

Toothpick said...

Johnny - Enjoyed this one and miss ya brother. Keep 'em coming for us that need to get on the ole treadmill...