By John A. Huffman, Jr.
Tuesday, March 01, 2005
No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier's aim is to please the enlisting officer. And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules.
Today's message focuses on perseverance/persistence.
Webster's Dictionary defines perseverance in the following words: "To persist in a state, enterprise, or undertaking in spite of counter-influences, opposition, or discouragement."
A synonym for the word perseverance is persistence.
Webster's Dictionary defines persistence in the following words: "To take a stand, stand firm, to go on resolutely or stubbornly in spite of opposition, importunity, or warning.
I know what you sense coming. From what I've said thus far, you can expect a rousing sermon on the theme "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." That's a kind of mantra of our day, isn't it--whether it comes from exhortation from a political leader or a coach?
There is a legitimacy to such an exhortation. Too many people, often quite gifted, accomplish much less than they otherwise could have accomplished simply because they give up, buckle under, can't stand the pressure.
Framed and hanging on my study wall at home is this statement, titled "PERSISTENCE."
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
The slogan "press on" has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
Who do you think wrote those words? They were written by President Calvin Coolidge.
It actually is a profound observation, underlining the importance of persistence, of perseverance.
I came across it in a somewhat obtuse way. My daughter, Carla, has a dear friend named Kelly, whose father plays on the senior golf tour. His name is Jim Colbert. Several years ago at Christmas, Carla was visiting the Colberts in Palm Desert. Jim had this definition of "Persistence" printed up on beautiful parchment and a number of copies framed as that year's Christmas present to friends. He gave a copy to Carla, who, seeing how fascinated I was by it, loaned it to me until she finds the appropriate place for it in her home.
It is possible to build a whole career around this concept. In the case of Jim Colbert, his PGA golf career was modest, and, for decades, he was a journeyman player who lived in the shadow of the Arnold Palmers, Gary Players and Jack Nicklauses. Then something happened when Colbert turned 50. He left broadcasting to give golf a try in what then was called the Senior Tour and is now the Champions Tour. Much to everyone's surprise, including his own, he began to win. For the next decade, he won big, making the millions that had eluded him on the regular tour and doing far better than those men just named and in whose shadows he had played for decades.
In a way, this statement captures the profound truth of persistence, which ultimately wins out when talent, genius and education, as important as they are, fall short. So I read that plaque and find the inspiration from it to "keep on keeping on" at whatever I am doing.
Now, I could spend the rest of today drumming up an inspirational, highly-motivating message on the importance of "persistence," the absolute necessity of "perseverance." And, in a way, I am.
At the same time, I would like to move beyond the simply human definitions of this term. Ultimately, this is a "self-help" statement that denies the importance of God and the necessity of His help in all we do. What greater heresy is there than to declare "persistence and determination alone are omnipotent," ascribing to this great quality the very attribute reserved alone for God?
Our text calls us to persistence, to perseverance, but it adds a dimension that protects you and me from falling into the deep chasm of discouragement when our own best human efforts fall short. Paul writes to Timothy, "You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus . . ." (
This is what makes all the difference. You and I are called to perseverance, but not that lonely perseverance of one trying to "keep on keeping on" when keeping on no longer makes any sense from a human perspective. This is a call to a life bathed in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, in which we are motivated by that which goes beyond ourselves to be all God would have us be as we persist, as we persevere as followers of Jesus, empowered by His Holy Spirit.
Lloyd John Ogilvie, in his wonderful book of prayers, Quiet Moments with God, includes this prayer on November 16, which I find transformational as I claim God's help to be man of perseverance as Christ's follower. It reads:
Lord Christ, when I experience Your fullness in my emptiness, I receive Your mind for my thoughts, Your nature for the formation of my character, Your person for the shaping of my personality, Your will for the direction of my will, and Your power for my discipleship. Each day as I yield my inner life to the formation of Your character in me, I am able to face the struggles of my outer life.
Today I can face the three most troublesome struggles of life. First, thank You for helping me overcome the struggle with my human nature. When I admit the impossibility of changing myself with resolutions and self-improvement disciplines, You take control and perform the continuing miracle of making me like Yourself. Second, You free me from the struggle to be humanly adequate. I know I am insufficient for the demands of life, but I also know of your all-sufficient adequacy. I can't imagine any problem You can't help me solve, any person You can't love through me, any challenge You can't give me strength to tackle. Third, I don't have to struggle with worries over what the future holds. I can relax. Whatever I face today will be an opportunity for new dimensions of Your character to be formed in me.
Are you with me?
A life lived without perseverance is a life that tries to exist by mobilizing what natural talents one happens to have, forgetting that some of the most gifted people in the world are failures because they give up when the going gets tough. In fact, some of them have so much talent, genius and education that they never find their focus. I am reminded of those words of a music teacher I once had, who would frequently say to me, "My son, remember the postage stamp and its ability to stick to one job until it is done!"
What our text is saying is that you and I are privileged to take all the gifts of God's grace, freely given to us, and, with faithfulness, persistence and perseverance, move forward, empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, to accomplish that which He dreams of accomplishing in us.
Once we discover this preamble combination of gifts, perseverance, undergirded, grounded, motivated by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are ready for the rest of Paul's mentoring in this passage.
You and I are called to persevere in four specific ways.
First, you and I are called to persevere in the transmission of the faith.
Paul writes, "You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus; and what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well" (
Any discourses on perseverance are pep talks geared to make you a successful person, to remind us that persistence pays off. And it does.
This grace-bathed persistence is designed not just to help us receive what God has in store for us but to help us to share it with others and to see that the next generation is also the beneficiary of God's grace.
The reality is that the Christian church is always just one generation from extinction. You and I are called to be links in the chain that winds its way through human history from the first century until the return of Jesus Christ.
Someone told you about Jesus. That person was faithful. You are the beneficiary of their faithfulness. Now, in turn, you and I have the responsibility of sharing that Good News with someone else, who also will be faithful. We, in our faithfulness, are to entrust the Good News of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ to other people who will themselves be faithful in conveying that to others.
Back in 1960, as a 20-year-old, I stood in the New Territories in Hong Kong, looking out onto mainland China. Twelve years earlier, China had fallen to the Communists, and we all knew that the Church of Jesus Christ was being crushed. Stories leaked out about believers who were being killed because of their faith. The church was forced to go underground. The estimate was, at the time of the Communist takeover, that there were some 750,000 to 1,000,000 believers in China. The assumption was that atheistic Marxism would simply, by persecution, obliterate the church. As a 20-year-old, praying for that great country of China, my dream was that someday Marxism would fall and the church would once again get a toehold in that culture. I never expected to live to see the day of the Cultural Revolution, as oppressive as had been the Marxist persecution and circumstances became even more difficult for the church in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Then President Richard Nixon visited China. Cultural exchange began to happen. By the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, we began to hear rumors that, far from being crushed, the Church of Jesus Christ had actually prospered. The blood of the martyrs had actually proven to be the seed of the church. Faithful men and women, at great personal price, had persevered in their faith and had shared the Gospel with other faithful persons. The chain not only was sustained, but it strengthened and grew far beyond what it had been with the missionaries in the pre-1948 era. By the time I was there, teaching in Nanchung and Beijing seminaries in 1995, the estimates were that there were some 10 to 12 million believers in the China Christian Council Church and perhaps as many as 50 million more in the underground church.
Billy Graham is an example of someone who has persevered through the decades in the transmission of the Gospel. Thursday night and Friday night, I was once again moved to tears as I observed him, now frail in stature, maneuvering into the pulpit with his walker. In many ways, he has qualified for a peaceful retirement, if not for a restful existence in a nursing home! But there, mustering all the physical, emotional and spiritual energy, enabled by the Holy Spirit, on those cold evenings in the Rose Bowl, he faithfully proclaimed the Gospel to tens of thousands of people. I, for one, am encouraged by his example to continue on, persistent, persevering in faithfulness myself to encourage you to come to Christ, to come back to Christ, to share your faith with others, who, in turn, will be faithful on into the generations to come.
Just this morning, I came across this passage in my devotions that expresses the importance of perseverance in the transmission of the Gospel to the next generation. It reads:
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come. Your power and your righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens. (
Second, you and I are called to perseverance in difficult times.
Paul writes in
Scott Peck, in his classic book, The Road Less Traveled, makes this declaration in his opening sentence: "Life is difficult."
I assume that you have been alive long enough to discover the truthfulness of that statement. Life can be wonderful. Life can be joyful. Life can be peaceful. Life is filled with many blessings. But none of these positive spiritual realities should detract from the reality that life is difficult. And we are urged by Paul to face this reality and to "share in suffering," or what some translations translate to "endure hardness."
You are the one who knows what your difficulties are. You are the one who knows what challenges you face. You are the one who knows how some of these challenges are exacerbated by your faith in Jesus Christ. The economy of the Kingdom of God is an "upside-down" economy. Jesus says in Matthew 5:43-44, "'You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy," But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'" Jesus goes on to say, "'Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also'" (
These and others of his teachings are difficult sayings. Take them seriously, and you are marching to a drumbeat that is contrary to the cadence of contemporary life.
Paul illustrates the nature of Christian discipleship during difficult times with three practical images.
Image #1 is the soldier.
You know what it means to be a soldier. A soldier is called to focused service. Your life is lived set apart from normal civilian pursuits. You wear a uniform, you live in a barracks, you are deployed to whatever part of the world your nation chooses to send you. And it is a life that requires obedience. You cannot have twenty soldiers heading out in twenty different directions, each declaring their own strategy in battle. They must take orders, whether those orders prove to be wise or unwise on the part of the person in charge, the commander who has the larger view of what is going on.
We only have to observe what is going on right now in Iraq to see the evidence of both focused service and willingness to obey commands. Whether it is securing Baghdad or the more recent efforts to root out the insurgents in Fallujah, our military men and women are called to persevere under the most difficult of circumstances. It is not only the full-time enlisted persons who must function this way, but also those who, much to their surprise, have been called up from the reserves to serve their nation.
The Christian is called to focused service and obedience to Jesus Christ. All of this involves the potential of sacrifice. All of this involves loyalty.
Let me ask you bluntly, is your life as a follower of Jesus one of focused service, obedience, willingness to sacrifice and loyalty to your Savior? Be honest in your response!
Image #2 is that of the athlete.
Last week, we looked at the sufferings that an athlete willingly accepts. It is as they say, "no pain, no gain." This week we are looking at the perseverance of the athlete.
Wilma Rudolph was the twentieth of 22 children. Born prematurely, doctors did not expect Wilma to survive. She did. But, at the age of four, she contracted double pneumonia and scarlet fever, leaving her left leg paralyzed. She learned to walk with the aid of a metal brace.
When Wilma was nine years old, she removed the leg brace and began walking without it. By age thirteen, she developed a rhythmic walk. That same year, she decided to begin running. She entered her first race and came in last. For the next three years, Wilma Rudolph came in dead last in every race she entered. But she kept on running, and one day she won. Eventually, the little girl who was not supposed to live, and then who was not supposed to be able to walk, would win three gold medals in Rome's 1960 Olympic games. That's what I call perseverance.
There is an athletic nature to the Christian life. This involves discipline.
This involves self-denial. You and I are called to stay in spiritual shape, shedding attitudes and actions that would get in the way of successfully completing life's difficult race.
How are you doing? Are you living with such discipline? Is there in your life that dimension of self-denial that marks the life of the athlete?
Image #3 is that of the farmer.
Most of us here in the Harbor area are a generation or two removed from the farm.
I remember my childhood days in which I spent some time every summer in northern Michigan with my grandparents, on my mother's side, who were farmers. They had 180 acres in Yale, a small town outside Port Huron. Someone has to milk the cows. Someone has to plow the fields. Someone has to do the planting, cultivating, weeding and spraying of insecticides and application of fertilizer. Then there is the harvesting. For decades, my grandparents were tied to the difficult duties of being farmers, when it was profitable and when they farmed at a financial loss.
More recently, I have been spending time each year with my friends, the MacKenzies, in northern Scotland, observing them farm some 1800 acres. They cannot neglect the chores. They are at the mercy of the elements. When I was there at the end of the summer, it was harvest time. However, August and the first few days of September had been quite wet. There was all the barley and wheat in those huge fields, ready to harvest, but it was simply too wet to do it. Then came a quick change in the weather. The sun came out, combined with two days of brisk winds, and the moment came right. They began their round-the-clock harvesting. They couldn't just peremptorily say, "I don't feel like harvesting today." They had to focus all their attention on doing that difficult job, even late into the evening hours.
How about you? Do you have the diligence of the farmer in your Christian life? "But God's schedule is not always my schedule." Parenting, service for others, financial stewardship, devotional discipline don't always arrange themselves conveniently to the times in which I want to give them attention. They are daily functions, part of the cycles of life.
Look at a farm where the farmers are delinquent and you see an overgrown mess, which quickly leads to agricultural and financial bankruptcy. The same thing is true in the Christian life.
The soldier keeps in mind the thought of final victory.
The athlete is upheld by the vision of the winner's trophy.
And the farmer looks forward to the hope for harvest.
For the Christian, there is the crown. We look forward to the joy that comes from faithfulness and the anticipation of meeting our Savior in heaven. We will hear His, "Well done thou good and faithful servant. Enter into your eternal rest."
Third, you and I are called to perseverance in memory of what Jesus Christ has done.
Paul writes, "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David--that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory" (
Our lives as followers of Jesus did not emerge out of a vacuum. They are based on what happened in history. You and I are urged to remember Jesus Christ, God in human form. He is the heart of the Gospel. He is the essence of the Good News.
So when Paul sits in prison in Rome, thinking about his own personal sufferings, examining the chains which bind him and his martyrdom that is just around the corner, he declares that he can "endure everything." And he can endure everything so that others may obtain the salvation which is in Jesus Christ. Paul too was qualified for a peaceful retirement. But he voluntarily "pressed on" in Christ's service, determined to lead more people to that salvation which comes only from Jesus!
Fourth, you and I are called to a perseverance that faces a future promise.
Paul writes what some have referred to as the "the song of the martyr." In
The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
If we deny him, he will also deny us;
If we are faithless, he remains faithful--for he cannot deny himself.
This future promise was what motivated Paul. Try to get inside the passion of what he writes here. He's at the end of his life. This is one of the last letters he ever writes before his martyrdom. He's trying to convey this passion to his young colleague, Timothy, who he knows will hear about his martyrdom. He is trying to instill in him, and you and me, the seriousness of the Christian life. He makes it clear that if we die with Christ, we also live with Him. If we endure the difficulty of life here on earth, we ultimately will reign with Him. On the other hand, if we live lives so calculating, so self-protective that we deny the lordship of Jesus Christ, refusing to take up our cross, He ultimately will deny us. Paul is even aware of our weakness and the frailty of the flesh, for he says if we are faithless, God remains faithful because He has made promises to us. In a way, this sounds contradictory, doesn't it? No, what he is saying is that he knows soldiers get weary in battle, that athletes get tired, that even the best of farmers sometimes don't get everything done on time. He is acknowledging that "God knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust." When our determination is to persevere and to keep on keeping on, but we falter in the effort, He is there to carry us on. If our faith is not always at its best, He still remains faithful because He cannot deny His promises to us.
Let me conclude with a wonderful story of a Chinese Christian leader, Brother Zhong, as he shared it in an article titled, "China--Where God Is Behind Bars," in Today's Christian (September/October 2000).
I was attending a training course for my house church network's council members and youth leaders. The Public Security Bureau (PSB) raided us the first day. All the leaders were arrested.
The prison authorities shaved our heads and interrogated us. We were warned that the hardened inmates would beat us. So with much trepidation, another brother and I entered our cell.
We were greeted by the sight of 16 other inmates, lined up in two rows and thumping their fists. My heart beat rapidly as I sent prayers up to God.
The leader of the gang asked, "Why are you here?'
"Because we are Christians," I replied.
"You don't beat people up?"
"No," I assured him.
"Do you sing?"
"Yes," I answered.
The leader ordered me to sing a song. I wept as I sang. The Holy Spirit moved in our midst, and by the time I finished singing, every prisoner was also in tears. To my shock, the gang leader then asked to hear the gospel.
After that, my cellmates hungered to hear the gospel every day. One Sunday, we held a worship service. The prison guard demanded to know who was behind it. He threatened to punish everyone if no one spoke up. I stood up and confessed.
I was forced to remove my clothes and stand at an inclined angle to the wall. The gang leader couldn't bear it anymore. He asked to be punished with me. All the others volunteered to do the same. The infuriated guard stormed out. I was moved by my cellmates' act. One of them, who had been there for three years, became a believer that day.
This is what it is all about. It is not about me. It is about God and how God works through you and me, helping us to persevere in transmitting our faith, to persevere in difficult times, to persevere in remembering what Jesus Christ has done for us and to persevere in the face of God's future promise.
John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.