Various passages in the Bible picture the Christian life as a race or other athletic competition (see 1 Tim. 4:7-8; Gal. 5:7; Heb. 12:1; Jas. 1:12). Parallels abound. Both require attention and effort. Both require self-denial and perseverance. Both have a clearly defined finish line we strive for. The finish line for Christians is to become disciples of Christ. Now that we have a goal in mind, we’ll begin making strides toward it.
Unlike an athletic competition, the race for the Christian lasts a lifetime. If you’re not dead yet, you aren’t finished yet. You still have time to push forward in the race and win. You may be coming to the starting blocks with regrets over personal, family, or spiritual failure. You may have stumbled coming out of the blocks. You may have tripped during the race. You may even be starting the race a little late, but God can help you make up for the lost time. He can help you pick up speed in the last half of the race and cover more ground in less time than the average runner:
I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.
Our relationship with God begins with God. Paul was saying that what God starts, He finishes. What God initiates, He completes. God wants us to be involved in His mission in the world to make Himself known by making His people more like His Son. He always helps us finish. Sometimes it may appear that God is doing nothing and everything is up to us. Yet God routinely works behind the scenes to lead us toward the finish line.
Paul knew how to persevere. He knew how to let go of the past. Paul had a shady past. He persecuted and oppressed the church. But one day Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. That encounter changed Paul’s life. He knew the wisdom of forgetting failures and even successes. He wrote about it in Philippians 3. Paul pressed on:
Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead.
Paul has a kingdom-disciple attitude. He let go of the things that were behind him. His eyes were straight ahead, focused on the goal. Runners don’t win a race looking backward. They have to keep their eyes on the finish line. You can’t change yesterday, but you can do a lot about what happens tomorrow. Don’t let other people stop you from running for God. Don’t let other people distract you from seeking His approval.
The truth is that if you know Jesus, you already have God’s approval. When you believed the gospel, God exchanged all the sin in your past, present, and future for the perfect life of His Son. You’re now in Christ, so when God sees you, He doesn’t see your past; He sees Jesus’ perfect record. God isn’t concerned about your past failures; however, He has an unmistakable, amazing way of using even failure to bring about success.
God has a purpose for your life, a destiny for you to live out, a plan that He uniquely created you to fulfill. You advance toward that goal by focusing each day on aligning your thoughts, attitudes, and behavior with His Word and His will. Be faithful in the small things, and He will put you in charge of many things (see Matt. 25:21). If you drop a pass or miss a tackle, don’t blame others or yourself. Don’t get sidelined for a play. Get back up; admit your failure to God, trusting in His provision for your forgiveness (the Bible calls this step repentance); let it go; move forward in the knowledge that your past doesn’t define you. Because you’re accepted and forgiven, you’re living under God’s approval.
Living in God’s approval allows us to bear spiritual fruit, which is the outward evidence that we’re being inwardly changed by God’s work in our lives. For example, when a man lifts weights, the hours in the gym show up as fruit in the body as muscles begin to develop and his body responds to the difficulties it has endured. Similarly, spiritual sculpting takes place when you let go of your past and take responsibility for your sins and your spiritual development. Fruit can include greater patience, tolerance, self-control, love, diligence, leadership, wisdom, grace, and a myriad of other traits and actions that lead to eternal rewards.
For Paul, bearing fruit was rooted in self-control. He tells us:
Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
The best athletes exhibit self-control. The Greek word Paul used for self-control in verse 25 referred to athletes in his day who abstained from unhealthy food, wine, and sex prior to competition. These athletes understood the need for their bodies to be at full capacity for victory. They were willing to invest in themselves to win the prize set before them.
The prize in the Christian life is in the future. Hiding behind the past is harmful because it focuses our attention in the wrong place. It causes us to feel shame and guilt over past failings instead of resting in the approval we have in Jesus and in the confidence that comes from knowing He will finish the work He began. We need to exercise diligence and self-control to let go of the past.
Sometimes circumstances in life make it difficult for men to be all God wants them to be. But Tony Evans urges men to stop looking at their circumstances as excuses and instead to see them as challenges and opportunities for success. Exploring the examples of men of God throughout the Bible, No More Excuses will challenge you to lay down your excuses, stop compromising, and fight to be a man of character and commitment. Despite your setbacks, failures, and pressures, you can still find purpose, meaning, and direction in life and become the man God has called you to be.