Where do I belong? Where do I fit in? We all want to know the answer to those questions. For some, it is a lifelong pursuit. I remember my high school days with pain, because I really didn’t know where I fit in. In my school there were five groups. At the top of the food chain were the popular kids. Some were athletes or cheerleaders, others were not. But they were the kids everybody else wanted to be like, and to hang out with. I remember a recurring dream where one of the popular guys would see me carrying my tray in the cafeteria at school, and he would call over to me: “Hey, Fox, come join us!” Then I would wake up.
Next in the pecking order were the jocks. You didn’t have to be the quarterback or the starting point guard, but if you were on the football or basketball team, you were cool and got invited to all the parties. Tennis? Umm, not so much. I played tennis in 9th and 10th grade, and we even won a city championship. But tennis didn’t cut it with the jocks.
The third group was the brainiacs, the smart kids. They were the ones who, if they even bothered to show up at the football game, brought their chemistry book with them. But at least they belonged to a group, and I wasn’t in it.
Then there was the group that we called the druggies, the ones who wore Black Sabbath T-shirts and were always smoking cigarettes in the bathroom and talking about their latest party. Those guys scared me.
Finally, we must not forget about the rednecks. These were the good ol’ boys who drove their pickups to school and backed them into a parking space in the gravel lot. They couldn’t wait for lunch break because they would eat their sandwich and Fritos outside, gathered around one of their trucks, “talking boss,” whatever that meant. I, uh, didn’t have a truck, and didn’t have the nerve to back my dad’s 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass into a parking space next to them. So, I didn’t fit in with those guys, either.
That was it, the five groups in my school. Oh, wait, there was one more: “others.” That’s where I hung out: with the rest of the losers. And to be honest, that’s where the majority of the Christians fit in. Still do. We are the “other” guys and girls. We ate together, went to church together, and sometimes prayed together early in the morning before school started. And though we knew where we fit in, sort of, mostly we knew where we didn’t fit. I had Christian friends who would have done anything to break into one of the other groups.
Maybe some of you feel that way, whether you are 17 or 37. You are still trying to figure out where you belong. I have great news! All who come to Christ by faith belong to him. We are accepted in the beloved. We are called by Christ to know him and to help others to know him, too. But our citizenship is in heaven; that’s where we will fully and finally and forever belong. I have thought about having a passport made up that says “Heaven” for my citizenship status, but my impression is that the guys at passport control are not known for their sense of humor.
Who are you? Where, really, is your identity found? That question, at least in our culture, is perhaps more confusing than it has ever been. But the Bible makes it plain. Our identity is not found in our race, or our gender, or our politics, or our education, or our athleticism, or our economic status, or our marital status, or our children, or anything else. Our identity is found in Christ: that is where we belong.
And, you know what? If there’s a football team in heaven, I’m showing up for tryouts with my new and glorified body.
You can live in the past, and be constrained by it. Or you can learn from the past, leave the past in the past, and run without hindrance toward the finish line. Which character in the New Testament, based on his past, was least qualified to be a leader in the church? That would be Paul, the pre-conversion terrorist whose passion was to track down and imprison Christians. After Paul’s conversion, he could have easily crept back to his hometown of Tarsus, lived a quiet life there, minding his own business, feeling bad about his past sins, and waiting patiently for death. Except for one minor detail: the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. He was chosen, and he was called, and God had a plan to use his life (and yours and mine) for the Gospel. That means that no one reading this column has a past that is bad enough to disqualify you, even if you have been a terrorist. So, what do we do if we want to know Christ and be useful to him in ministry? Paul said it like this: “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining towards what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Anything in our past or our present that would rob us of our run after Christ needs to go. That could mean failures of the past. We all have them. That could mean successes of the past. We all have those as well. Leave them there, along with your past defeats, and press on. This also means that if we are presently entangled in a way that hinders our pursuit of Christ, we need to disentangle. Young people, if you are in a relationship with someone who doesn’t make you want to be more like Christ, that is a clear warning from God that he or she may not be the right person for you. I would encourage you to seek godly counsel and not make a lifelong mistake.
Maybe it’s not a relationship with a person that hinders your run, but just a life filled with trivial pursuits. Paul wrote, “Have nothing to do with silly, irreverent myths. Rather, train yourself for godliness.” Silly, irreverent myths, or silly, irreverent activities could describe about 95% of what is on television or Netflix or at the theater, couldn’t it? Be honest with yourself about this: are you saturated with entertainment to the point that pursuing Christ is either a third-place hobby in your life or something that doesn’t even show up at all? What would it look like for you and me to train ourselves for godliness? To strain forward toward what lies ahead instead of simply living for the next movie, the next Netflix series, the next reality show, the next video game, the next ballgame, the next golf outing, the next shopping spree, the next ____________(fill in the blank with your preferred entertainment option.) It doesn’t mean we have to chuck our golf clubs in the lake or our TVs in the woods. It might mean, however, that we put limits on the many ways we tend to “amuse ourselves to death.” It will definitely mean that we begin an earnest run after Christ. Look, you can put one of those silly and sad 0.0 stickers on the back of your pickup if you want, proudly announcing that you don’t run unless something is chasing you. But you cannot put that sticker on your soul. If you know Jesus, you are called to run after Him with all your might. Period.
Knowing Jesus and helping others to know Jesus was all that really mattered to Paul. It was the one thing that marked his life more than anything else. He let nothing get in the way of that pursuit.
What one change could you make in order to pursue the one thing that matters most?
It is an amazing thing to me that, 30 years after Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he expresses the cry of his heart in a letter to one of the churches he planted: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” What does that statement by Paul teach us about Christ, except that yes, we are able to know him! Even as a 15-year-old, this verse captured me the first time I read it. Maybe I saw then with immature faith that this was the greatest cry of Paul’s heart. He had forsaken the pursuit of fame and fortune as a Pharisee, and had given himself fully to the pursuit of Christ. Could there be anybody in the first century who knew Christ better than Paul? And yet, here is Paul crying out from a Roman prison that more than anything, he wanted to know the Lord.
It has been a 45-year pursuit for me — longer for some of you, shorter for others. I know that I will finally fully know Jesus when I meet him face to face, but I want to know him on this side of heaven. I want to grow more like him. The big theological term that describes what I desire more of, is sanctification.
Sanctification is the process by which we grow in our relationship with Jesus. It is progressive and continuous until the day we die. And though God takes the initiative, sanctification requires our participation. Therefore, it looks different in different people because of the amount of participation by the individual. The disobedient Christian grows much more slowly than the obedient one. You know this is a law of physics: Speed x Time = Distance. If you drive at 60 mph for one hour, you will have driven 60 miles. It is also a spiritual law. Persistent obedience over time leads to maturity. Sanctification happens as we take a “long walk of obedience” with the Lord, cooperating with the Spirit of God in the plan He has chosen for us.
How do we do it, then? How do we grow in our relationship with the Lord, to truly get to know Jesus? Let’s acknowledge that part of our growth comes from just doing the work: reading and studying the Bible, learning to pray, obeying the main things and the plain things of Scripture. But our spiritual maturity is also affected by our relationships. If we spend time with people who know Jesus better than we do, we will likely grow in our relationship with Jesus ourselves.
Ask yourself this question: “Who knows Jesus better than I do that I am close to?” I am fortunate to live with someone who knows Jesus better than I: my wife! She is not only my best friend and closest companion, she has been my example and teacher in many ways over these 35 years of marriage. I also have friends who are more mature than I in their relationship with the Lord, and I learn by being with them. I would suggest you ask someone who is close to the Lord to have coffee with you. Ask them how they know him like they do. Listen carefully, and begin to follow their walk, until it becomes your own. Be forewarned that those who draw near to Jesus will be changed. He will ask you to stop some things that are important to you, and start others that have been neglected.
The long walk of obedience will be worth it.
I had a friend named Jack Robinson growing up. It’s true. You millennials might not know that people used to use that name to explain quickness: “Are you going to the beach?” “Just as quick as you can say Jack Robinson.” Well, my friend was quick, but not always as quick as I was. We competed in everything. Running. Throwing sticks. Wrestling. Climbing trees. We even competed in selling vegetable seeds door to door. But every time we competed, the winner had bragging rights. That’s why we competed, so whoever won could brag. The winner would always brag about how much he trounced the other, and the loser would always have an excuse for why he did not win. Bottom line? We wanted to be the best.
So did Paul, known as Saul of Tarsus before his conversion. With all seriousness, Paul included a list in his letter to the Philippians about why he had more reason to brag about his past accomplishments than anyone. He says, in effect, “You think you have reason to brag? Step aside, son. You ain’t got nothing.” I’ve noticed that when Paul brags, he uses poor grammar, just to make a point. Paul continued, “Let me tell you about a man who was a legend in his own time. That man, my boy, would be me.” I am using poetic license, of course, but Paul did brag to the Philippians, in order to make this point: though he climbed to the top of the ladder as a religious person, when he arrived at the pinnacle he discovered his ladder was leaning against the wrong wall. Paul discovered, through a blinding flash, that salvation is not a do-it-yourself project.
Had it been, Paul would have been a rock star in his day. I imagine a first century show called “Israeli Idol” that Paul would have won, every single year. Because the show wouldn’t have been about singing or dancing, but about reciting memorized Scriptures. Praying long, elaborate prayers. Fasting. And of course, Paul’s favorite talent: persecuting Christians. He makes the case in his letter that there was no one who even came close to having his devotion, his zeal, and his righteousness under the law.
Ahh, there’s the rub. The law cannot make one righteous any more than a mirror can clean one’s face. The law, like a mirror, shows us our need for cleansing. In the midst of his busy pursuit of making himself acceptable to God, Paul was apprehended by the Lord himself. On his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, Paul met the Savior and exchanged his pharisaical robes of self-righteousness for the righteousness of Christ. Paul’s life was turned right-side-up. But, wait…
What about his resume? His pedigree? His studies at the feet of Gamaliel? His blamelessness “under the law”? Paul uses a crude expletive to describe all of his past accomplishments. He calls it rubbish, or, “dung.” The word was sometimes used in the Greek to describe the piles of, umm, stuff you see people scooping off the ground with a plastic grocery bag on their hand and then turning the bag inside out. I saw a lady do that recently while she was walking her dog, and then I watched in amazement as she put the grocery bag in her purse. Paul would be horrified at that, but even more, he was mortified at the wobbly foundation of do-it-yourself salvation that he had been standing on until he met Christ.
I don’t know what happened to my childhood friend and competitor. I just know that as quick as you could say “Jack Robinson,” 50 years have gone by since we were racing up Walden Avenue together. Maybe I will find one day that Jack came to the same place I did, and that he put his life and his faith into the hands of the One who can turn anyone right-side-up. I hope so.
This summer a Vietnamese believer was arrested and beaten after police raided his home looking for Christian materials. A few days before arresting “Mr. Lee”, police had arrested other Vietnamese Christians and discovered Christian materials on their digital music players. The Christians stated under duress that the materials had come from Mr. Lee, a dedicated Christian in northern Vietnam. Police didn’t find anything in the raid, but they still detained him for two days, beat him and warned him to stop distributing Christian materials.
Several years ago, Shi Weihan was sentenced to three years in a Chinese prison for printing Bibles to give away. (both stories from Voice of the Martyrs)
Let’s think about that. A man in Vietnam is beaten for giving people materials about the Christian faith. A man in China is sent to prison and fined the equivalent of $22,000 for printing and distributing Bibles at his own expense, leaving his wife and two young daughters to fend for themselves while authorities “continue to pressure the family.”
Here’s a question for you: what is the difference between a nation that can’t read the Bible, because it is not available to its people, and a nation that won’t read the Bible? It evokes Mark Twain’s quip, “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
Forget the nation. What about the Christians? Why are there so many people who claim to be followers of the God of the Bible who never or seldom read the Bible of their God? Why is it that the typical church-goer in America couldn’t find the book of Philemon or Ezra without a table of contents if his life depended on it? Get into a discussion about the Bible with the average church-attender today and it won’t be five minutes before he will say something like, “God helps him who helps himself. That’s in the Bible, you know.” No. It isn’t. Or he might make the ridiculous statement, “Jesus never claimed to be God, and he never claimed to be the only necessary substitute for our sins.” The truth is, many in the church have no idea what the Bible really says because they never read it. The problem, I contend, is often found not in the pews, but in the pulpit.
Think about it. If your math teacher never lectured on algebra but instead spent his time in class pontificating on nuclear disarmament, the ozone, or grey squirrels, would you lug your textbook to class? Would you even read it?
You want to know one of my favorite sounds? The sound of rustling pages of Scripture as the congregation, including children, turns to the text that we will be studying that morning. I often say, “If you don’t have a Bible, look on with someone who does.” We have only a few scattered copies of the Bible in the pews, so it is rare that someone comes to church without his Bible. Many have spent time during the week in the next passage in the book of the Bible we are working our way through. Many have had conversations with their families about the upcoming passage, to prepare their hearts for the sermon. Why? Because the Bible is not just a great work of literature. It is the Word of God, and is necessary that “the man or woman of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That’s why people are willing to be beaten, or go to jail, or worse, to get the words of life into the hands of those who don’t have it.
Bibles and hearts collect dust at about the same rate. Read your Bible.