Living Faithfully in Trying Times – Part 2

By: Dr. Michael Easley; ©2005
Consider the overwhelming evidence; lay aside the encumbrances; run with endurance; and focus on Christ. That’s how we live faithfully in a difficult world.

Living Faithfully in Trying Times – Part 2

This message was recorded at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina. Through the ministry of The Cove, we are training people in God’s Word to win others to Christ. It is our goal to develop Christians who experience God through knowing Him better, knowing His word, building Godly relationships, and helping others know Him. We trust that this message will strengthen your walk with God and help you experience Him right where you are.

The United States Capitol rotunda is an imposing structure the first time you walk inside it – 96 feet in diameter, and 180 feet tall in the center. Tourists walk in, their mouths hang open because you can’t lean back and gawk that far without opening your mouth. It’s impossible to take in. Photographers with wide-angled lenses and high definition technology have a hard time capturing it in any way, shape or form. Sort of like the Grand Canyon – you’ve got to go see it to really begin to take it in. You can’t really envision it. Maybe iMax could do it.
To the south is the most historic building in the entire capitol complex, called the National Statuary Hall. Have any of you been there? A number of you have. The National Statuary Hall originally was called the Old Hall of the House. And on April 19, 1864, one representative Justin Morill asked, in reference to this chamber, “To what end, or more useful or grand and at the same time simple and inexpensive, can we devote it than to ordain” – interesting word – “ordain that it shall be set apart for the reception of such statuary as each state shall elect to be deserving of this lasting commemoration.” And ten weeks later, on July 2, 1864, it became law to create the National Statuary Hall that provided, in part, “The president hereby is authorized to invite each and all states to provide and furnish statues of marble or bronze, not exceeding two in number for each state, of deceased persons who have been citizens thereof and illustrious for their historic renown, or for their distinguished civil or military service, as each state may deem to be worthy of this national commemoration.”
So this massive, two-story, semicircular room became reminiscent of a Greek architectural archival. The columns were quarried out the Potomac River rocks; the capitals were Corinthian in style, carved in Italy, shipped back to the United States; over time the weight of the statues was more than the structure could hold and so the statues had to be moved down the halls and corridors. And if you go there you’ll not only see the hundred statues in Statuary Hall, but lining the four corridors that access the room.
Since 1870 – and I always like to think of that in terms of four years after D. L. Moody founded Moody Bible Institute – 1870 statues have camped there. They have been changed from time to time, but there are 100-104, depending on some special provisions allowed by Congress at a given time.
The first time I visited Statuary Hall it looked like a giant chess board in a scene of Alice in Wonderland. All these statues on these black and while marble tiles; the most beautiful room. And you looked at these statues – these 100 individuals, all dead now – and it was sort of a little bit gaudy, a little ostentatious, a little patriotic. It was a mixture of emotions as I walked through and looked at these individuals on this giant chess game. But the thing that struck me was most Americans couldn’t name one of them.
I love it when they do these “man-in-the-street” things with pictures of John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, whatever. And they ask the man in the street who they are and they don’t know who these people are. I love it because I lived in that world. Cindy and I love politics. Just ask me, I’ll be happy to tell you. And we love to argue and debate it with anyone who will listen to us, which gets me in great trouble.
But I was amazed as I started reading the plaques of these and doing a little research about them. The one that is my favorite is John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg. Muhlenberg was born October 1, 1747, in Trappe, PA, 263 years ago. He became an ordained minister in Woodstock, VA. And in 1776 he preached a sermon on Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. And after he finished his sermon – he wore a cleric’s robe – he came out from behind the pulpit and pulled back his robe to reveal his revolutionary uniform and his scabbarded sword underneath. And he challenged the men of his congregation to join him in the effort of the war. He became brigadier general immediately, a major general before the war was over, in the Continental Army.
And his brother was a pacifist. His brother, the story is told, corresponded with him against him being involved in the war. It wasn’t long later that his brother’s church was burned to the ground. And he wrote a letter saying, “Where can I join you in the battle?” As I’ve often said to my pacifist friends, we’re all pacifists until war comes to our shore. We may not want to bear arms, but when war comes to our shore, we want somebody to bear arms to keep that war from coming to our back door. So regardless of your view of that, Muhlenberg encapsulated this believer in Jesus Christ who for whatever reasons – you may think wrong – decided to join a war effort and fight for his country.
But nobody has time for such history. Our students are not interested in those statues. They’ll watch reality shows until their brains ooze out of their ears, but they won’t learn about John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg unless somebody tells them. More important, and of far greater consequence than Statuary Hall, is Hebrews chapters 11 and 12.
I envision the room of Hebrews 11 far more magnificent than Statuary Hall or the Rotunda. I envision statues, metaphorically, of the names of Hebrews 11, including people like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, men and women of exemplary faith that dot the pages of our Old Testament, that are culminated in small part in Hebrews 11. If you have your Bible and you read through chapter 11, I always stop at verse 38, where it says parenthetically, “men of whom the world was not worthy.” Isn’t that the greatest line? “Men of whom the world is not worthy.” If I had the time, I’d write a book, Men of Whom the World is Not Worthy. Think about that. From God’s perspective, these people, the earth didn’t deserve to have them.
In the extraordinary hall of faith that we love in Hebrews 11, each one of those individuals being, you know, for an excellent expositor like a John MacArthur or a Chuck Swindoll or Alistair Begg, whatever, would be a 20-part series on the life of each one of these guys and we’d barely get started. And just by the mention the “Statuary Hall of Faith” we see these great legacies of grace, these statuesque figures of men and women who stand so far above the average faith of the average believer in Jesus Christ.
I’ve said about 12 original things in my entire life. And one of them has been, if leadership was easy anyone could do it; and if anyone could do it we wouldn’t need leaders. And as dumb and obvious as it sounds, it’s profound in its application, because we are crying, as a people, for men and women of leadership in every station of life. This is why I grieve the loss of the “greatest generation.” They didn’t view themselves – you didn’t view yourselves – as leaders. You stepped up and led. And really that’s all God is looking for, is a man or woman who will say, “I’m the sinner. If you’ll help me, here I am.” “Go.”
And I see some of this in our youth, but they do it with great zeal and passion and no foundation. And so our task is to help this generation see the hall of faith of chapter 11 is just as evident today. We need men and women who will say “yes” and say “no” and be firm and gentle and smile; and stand on the Scripture without fear; that won’t let the academic community beat them into submission that the Bible is nonsense, that Jesus is fiction and myth, that Allah is just as good as Yahweh. We need to be able to teach one another to just have courage and smile and stand in the future even in difficulty, even in trials. Because that’s what these men and women who line the halls of chapter 11 and overflow into history’s tunnels and corridors, that we look back on as heroes and men and women of the faith – these great legacy stories.
The extraordinary men and women in chapter 11 – if you look at chapter 11, I want to point out a couple of verses. Let’s pick up at 39, right after the world not being worthy. Hebrews 11:39: “all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.” Notice the phrase, they did not receive what was promised. Each of these men – prophets, a couple of women mentioned – died without receiving what was promised.
Now that’s startling if you think about the way the western Christian worldview is. If I do this, then God should do that. If I live well and faithfully and teach my children to love Jesus, they should find a Christian husband, a Christian wife, and have tons of Christian grandbabies who all love me more than the world. I mean, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. And I should have enough money, enough retirement and good enough health to travel and do all the things I want to do. And if life doesn’t work that way, then God didn’t come through for me.
Now, we never say that out loud, but I feel it and want it inside. I’m not afraid at all to admit it. I feel if I do my part, God, You’re supposed to do Yours. Wrong theology? Yes. Sinful nature? Yes. But that’s the way I look at Christianity because of my western wiring. And to tease out of the fabric of the cloth the health-and-wealth nonsense of “if-then theology” is a challenge for every American believer in Jesus Christ. If God never does one more thing for you or me, we should yet be thankful.
But would we really? I do not believe it is His nature to treat us such, but if He were never to do one more thing for you and me than our salvation, we should for yet ever be thankful, and live that way.
All these died in faith. Now, it would be easy to lose heart, for any of these characters, any of the stories of Abram, who waits forever for a son, for Noah – any one of them to lose faith. But the parallel of what I would like to argue is that because Americans have become so here-and-now and immediate in our gratification, that living faithfully in difficult times requires a complete recalibration of our worldview. That your life and mine and the daily-ness of it is not what matters. It’s the long view of dying in faith, maybe not even receiving what we think we ought to receive.
And in my darkest days, when I do not want to live because of the pain, there’s a small voice in the back of my head – maybe it’s God, maybe it’s a synaptic impulse, I don’t know where the voice comes from – but it says to me, “You do not know what your life yet means. You’re arrogant to think that you’re that important, and you’re foolish to think that God might not use you yet.” And I don’t know where the balance is in that. And that’s part of the faithful follower of Jesus Christ. As remarkable as these men of old might be, there is One greater. Remember the thesis of the whole book of Hebrews is the superiority of Jesus Christ over everything – over angels, over creation, over intermediaries, even over this most extraordinary panel of patriarchs in Hebrews 11.
Let’s look at 12:1-3: “Therefore, as we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside very encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race which is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself,” –why? – “so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
So for you and me to live in the here-and-now and the then-and-there is the challenge. To get a reframed perspective of my circumstance, my context, my difficulty, my strife, my disappointment with life – life has not been fair – and yet live faithfully in spite of the circumstances that tell us. As I said last night, my experience never tells me the truth about God. Maybe yours does. I’m a jaded cynic; I’m a sinner; I’ll be happy to admit it all day long. Some of you are far more faithful and godly than me. I don’t mean that cliché. I am a half-empty Christian. I always have been. I am a pessimist; I am a cynic; I just don’t believe it. And so I fight constantly the notion of “is God going to be faithful and come through for me?”
Maybe you’re farther down the road than me. God bless you for it. You could probably straighten me out. But the circumstances always tell me otherwise about my God. And so I have to constantly come back to not letting the world teach me theology, but letting the Word teach me theology. You know, “morning by morning new mercies I see,” to me it’s “morning by morning new verses I read.” I’ve never read this before in the Bible. The older I get, I was telling Eric, my RAM has evaporated. When I blink, my RAM clears. I forget everything, all the time. And Cindy and my assistant just know, tell Michael 55 times because he still forgets. He forgets everything. And it’s always something important to them, not important to me, so it doesn’t matter.
Living faithfully in difficult times requires, in this passage, staying focused on the Savior. Very simple. Let’s see if we can take it apart. Living faithfully in difficult times, being focused on Christ, not on my circumstance.
I want to make four observations about the text – I believe they’re in your outline. We consider the evidence, number 1; number 2, we lay aside the entanglements; number 3, we run with endurance; and number 4, we stay focused on Christ. Right out of the text, very easy to see.
What motivates us? What keeps us from losing heart? Number 1, we consider the overwhelming evidence. Look again at chapter 12, verse 1: “Therefore, as we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us.” Bible students are trained to, when you read the word “therefore,” you ask what’s the “therefore” there for? Now, interestingly, this “therefore” only occurs one other time in the Bible. It’s not the word Paul uses for “therefore.” It’s three words the author of Hebrews sort of creates together. Now if I could give you a rendering translation of it, it would be sort of like, “consequently, for this very reason, therefore, then.” It’s a stacking of words together that are just too cumbersome to render in English, so we cave and say “therefore.” But the way the author of Hebrews puts it together is, “when you look at this incredible hall of faith, therefore considering consequently the reason for around us because of we should then do this.” That’s sort of the weight of what he’s trying to say. It’s a big long therefore.
It’s only other used one time by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:8. And this concoction of three words would get the reader of the New Testament, the hearer of the New Testament, “Wait a minute, what’s he saying there?” It’s like the Shema, “Listen up, Israel!” Therefore, because of this, concerning consequently the reason, therefore, therein, hereto, thereof, we should do this.
You’ve got to keep in perspective the context of the book – the superiority of Jesus Christ… Statuary Hall of Faith. Now, because we have this overwhelming evidence, how do we then live? A great cloud of witnesses surrounding. What a wonderful imagery, this dense cloud cover. We’ve got this great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.
A number of years ago, I was flying out of Chicago and it was a typical Chicago winter day. It was rainy, snowy, gray, muck. You know, I’d say about Chicago, “But it’s a wet cold.” And it was just a miserable day. And we were on the plane. And you know, it’s a little thing and you’ve got this huge overcoat and the plane’s 85 degrees. Why do they never get it right? In the summer it’s 100 degrees, in the winter it’s 100 degrees. Why can’t they get it right? Open a window, for goodness sakes. We’re all in there with our overcoats, dying of heat, waiting for this thing to get off the ground and get evened out.
And it was one of those rides. My wife does not like to fly, and it was one of those flights that I was glad she wasn’t with me. It was one of the worst takeoffs I’ve been on in a long time. I mean, the turbulence, and getting through the mud. My favorite Chicago flight was when we flew over Lake Michigan, and the wings froze and we had to fly back and land. That was exciting.
But this flight got out. And most of us were pretty,… you know, you can always tell the business travelers and the professional travelers and the people who don’t travel. And it’s really quite comical. Cindy and I have this acronym. We call it OTS – Oblivious Traveler Syndrome. Those are the people who stop in the middle of the walkway and look up at the board for eight minutes trying to find their flight. And the rest of us are moving at a 100-mile-an-hour clip, you know. It’s the people who go through the TSA who take some 18 minutes to figure out what plastic bag goes where. Cindy and I are in and out of that thing in eight seconds. It’s so fun to travel with people that don’t travel. I have such great patience.
All the professional travelers, who travel a lot, we’re all sitting there going, “This is pretty thick soup. I haven’t seen this before.” And as we got through this thing, it was dark. As we got through it and started getting through the cloud-line, the sun was so bright and so white and so intense and the sky was so perfectly blue. It was an early flight – six in the morning. And then we got above the cloud cover and looking down the clouds were white! I had never before or since been on a flight like that. And there was this audible gasp in the cabin, going “wow!”
Just in a 30,000-foot elevation, the entire context was completely different. If you had been down in Chicago O’Hare, or sitting on the Eisenhower, or in downtown Chicago traffic, you would never have believed me if I had called you from 30,000 feet saying “It’s blue skies, the sun is shining, the clouds are perfectly white up here.” “Isn’t possible – it’s raining down here, mucky and typical Chicago purgatory-cold.” “Uh, no. It’s perfect up here, baby, it’s perfect up here.”
And every time I read the phrase, “a cloud of witnesses surrounding us,” I go, the world tries to tell me that my life’s experience is dismal and gray and cold and wet and disappointing and mucky and miserable and cold-to-the-bone. And in just a little bit of an elevation it’s perfect, baby. It’s perfect. And the turbulence of this life is but an elevation. And a proficient traveler knows we’ll eventually get out of this. Yeah, there might be some people that fill up an airbag, but we’ll get out of this, and we’ll get above it, and it’s a beautiful day at 40,000 feet.
How much more, when you read chapter 11 of Hebrews, and we read about these prophets that were sawn in two. “Oh, that’s just joyful.” When we read about the marturions, as we’ll see in a minute. Now, the Hall of Faith is not a group of spectators. These aren’t people in Statuary Hall in heaven looking down at us, cheering us on. That’s a misinterpretation of the text. The Hall of Faith are people that we’re to look to and say, “Look, that in their difficult yet faithful lives, what happened.” It’s the great cloud of witnesses that we look to, not cheering us on to be a good Christian soldier on this horizontal planet.
The perspective’s got to change from here to there, not there to here. The word of witness is marturion. We’ve talked about transliteration, last night I think, baptizo to “baptism,” okay? Here we have marturion: a Greek word. We don’t have an English equivalent, so we translate, transliteration as a letter-per-letter equivalency. So M in Greek – M to English; marturion, so it sounds like “martyr.” Martyr becomes a word in our language that means a person that dies for what he or she believes: dying a martyr’s death. That’s really only about 10% of what the word means. It’s really not what the word means.
A marturionis a witness. What does a witness do? A witness tells what he’s seen or heard. A witness does not necessarily mean you’re going to die for your faith. Witnesses can become martyred, the way that we use the English word; you can be killed for your faith. I have some friends that were in Vietnam from 1952 to 1975 when they were forced out. [They] lived a brutal life. One of them was murdered at the hands of Cambodians and one of the daughters lived through horrendous injustices and she’s never been whole since. And he died for Christ, literally, as a missionary. But that’s not only what the word means.
Let me give you some examples of the word marturion. Matthew 26:65, the high priest accuses Jesus of blasphemy, and he says, “What further need do we have of witnesses” – same word. So once the high priest says he’s blasphemed, we don’t need any more to tell what they’ve seen and heard.
In Romans 1:9, Paul writes, “For God, whom I serve in my spirit in the preaching of the gospel of His son, is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you.” Paul says, God knows how often I pray for you. God’s a witness of my prayer.
In Acts 1:8, a verse probably most of you have committed to memory, Jesus says to his disciples, “You will be my witnesses.” Does he mean martyrs, in the sense of being killed? Well, some of them may be, but that’s not what the point of the text is. You’ll be ones who tell what you’ve seen and heard in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the remotest part of the earth. Acts 1:8, of course, is the geographic and theological outline of the book of Acts. Because Peter will speak in Jerusalem, the gospel will start to spread to Judea, Samaria. And some crazy guy named Saul will become Paul and he will take it to the remotest part of the earth.
At breakfast this morning, talking with two lovely ladies about Turkey and the tour of the journey of Paul and how that’s where the European beachhead; the gospel goes on to the remotest part. Look at those maps in the back of your Bible, that part that probably the gold edges are all stuck together still. When your preacher’s boring, study the maps. I tell people all the time, if he’s boring, study the maps. Those little lines, of missionary one, two and three, those took months and months and months and years of Paul’s life just to get to these places, to be a witness of what he’d seen and what he’s heard about this Jesus. And that is the mission.
Revelation 17:6. This one is kind of a strange use of the word. “I saw a woman drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.” Those who spoke of what they’d seen and heard about the Christ, these were martyred, in the sense that they died for what they believed. She’s intoxicated – what a grotesque picture – she’s intoxicated with those she’s killed for their stance for Christ.
They’re simple people, in a difficult time, who lived faithfully. They are no more heroic in their faith than you or me. Dispel the notion that our friends who are abroad in difficult contexts are better or stronger or cut out of a different cloth to be missionaries or translators or whatever they do. They are just like you and me. They were afraid and they walked by faith and they took risks and God has used them in spite of them.
And they’re heroes to you and me because we like the comforts of the west. But the evidence is overwhelming. You and I should not need any more witnesses to stack up in our timeline to say “Let me tell you of this Jesus.” You’re going to live through a difficult life with a lot of disappointments. Mark, last night, was telling me that one of you said to him – I think you’re in your 80s, “You know that poor young man. I’ve never had a painful day in my life.” And, you know, I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong. I’ll be happy to spread some around. I’ll give you some pain if you want some.
But, you and I don’t need any more evidence. If He never did one more thing for you or me personally, we don’t need any more evidence. And if you need a little bit, just read through Hebrews 11 once in a while and fall on your face and say, forgive me for my lack of faithfulness during a difficult time. When we’re in a time of trial and stress and we want God to do a miracle for us, and we pray for,…
I was with a friend not long ago, she just had lower back surgery. I have a lot of friends with back pains, as you can imagine. We talk a lot about what they’re going to do; I give them all sorts of unsolicited advice; as I did last night with a poor woman who had to listen to me blather on. And she just had surgery and she came out; she’s feeling so much better. And we were talking about what it’s like to live in pain and what you need to do and how you persevere from it. And, you know, there’s only so much you can tell a person, but you can say, “You know, this is going to be difficult, but you can get through it.” And I’m here to tell you, I’ve been on the precipice a lot of times when I thought I wasn’t going to.
But you can. And God will carry you through that. You and I are going to live through unique difficult times. No; there’s no unique difficult time. Everybody’s going to have them, even that 80-year-old guy who hasn’t had one yet; “Just you wait, Henry Higgins.” You know, you’re going to have some. It’s going to catch up with you eventually. And then you get to decide, I have overwhelming evidence that God is faithful in spite of my circumstances, will I be faithful?
Before she had her surgery, this friend of mine, the night before we were still praying that she’ll wake up healed. I love her faith and naiveté. I’m a cynic, remember? And I said to her, “Ask God not merely for a miracle, but ask God for an immovable faith.” Because if you ask God merely for a miracle, which He may do, you’re going to need another miracle the next problem you have. And the problem with miracles is, Lazarus was raised from the dead, but Lazarus had to die again. I mean, that’s kind of a rip-off, in my opinion. He was dead once; he knew what that was; he’s got to die again. I mean, that’s kind of a raw deal.
Miracles are wonderful things. I’d love for God to give me new vertebrae from the base of my skull to the tailbone. I’d love for it. I don’t think it’s going to happen. So what do I pray for? An immovable faith. God give me faithfulness during a difficult life. I don’t want to be a whining, bitter old man. If you have been to the convalescent, nursing, assisted living, whatever you want to call them, old folks’ homes, that is what they are, right? I’ve been there. Some of them look pretty inviting, frankly; some of them I’d like to go live at, goodness sakes. But, you go to these places and, you know, there’s two kinds of people. There’s bitter people and sweet people. And there’s no differentiation, there’s no gray scale, baby. They’re either miserable or they’re joyful. I’ll probably be the miserable, drooling one, is what I fear.
You know the old adage about, “I want to go like my grandfather did. Quietly, in his sleep; not screaming like the passengers in his car.”
Live by faith in difficult times. I want to have an immovable faith, not merely a miracle.
Number two: Lay aside the entanglements. Look again: “Therefore since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us.”
“Lay aside” is used of a young man named Saul, when they laid aside their robes at the feet of Saul and they pummeled at Stephen with rocks. Interesting phrase – lay them down. Encumbrance is the weight of stuff that slows you down. Cindy and I have,… one of the greatest delights of our lives is mentoring young married couples. We have seven young couples that have been married one to four years that we own for two years. We meet with them every Sunday night for two hours. I chase all the men for two years. I have lunch with them, we go camping, we go shoot pistols, we go do guys’ night out, we have, you know, just crazy, fun stuff. I’m making them read the Bible; I’m making them read a handbook of theology that is that thick. I teach them. I pepper them. I train them.
At the end of two years, I give them everything I know to give them to have an ability to read the Bible, to study the Bible, to understand family and marriage, understand their roles as men and women. And the admission price to be in our group is that you will have this group of your own when you are done. And I turn couples away, every two years. We had 40 couples apply and we took seven in our group. And Cindy and I pour out, it’s the greatest joy of our lives to do this with these young men.
And some of them are into these triathlon things. You know this P90X, it’s this workout piece. Well, there’s a new one now called “insanity.” A workout called “insanity.” And this is what these young guys like to do. One guy’s got his wife doing it. It’s just crazy. They’re 20; they’re stupid. And they can do it physically. But three of them did a triathlon recently and they shaved their arms and legs so the hair resistance when you swim and bike isn’t that much difference. Some of them, the real serious ones, wear these like $2,000 exotic some kind of micro-suit. And they debated in the Olympics whether you can wear those things – you’ve seen the debate? – because they give you just that much more advantage. You’re to lay aside every encumbrance of the sin that so easily entangles us. Encumbrances and the sin that entangles us.
When I played basketball in junior high and high school, I was always taller than the average kid. I’m not very fast; I’m not very coordinated, but I was sort of big and sort of strong. And so they assigned an assistant coach, which meant some dad of some other kid that wasn’t a very good athlete; they assigned some assistant coach and all he did was work with me on the sled on the football field or on the backboard on the basketball court. And some of you may remember the 2½-pound canvas weights that had little leather straps on them and you’d put them on your ankles. And this one assistant coach and I, all we did was – and it was like the “jump, frog, jump” joke. I would be on the backboard and I had to jump up and hit the glass and hit the ball in a pattern, just over and over and over and over. And then I had to do right layups, right layups; left layups, left layups. And then he’d throw and I’d rebound and try and get it. It’s like if we had a 2-hour practice, for a good hour that’s all I did. That’s probably why I have neck trouble, now that I think about it. And that’s all I did, with those 2½-pound weights on.
And no matter how hard he worked, I still couldn’t, you know, “white men can’t jump.” I just could never jump. And so they tried and tried and tried to teach me to jump higher, but I was 6-3 so I had a little bit of an advantage over most kids my age. And I got to be pretty good at getting rebounds; not so good at getting baskets, but I could elbow my way into a rebound once in a while. And I was the biggest kid so I got to play. And so that was that. And when you take those 2½ pound weights off your ankles after about an hour, you feel like you’re flying. Now you’re not jumping a sixteenth of an inch higher, but you feel like you are. Just five pounds!
I was a backpacker and a mountaineer; probably other reasons that contributed to my back trouble. And we would go out on these two-week trips and we’d climb, winter camping, and all kinds of stuff. One of the things you do is you reduce weight as much as possible. Two things that weigh the most are your food and water. Water weighs 8.3 pounds per gallon. Depending on where you’re backpacking or hiking, it adds up real quick. We were crazy about this. We would take all the food that we got out of the original packages and consolidate it into Ziplock bags so we would shed weight. We would take the maps, the topographical maps that had like a one or two-inch white margin; we would take scissors and cut the white paper off the margin of the map. We would take aluminum screens that we used for support and drill holes in them to shave the weight, because ounces add up to pounds. Everything you could do. The theory about clothes like underwear; you know, the theory about as a hiker you need to have a change of underwear every day of the week. There’s another theory; you don’t wear underwear and burn your shorts when you get home. I mean, there’s all sorts of ways to save weight. And when you’ve got 80 pounds on your back and you’re out for two weeks, most of which you’re going to eat through, you don’t want to be carrying that up and down hills if you don’t have to.
And the pain with which we would try to get a pound out of our pack; the pain with which I’d try to get another half-inch in my jump; the ridiculous nature of shaving my arms and legs to get a little faster in the water or faster in the wind on the bike. What will you do to shed that which causes you to sin? What will you do that will lay aside the encumbrance and that which entangles you and me in our sins? And the question becomes very personal: What entangles you?
Two backpackers hiking along the Smokies and they encounter a grizzly. They’re between her and her cubs. And one backpacker pitches his pack, drops to the ground, takes his boots off, and is putting on his Nikes. The other packer says, “You can’t outrun her!” He says, “I just gotta outrun you.” In a life and death situation, you shed, you drop. You don’t need your purse, your keys your wallet, your car, your briefcase; you run like the wind.
What will we do to avoid sin? And you see, because we’ve got this overwhelming evidence of the great cloud of witnesses who’ve gone before us, who lived horrible, difficult lives, but lived faithfully nonetheless; because of that, believer, shed that which slows your spiritual life down. Stop the entanglements to get you trapped and knotted up in sin. To what extent will you change your life, that you won’t be entangled by, and entrapped and ensnared by?
In 2003 – I haven’t seen a more current study – they did a study: Strayer, Drews, and Crouch, along with the University of Utah, used a high fidelity driving simulator to study the distraction of people using cell phones when they drive. There is an estimated 100 million people on American highways at this moment using cell phones. And the evidence is starting to mount again and again. But this was a benchmark study. What they did was they took two groups: one group they gave orange juice and 40% vodka. They drank it until they had a .08 alcohol blood limit, which was illegal in any state, .08. They then put them in a simulator, this high definition simulator, to follow a pace car. And they had to do whatever the pace car did in the simulator. They did the same test with people using cell phones. So you see how this study is going to go – drunks and cell phone users – got the picture?
Listen to what they said: It proved conclusively that cell phone drivers exhibited greater impairment than intoxicated drivers. Even those who used a hands-free headset were worse than the drunk group. Ironically, the intoxicated drivers were more aggressive in braking; they followed cars too closely; they drove faster; but their accidents were the same as the baseline. Cell phone users, however, had more accidents than the baseline or the intoxicated group. Do you drive with your cell phone? The study today would be interesting because I’d like to see what they do with texting. Just getting a Bluetooth device to work in my cell phone device, I’m all over the road half the time. My poor wife’s always mad at me when I do that. Of course, I never do it, but, in theory she’d be mad at me!
Distracted drivers have more accidents. Duh! Wow, that study proved it. We should know it, but we don’t. Distracted believers sin more. It’s just that simple. That which entangles us, that which distracts us, that which weighs us down, that which keeps us off course; we forget the overwhelming evidence. We get off line, we get in the rut, and before long we are distracted. What distracts you?
I’ve often argued there are only three categories of sin: money, sex, and power. There are three large umbrellas: lust of the eye, lust of the flesh, boastful pride of life; money, sex, and power. So if you’re a person that greedy and covetous, a materialist, and you’ve got to have wealth and money, and stuff makes you happy, and a newer car and all that, obviously, money. If you’re head’s turned by women, your emotional heart’s turned as a woman by this man who’s emotional and doesn’t exist but is out there anyway, you know, that’s the emotional, that’s the sexual. Power, the control, to get your way, to be the one in charge, whatever. Money, sex and power. I can put almost every one of my sins under one of those umbrellas. And sometimes those umbrellas overlap and it’s money and sex, or power and money, or whatever. And so money, sex and power.
And when you and I struggle with sin, I have concluded that you have got to be a student of your sin. What makes you sin? Why did you sin when you sinned? And unless you do that, you’re never going to break the habit. There’s no “patch” to stop sinning. I wish there was. So we have to be a student of our sin to see why and when we sin. And then in God’s kindness we start laying aside the encumbrance. Will we ever have victory over all of our sins? Yes, when we’re dead. And until then, I believe you and I will struggle. Can we make progress? Yes, I believe absolutely – by God’s power and His Spirit and His Word. God’s Word, God’s people, and God’s Spirit are my only hope in this life.
So what happens is, something lets us down, someone lets us down; a person, as we said last night, the long list of disappointment in our lives. A husband walks out, a wife walks out, someone has an affair, one of our children breaks our heart, on and on the list goes. Certainly for me, illness and pain have put a pause in my life. Some of you have lost your husbands and it has put a pause in your life. I talked to my mom yesterday and a couple of days now without her husband, and her life is going to radically change. The day after everybody left, she was washing towels and the washer overflowed all into the kitchen and all on the floor. My poor mom, at 83, with arthritis and diabetes and can’t hardly see without the trifocals, you know, the Easley legacy of bad eyes, and she’s all alone at home trying to figure out “you turn the washer off.” And I’m just crying, “Oh, mom, I wish I could be there to help you.” And she’s going, “Oh, no, you’d hurt your neck.” That’s my mom.
And you go, “God, why this? For goodness sakes! The poor lady just got rid of 100 people she didn’t want to be around. And now she’s got this to deal with.” She didn’t even know what caused it. And the next day she’s washing clothes and she goes, “Oh, I need to go listen to the washer.” I said, Mom…” “Well I just thought I’d try it again. And I’m going, “No! No! No! ‘Danger, Will Robinson!’ Find out what’s wrong first.” And she said, “I prayed so hard and it didn’t leak.” I said, “Keep up the prayer, Mom.” God must have intervened on that one.
But until we stop and the pause buttons come, I think we really don’t worry about this stuff. Was it Lewis who said, “Pain plants the flag of surrender in the fortress of the rebel heart.” And until those things happen,… They’re going to happen. For some of you they have happened.
How to live faithfully in the difficulties of life, how to ask God for an immovable faith not merely a miracle, is to be one who considers the overwhelming evidence; one who lays aside the entanglements; third, one who runs the race with endurance. “Therefore since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles u,” you got to lay it aside, “and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Paul, like our author here in Hebrews, likes the competitive metaphors. Running to win, not running in vain, as Paul would talk about.
Endurance means a frame of mind. Endurance is the fortitude. It’s staying as opposed to quitting. It’s enduring misfortune. It’s bearing a load of misery. In Greek, it refers overwhelmingly to the positive, independent, unyielding, defiant person who will not stop. You know, if God had asked me, “Michael would you like to take Suffering 101 or Health and Wealth 101?” I would have chosen Health and Wealth 101. But He didn’t give me that elective.
I have a friend, one of my closest friends in life. He’s a pastor down in Houston, and he has this silly saying every morning. We’ve camped together, hiked together, we’ve gone to Bible software conferences together, we’ve shared hotel rooms together. And he gets up and he shaves and looks in the mirror and says, “Dave, why’d you have to be born so dang handsome instead of rich?” He says it every morning. And he ain’t handsome. Given the choice, what would we take. I’m sorry I didn’t get the choice.
The lack of endurance shows itself quickly in whining and complaining. We quit. I had a youth pastor years ago in a church I served. You know the international symbol for “no,” the circle with the bar through it? And he had the word “whining” under it and it was plastered on his office door. Because all these parents would come in there and whine about the youth ministry, whine about the students, whine about the church, whine about the music, whine about this, whine about that. He said, “I don’t want to hear your whining. Go down the hall and talk to somebody who cares.” We had a joke at the church. I was the pastor: Who cared? And one of our pastors was, “he’s the pastor who cares.” Don’t go talk to Michael if you’re looking for compassion. Go talk to J.T. Michael doesn’t care, he cares. I was the pastor: Who cared.
No whining. I don’t like whiners. Now here’s the underbelly of that. It’s because I whine a lot inside. Think about it. The people that grate you the most are probably your mirror image. I mean, I hate it, but it’s true. I get around a person that talks too much, I go, “God, forgive me. God, forgive me. God, forgive me,” because I talk way too much. You haven’t got that yet? Well, you’ll learn it one day. You feel real bad when you get there too.
Lack of endurance. You remember the monastic period; people went away to try to get away from the world and not sin as much. There’s a legendary story of a monastery where you could only speak two words once a year. Silent monastic experience. And each year they had a big dinner and you got to say two words. So this guy joins this monastic order. At the end of the first year they have the banquet, and he gets up and says, “Bed hard.” A year passes; he works quietly in silence. They have the banquet; he gets up and goes, “Food bad.” A year passes. The third year he gets up at the banquet and he goes, “I quit.” The head of the monastery follows him to the gate and says, “It’s no surprise. All you’ve done since you’ve been here is complain.”
You know, I get impatient when my cell phone doesn’t work quickly enough. I get impatient when I go to Google and the image doesn’t pop up like that. I mean, for goodness sakes, who thought we’d have what we have on our desk. And if I’ve got to wait for the printer to warm up, I’m about to throw it out the window! I’ve got this printer that sounds like something from 1964 when it starts; I mean, it’s like, “Just print the stupid piece of paper, will you?” And I think, how long would that have taken me to type?
Microwaves are a fascinating thing. I get impatient at the microwave. My daughter will heat something up: she’ll put it in for a minute and she’ll never let it go to the minute. She’ll stop it like five-six seconds before the thing, because she’s so impatient she can’t wait for the thing to ding. I can always tell when she used it last because instead of the time it says four seconds, because she didn’t let it finish. We’re such an impatient people. Endurance requires pacing. Endurance is not quick and easy. But with endurance we run well.
We lived in Virginia, and we had this beautiful home, Cindy’s dream house. The back yard went down to a creek bottom and the oaks, the red oak trees in that creek bottom had to be 80-100 years old. They were beautiful. And our deck, because of the way the house was built, was built 14 feet off the ground. And so when the oaks were full it was like we were in a big tree house. We just loved it. Virginia has almost four distinct seasons and we lived on our deck in our tree house for all of fall and most of the spring; had all our meals out there. We loved it. Great family memories. But those oak trees, as beautiful as they were, had a lot of leaves on them. And I literally would have two and three foot of leaves – literally – in my back yard. Now, you don’t get a rake and a few garbage bags; this is like a several weekend project that you do many, many times even in this yard. So Cindy and I are out there raking and blowing, and raking and blowing; I had one of those little things that chops it up.
And I’m going, “I’ve got four fully capable people in the house doing nothing. So I’m going to invite those four creatures to come out and help mom and dad make a dent in these leaves.” I mean, they’re engaged in their two favorite sports, sleeping and sibling rivalry. So let’s come out here and help the family.
My fantasy is not a Playboy model, my fantasy is my children saying, “Oh, father of mine, how can I help you today?” That’s my fantasy, baby! “Oh father of mine who works so hard for our family, what can I do to make your load lighter when you walk in the door? Can I get your tea? Your newspaper? Can I take your shoes and get your slippers and your smoking jacket? Oh, father of mine, what could I do to make your life better, since you provide this luxury for me?”
So I invite these four creatures to come outside and help us rake. You would have thought it was capital punishment. One of them decides, “Let’s do it fast.” So she works so fast. She’s a pretty good worker, but it’s a sprint, not an endurance. The other one is obsessed with everything is uncomfortable. The gloves hurt; I got a piece of dust in my contact; I don’t want to hold the rake, it hurts my hands; the gloves make it worse. And she’s just this little frail, just worthless little nothing when it comes to work. My son is just mad. Every rake is “I hate you, father. I hate you, father. I hate you. You’re the worst man in the universe. I hate your guts. I hate your guts.” He’s just mad the whole time. And it’s just this comedy of errors.
And I’m watching this, going, you know, “Where’s the ‘oh, father of mine, I’m happy to fill a bag of leaves,’” for goodness sakes, you know? Your and my dad would have whaled on us if we’d have done any of those things, right? But you can’t do that today. So, I’m sitting there watching these four creatures whom I have birthed and bathed and paid for and continue to pay for; and I watched their ingratitude. One of them is a pretty good worker. And I sit there and as I watch each one of them, angry, uncomfortable, working fast and foolishly, this little echo in the back of my head says, “Michael, you obey Me just the same way. You obey Me out of anger. You try to do it quickly and get it over with. You complain about everything.”
You see, the faithful one lays aside the encumbrance and runs with endurance. Yes, you’re going to get some blisters on your hands when you rake 39 bags of chopped up leaves three consecutive weekends in a row. Yes, you’re going to have sore muscles on Sunday from working all day Saturday. Yes, your lower back and legs are going to hurt a little bit. But you endure. And you and I, at the first snivel of struggle in our Christian life, whine at our Savior and say, I put the money in the candy machine, I’ve pulled the knob out, why haven’t you given me the Snicker’s bar? Because you’re going to have to learn endurance. And you never learn endurance until you’ve been on the other side of it.
Living faithfully in a difficult life is considering the overwhelming evidence; it’s laying aside the encumbrances; it’s running with endurance; and fourth and last, it’s fixing our eyes on Jesus. Verse 2: “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” In contract to the distractions of life, we’re to focus on Christ. You have this overwhelming cloud of evidence of men and women who were faithful in far worse, far more difficult situations than you. You have to consider that evidence. You have to make a choice to lay aside that which encumbers you. You have to deal with the sin by setting it down, and then you run like mad. Aimlessly? No. You run like mad in the direction of the author and perfecter of your faith.
Chapter 2, verse 10 is an allusion here: Jesus is the author, meaning He’s the leader, He’s the pioneer, He’s the source. In chapter 2, verse 10 it reads: “bringing many sons to glory to perfect the author of their salvation through suffering.” It’s a very intense study: “bringing many sons to glory to perfect the author of their salvation through suffering.” Somehow your suffering and mine, if we suffer well, contributes to God’s salvific plan. I don’t even know what that means, I just know the Bible teaches it. If we suffer well, it’s good. I don’t like it, but I think the Scripture teaches it.
The context of Hebrews 11, again, these people lived faithfully and they didn’t obtain the promise. You and I are going to live faithfully because the promise has been obtained. That’s the big differential: they didn’t see it; we know it. They didn’t get to be a witness – a marturion – of it as we have seen and heard of the resurrection. They hoped for it, but they were sawn in two for it; they were tortured; they were put on posts and burned for it; they were beheaded for it.
Constant attention, a constant refocusing, a constant recalibration. I was telling Eric earlier, I continue to have to get glasses changed, and I don’t know how many of you are like that, but it’s just maddening. I’m 53; I don’t know how many scripts I’ve gone through. And I can’t do the progressives, and I’ve tried, so I’m at the line bifocals. And I can do them pretty well. And I’m cheap. I won’t spend$600 for them, so I get the Costco glasses and they bust all the time. Big surprise. And so I’m forever getting new prescriptions and new glasses and it just drives me crazy. And I just get them and then like six months later I’m doing this again. That’s why I have to print these things out, I can’t read the Bible hardly anymore without them. You remember Vance Havner? If you saw Vance Havner in his 80s, the man’s trifocals were like, his eyes were this big when he looked up. That’s what I think I’m going to look like in a few years, just because my eyes are fading so bad. And I’ve got to constantly refocus. Because my eyes, spiritually, my sin, distracts me. And I’ve got to constantly get a new script to deal with it.
When I was in high school, I was in the track and field events and we did a lot of running and racing and nonsense. I was not very fast, but they didn’t have much to work with, so I had to be on the team. And so we ran relays. And the 440 was one lap in those days and you had four of those for a mile. So you needed certain guys who had certain advantages; the last one obviously had to run like the wind. The only thing we really drilled was where you passed the baton, the passing zone. And in my day, if you looked back, the coach would just yell and scream at you. He said, your job is when your peripheral vision, when you see him start to enter the zone, you run like the wind and it’s his job to get that baton in your hand. Your job is not to look back; because if you look back just that split second, it’s going to be a differential for you having a chance to win the race. Because those races are won by a couple of seconds. And it all happens in that baton-passing zone, of being able to pass the baton. And so he trained us again and again: you fix your eyes ahead. You do not look at who is running beside you. You fix your eyes ahead and you run full out.
Jesus endured the cross, despised the shame, for a greater finish. A. B. Bruce writes, “One stands out conspicuous above all the rest: the man who perfectly realized the idea of living by faith, who undauntedly endured the bitter suffering of the cross. He despised the ignominy of it, sustained by a faith so vividly realized the coming joy and glory as to obliterate the consciousness of the present pain and shame.” The distractions and the voices that are unsolicited in our life that are always telling us what to do and what to believe and contrary to our experience about Christ, we have to turn those wonderful plans for our lives aside and say, I’ve got this incredible cloud of witnesses. I will lay aside the encumbrances, I will fix my eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of faith, and I will run toward Him, full out.
Consider the overwhelming evidence; lay aside the encumbrances; run with endurance; and focus on Christ. That’s how we live faithfully in a difficult world.
Florence Chadwick is a name synonymous with women’s swimming in the 1950s. She was the first woman to swim the English Channel and hold the record for decades. Her best time of 13 hours and 20 minutes from France to Dover, England, was the single fastest women’s speed for, I think, over 30 years. But one of her training sessions was a little different. On July 4, 1952, she left the Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California to swim 21 miles back to the mainland of California. That morning, however, it was cold, believe it or not, in the water of July 4. It was very foggy. There were two boats in her convoy with ropes around the boats to keep her swimming in a zone, to keep her straight. The boat in the lead, of course, is taking the bearings on the mainland, and the boat in the back is watching for sharks.
As Flo talks about the swim, the water was numbing cold. The hours ticked off and Flo swam on. Fatigue was never a problem but the bone-chilling cold of the water began to take its toll. After 15 hours, Flo asked to be taken out of the water. She could not go on. Her mother, in the boat, urged her to go on. Her coach and trainer urged her to continue. Even though they couldn’t see because of the fog, they said it couldn’t be much farther, it couldn’t be much farther. After a few more strokes, she quit. She got in the boat. She fell short of the coast. The boat traveled less than one-half a mile and there they saw the coastline. Flo blurted out, “If I could have seen the shore, I would have made it.”
You know, we don’t get to see the shore. We don’t. But sometimes it’s just right around the corner. And that’s where the endurance of the disappointments and the pain and the struggles,… I once almost quit ministry entirely. My great dear friend, Dr. Howard Hendricks, whom I still talk to about every couple of weeks – pray for Prof; he’s really struggling. And I was about to quit and just tank it and try a different profession. He doesn’t remember this, but I remember it as though it was this morning. I said, “Prof, why should I keep doing this?” because I was so discouraged. He said, “Michael, all I can tell you is that most people quit about six months too early.” And, you know, for whatever reason, that changed my life. Within six months my entire perspective changed on where I was serving, in this little church in Texas. And we loved it for almost ten years.
Run with endurance the race that is set before you.

Prayer: Father, we need you more than we understand. I suspect this group knows how much they need you. So we acknowledge we need you. As I prayed last night, simply, help us. Help us be the kind of men and women you want us to be, not the ones we try to be. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


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