“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” – G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World
Says Satan, it is so hard and difficult a thing to pray as you should, and to wait on God as you should, and to walk with God as you should, and to be lively, warm, and active in the communion of saints as you should, that you were better ten thousand times to neglect them, than to meddle with them. Doubtless by this device Satan has and does keep off thousands from waiting on God and from giving to him that service that is due to his name.
Christian book stores (those that still exist, anyway) are filled with volumes on how to live the Christian life. Depending on your age, sex, income level, and interest, there’s probably a title waiting for you to purchase.
We Christians spend millions of dollars a year on workshops, seminars, and retreats, hoping that our next experience will be the one where we finally realize the breakthrough we long for. We chase that elusive spark of inspiration and understanding that will ultimately guide us into spiritual maturity.
It is with Christianity as it is with any personal pursuit: consistent application over time produces results. But this application is not easy. It is this difficulty Satan uses to drive a wedge between us and our devotion to Christ.
Thomas Brooks offers these remedies to encourage us onward in our pursuit of spiritual maturity and holiness.
Remedy 1: The need exceeds the negative
Brooks is blunt in expressing the first remedy: It may be hard, but we have to do it.
Think of any great thing worth accomplishing. Which of them can be obtained without hard work, dedication, and sacrifice? An Olympic gold medal. Remission from cancer. A healthy, well-adjusted child. A beautifully painted masterpiece. No shortcut or simple formula can deliver any of them.
My particular interest, for nearly all of my life, has been drumming. At the age of seven I began private lessons. I practiced countless hours. By the time I graduated from high school I had several honors, achievements, and recognitions to look back on. But I can admit now that I could have practiced even more, and I might have achieved even greater levels of success.
Suppose I gave you the names of who I consider to be the five greatest drummers of all time. Ask each of them, “What does it take to achieve your level of proficiency?” You might hear a little of, “Well, I had some good luck,” or, “I met the right person at the right time who gave me a break.” But without exception what you’d hear the most would be, “Practice. Keep practicing. When you feel like you can’t practice any more, keep practicing.”
And yet we aren’t to think that “practicing” the Christian life is a grind, an unpleasant burden. Consider the fruits of the efforts he names: honor, strength, purity, hope, joy. These are choice fruits. But no tree bears fruit without cultivation, pruning, feeding, and care.
Remedy 2: Follow the form, not the feeling
We serve Christ because it is right and good to do so, not always because we feel like doing so. The truth about being a Christian is that, despite the great motivation we have in all God has worked on our behalf, our broken minds and hearts sometimes wallow in apathy.
Paul the Apostle regularly wrote words of encouragement to continue in the faith to his churches. He knew how hard their lives had become because of Christ. He saw the rallying cry as a regular tool in his pastoral arsenal.
One example …
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God (Philippians 1:27–28, ESV).
Marriage counselors will often tell hurting, dejected spouses to love each other into their feelings, not because of them. Feelings of affection cannot sustain a relationship. They will ultimately fade and waver. Instead, marriages last because a husband and wife remain true to their promises, press into each other, and press on toward faithfulness.
Long-lasting marriages achieve a solidity of feeling, a deep and abiding joy that can be even sweeter than young love. Saints who endure hardship, remaining faithful to Christ over years and decades can experience this same lasting joy.
But a Christian who only chases feelings will be left with emptiness, discouragement, and eventually hopelessness. Our pursuit of godly things should always remain fixed on the love he has shown us despite our unloveliness. There is no greater motivation.
Remedy 3: Consider the servant’s suffering
Isaiah’s prophecies about Christ are some of the strongest evidences of Scripture’s divine inspiration. They tell the story of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection so vividly that skeptics have been trying to discount their age for centuries. But all signs point to Isiah having been written some 600 to 700 years before Jesus’ birth.
The chapters that speak of God’s “suffering servant” contain some of the most enlightening prophecies about Messiah.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:11–12, ESV).
God’s people had many centuries through which to expect their coming savior. Their rejection in large part of Jesus as Messiah is an unspeakable tragedy. But not all first-century Jews missed this clear connection.
Paul wrote much to his churches and fellow pastors about what Jesus’ suffering accomplished, its efficacy to remit sin, its acceptability as a substitutionary sacrifice before God. Here are just a few of Paul’s choice words on this matter.
When we find service to God a burden, it’s good to remember the burden Christ bore in our place. We should remember his encouragement to the spiritually downtrodden, those who could not stand under the legalistic weight placed on them by the Pharisees: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Remedy 4: Serve from your “better part”
Paul wrote in Romans 7 of the war waging within him, of the desire to do good while the temptation raged to do evil. Christians for millennia have taken comfort that this pillar of the faith struggled just like we do.
And what did Paul say when he seemed at the edge of despair? “Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Did he resolve to pull himself up by his bootstraps, promise to try harder, and resolve to stop sinning. No. He looked to the spirit of Christ in him. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
That “better part” is in every adopted child of God. It is the place from which God is at work in us, to will and to do that which is pleasing to him. The truth is that, even when it’s hard, you do want to serve God. He has placed that desire in you himself.
Consider Jesus’ explanation to his disciples of what it will be like on the last day when he returns for his children. He will separate all humans, sheep and goats. He will commend his sheep for their faithfulness to him. And yet the response of his sheep will be, “Lord, when did we do these things?”
Sheep do sheep things because they are sheep. They don’t become sheep by acting like them. We do what we do as children of God because we are who we are, created miraculously by his transforming grace. Doesn’t that fact make you want to serve him more? That’s exactly the point.
Remedy 5: Look to the reward
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a Christian’s motivation for service to God being her reward from him. The Bible freely encourages this attitude. This is not greed. It is a recognition of the reward’s value based on the holiness and unmatched love of its giver.
In Ephesians 1, Paul twice mentions the inheritance of the saints, the rich rewards we have awaiting us in God’s kingdom, our reward.
“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will … [the Holy Spirit is] the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
That our reward is an inheritance means it has been promised and sealed for our future good based on our present status. We Christians are sons of God, both male and female. This does not exclude women. It is an understanding that, culturally speaking, being a son of Almighty God is enjoying all the rights and privileges that descend from sonship.
But it is God himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, who guarantees this promised inheritance. His indwelling of us until the day of full deliverance is his personal accompaniment and stewardship of that gift, not only for us, but literally with and in us.
This is why we can, as Thomas Brooks writes, “look more upon the future crown than upon the present cross.” God’s future reward is, in fact, our present reality. It is as good as delivered, because it is sealed not merely with a promise – though a perfect promise from a perfect God – but with his very presence. We are free to look ahead to the good that will come while we serve him devotedly here despite our difficulties.
Doesn’t that make you want to follow God, to serve him, to obey him?