This weekend we celebrated graduates. Given the chance, I took some time to offer a bit of advice on how to survive a college experience in an environmental that is increasingly openly hostile to orthodox expressions of the Christian faith with that faith in tact. Thanks for reading and congratulations to the graduates!
Pushing through the Pain
Although the number of years between now and then is getting larger all the time, I still remember my first few days at college. I don’t remember every single detail, but I remember some key events and the way I felt during the week. I was excited like any incoming freshman is, but mostly I remember wondering what I was supposed to do now. Fortunately, I met some really great people early on and made some connections that are still paying dividends.
I’ve got to admit: My college experience was fantastic. I loved just nearly every minute of it. That experience was greatly helped by the fact that I had a pretty incredible campus environment. It was one that resulted in my intentional pursuit of my faith in Jesus being met with basically no external obstacles. The Christian presence on campus of both students and faculty was remarkable for a state school. That was my experience and it was unique. For most students today who are heading off into some sort of a higher education environment, the odds are pretty good that their experience will not match mine – at least on the faith front. The odds are actually pretty high that intentionally pursuing a relationship with Jesus on campus today will be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done in your life. What I’d like to talk about with you for a few minutes this morning is how to get through that with your faith in tact.
Well, today, as we’ve been talking about all morning, we get to honor some terrific graduates. This is the time of year when advice is getting thrown around like fish at a seaside market. The advice itself is often like that fish too: You’ll pay dearly for most of it, but if you ignore it for more than a day or two it’ll start to stink. Since it is the season for it, this morning I am going to give you some advice. But although this advice is definitely aimed at our graduates–especially our high school graduates, they’re not the only ones who could benefit from putting it into practice.
Let’s get into this advice like this: The challenges before us in following Jesus today in this country are unparalleled in the history of our nation. Never in our nearly 250 years as a nation, nor any of the the more than 150 years of history before that has the position of the Christian worldview from a cultural standpoint been as weak as it is right now. Used to, being a Christian–or at least a member of a church–was a must for any kind of meaningful social advancement. Today, that is simply not the case. There are no cultural benefits to be had for being a known follower of Jesus. In fact, such a distinction is much more likely to bring us notoriety than any boost to our reputation. And while, no, this certainly isn’t fair, it is where we are, so we’ll need to learn to live with it.
Fortunately, while the cultural and political situation we are facing is unique to us, from the perspective of most of the rest of the world and of our brothers and sisters across the span of church history, what we are facing is what they would call normal. While we gripe and groan about how hard things are to be a follower of Jesus, most of them look back at us and think, “Welcome to the club.” This was all especially true in the early days of the church. What that means for us today is that counsel given to first century followers of Jesus on how to live out their faith is more relevant in our own lives than it has ever been.
Now, there are many places where we can find counsel on living out our faith publicly in the Scriptures. In fact, in a month we are going to begin a new teaching series in which we’ll spend a few weeks working through a whole letter about how to do it. But there’s another one that really stood out to me as relevant for this particular morning. This one is found near the end of the letter of Hebrews.
Hebrews is one of the more interesting letters in the New Testament. It is also the one about whose contextual situation we know the least. We don’t even know who wrote it. But in terms of its presentation of the superiority of the life of Christ to a life spent trying to measure up to some standard of rules and regulations, it is entirely without equal in the Scriptures. Well, after spending most of the letter explaining to a bunch of Jewish-background followers of Jesus why Jesus is greater than Moses, and the life of the kingdom is greater than the life of the Law, the author shifts gears from a theological treatise to a more emotionally charged encouragement to remain faithful to the life Christ offers. In chapter 11, the author offers a whole litany of stories about faith heroes of the past in order to help his readers understand better what faith is. When he turns the page to chapter 12, he begins calling them specifically to faithfulness in light of what they had just heard.
In Hebrews 12:1 he says this: “Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Now, those are powerful words. And they are a setup up for some really powerful counsel over the next few verses. But there is an assumption lying at the heart of these and all the words to follow. That assumption is this: That the person hearing them (for they were written to be heard) is intent on pursuing the path of Christ with her life. If that’s you, then you need to pay pretty close attention to what follows because the author is about to tell you how to do it when times get tough. If that’s not you, what the author says here is still some pretty sound advice to heed, but it’s not going to benefit you as much as it could. I just want to be honest with you out of the gate. If you’re not sure about where you’re at with Jesus, now would be a really good time to do some thinking on that, because this is pretty good stuff coming up here.
So, the author here is holding out Jesus as an example to follow. He’s a pretty good example to follow generally. I think we can all agree on that one. But the author here isn’t just being general. He’s got a specific goal in mind. The believers to whom he was directing this letter were living in the midst of a culture that didn’t like them. Part of it didn’t understand their faith commitment and thought they were just weird. Part of it hated their faith commitment because it represented a grievous blaspheme in their eyes. Either way, the believers came out on the bottom. To put that another way, following Jesus for them was no easy task. In fact, it was a difficult one on a good day…and most days weren’t good days. The author was writing to encourage them to stick with their commitment no matter how difficult the road ahead of them became.
The way he goes about doing this, though, is really unique. Usually when someone is facing a tough season, our encouragement takes the form of offering the hope that the tough times won’t last forever. And there are places in the New Testament where the author does that very thing. But while that kind of encouragement is good and true, it doesn’t always feel terribly helpful in the moment. No, when we get hit in the face with something hard, while on a good day we might think to ourselves, “This is not going to be like this forever, so I’m going to keep pushing forward,” on a normal day we’re more likely to think to ourselves, “This isn’t fair! I didn’t sign up for this! Where’s the God who’s supposed to have my back in this kind of a situation?” We may not verbalize that, but if we’re honest, the thought at least filters through our minds. What the author of Hebrews here offers is a way to deal with the tough situations that come as a result of our following Jesus faithfully when we are sitting there in the midst of them. And I’ll give you a little spoiler before we get there: The secret is all about attitude.
Come back to the text with me now in v. 3: “For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up.” Got that? When times get tough, remember that you aren’t facing anything worse than Jesus Himself faced. If He could push through what He did, then you can push through whatever challenge to remain on the path of Christ you are facing. I don’t know about you, but that feels a bit like a slap on the backside from a coach telling you to get back in the game when you’ve taken a big hit or experienced a hard fall. And if that verse didn’t leave you feeling that way, the next one definitely will: “In struggling against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” In other words, to quote something I’ve said to my own kids more times than I can remember: “There’s no blood. You’re fine. Get back out there and keep playing.”
That just doesn’t sound very “Bibley,” does it? But here’s the thing: This is what we need sometimes, isn’t it? We live in a culture that doesn’t handle resistance very well. If you don’t agree with me, the only reason must be that you hate me. In fact, you’re a hat-er. It’s a bit of a joke that not a few universities nowadays have “safe spaces” on campus where students who have been rocked by hearing some idea that doesn’t comport with what they’ve been told to believe can go and be reassured that whatever they think is right and the other person is just a hateful bigot. But listen, as a follower of Jesus, the culture you’re entering on campus thinks you’re a hateful bigot. And how do hateful bigots get treated? Not very well. Today they tend to get cancelled. Well, whether you face something like that on campus or just in life generally, the author of Hebrews wants you to know that you are in good company. Jesus was treated the same way. In fact, He died for it. If you’re hearing this, you probably haven’t died from it yet, so keep going.
Okay, but none of this changes the fact that the hard experiences we face because of our commitment to Christ aren’t any fun. And even knowing we’re facing what Jesus did doesn’t help much in the moment. The author here knows this and he’s not done. What we really need, he says, is a perspective shift. Look at this now in v. 5: “And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons [and daughters]: ‘My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly or lose heart when you are reproved by him, for the Lord disciplines the one he loves and punishes every son he receives.’”
Now, let me offer a quick word on language here. The author uses the word “discipline” several times in the next few verses we are going to look at together. When we hear that word today, we tend to think in very negative terms. Discipline is what you get when you have done something wrong. And in this quote from Proverbs 3 here, Solomon is talking about punishment, and punishment is obviously not a good thing, right? Well, the author of Hebrews is not saying we’ve done anything wrong, and he’s not saying we should somehow delight in getting punished. He’s making a positive point and we may need to shift the language around a bit to understand it. Instead of “discipline,” here, think in terms of “training.” What he’s saying is this: We need to learn to think about the hard times we face as faith training opportunities from our heavenly Father. They should be for us a reminder that He is absolutely committed to seeing us become fully who He created us to be, but that sometimes reaching your max potential takes a bit (or a lot) of pain and sacrifice. This is something any athlete understands perfectly. Athlete or not, though, if you’re a student, this should register for you. Most of our students are only a couple of weeks removed from taking their EOGs. In order to prepare for those–assuming you wanted to do well–you had to take time to study and prepare. That wasn’t always fun or easy, but the end result of doing it well was success. If you want to be your best, you’ve got to pass the test.
This is exactly where the author goes next. Keep listening in v. 7: “Endure suffering as discipline [training]: God is dealing with you as sons [and daughters should be assumed here as well]. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline–which all receive–then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. [I should add that this is assuming a positive relationship with parents; not everyone has that which makes this line hard, but the next part is true either way.] Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Here’s the thing: Following Jesus is tough sometimes. There’s just no way around that. It will mean life will get hard sometimes. (And, by the way, if your life is hard because of your own sinful choices, you’re fairly well reaping what you’ve sown. Quit making those choices and start making better ones instead.) If you are committed to following the path of Christ with your life and doing so no matter what your present circumstances are, those circumstances are going to invariably veer off in directions you’d rather them not go on occasion. You won’t get a say on when this happens, and you won’t get a vote on when it stops. Sounds like a good time, right?
In each of these encounters, though, you have a choice to make. You can receive the pain and frustration as unfair attacks by a world that hates you because of the commitment you have made. Choosing in this direction will not make the pain any better. It won’t make you any happier. You will be experiencing things that pretty well every New Testament author is clear are part and parcel with the life you have chosen to live. In other words, you’ll be receiving what you signed up for. Nobody’s going to be interested in listening to you gripe about that, just like if you sign up for a really hard class, nobody wants to hear you complain about how hard it is. You signed up for it. The other choice is to see each of these experiences as a gift from your heavenly Father who is providing you an opportunity to grow more into the incredible individual He has created you to be. Is this an easy choice to make? Of course it isn’t. But if you’ll make it, you’ll be able to walk into the worst the world has to throw at you with a smile on your face and joy in your heart because you’ll know there is a bigger purpose to the pain you’re experiencing than what you can see right now.
So, what do you do with this? You choose. You choose how it is you are going to respond to the situations coming your way because of your faithfulness to the path of Christ. As the author of Hebrews puts it in finishing this section, you “strengthen your tired hands and weakened knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed instead.” You go in to what lies ahead of you with your eyes wide open. It won’t always be easy, but God will always be good. And so, when following gets hard, you follow harder. When following gets hard, follow harder. That path will always bring you to life. Graduates–and everyone else–you have a world of challenges ahead of you. You do so because you have a God who loves you and wants to see you become all He created you to be. He won’t leave you until you get there. When following gets hard, follow harder. It won’t always be smooth, but you’ll be glad you did. When following gets hard, follow harder.