Choose to Be a Winner
Personal experience and observation show that there are many losers and few winners, even among those who are frequent participants. Take for example raffles, sweepstakes, or even races and other athletic contests. The prizes go to only a few. There may be thousands of entrants, but there are very few winners, sometimes only one.
Like us, you likely receive an abundance of junk mail offering fabulous prizes in various forms of sweepstakes almost every day. We are encouraged to participate, often at little or no cost other than a postage stamp. Although it is claimed that there are winners, such seem to be very rare. The odds are discouraging. Why bother to enter?
Even in the case of races and athletic contests, where formal entry requirements are met and much effort is spent in preparatory practice, the prize goes to the few. In each case, we must decide whether or not to participate, to make the necessary preparations and meet the other required conditions.
There is a race in which we cannot lose and each person is encouraged to make a decision to enter it - a race in which all who complete the course are winners. The Christian life is frequently compared to a contest, a fight or a race, but there is a great difference. Unlike these other contests, in it, all are potential winners.
We face opportunities to make choices or decisions in many areas of life. Some are small and inconsequential whereas others are very important and have profound and far reaching consequences. These are decisions that no one else makes for us. There will be people and circumstances that encourage or discourage the right and beneficial decision, but in the final analysis, we must, personally, decide. If we make the wrong decision we can only blame ourselves. We, and likely others influenced by us, will pay the price in this life and the future life. In contrast, if we make the right decisions, we thank God for the benefits to ourselves and the many others who benefit. This is because God provides the blessings resulting from the right decisions. God is the prize-giver.
Decisions we make in regard to vocation, location, companionships and relationships contribute to us not being losers in respect to the eternal prize. Basic to all of this, of course, is the decision to accept God's gift of salvation in Christ by deciding to obey the terms of the "good news". In doing this, we enter the race, we confess our faith in the divinity of Christ, we acknowledge Him as Lord and we commit ourselves to serve Him.
Having thus become a participant in this race, one must realize that faithfulness and fruitfulness are the expected results. This involves following a spiritual leader while living in a physical body in a material world and making appropriate decisions along the way, We are in the world but not of it. Jesus prayed for his followers saying, "they are still in the world . . . they are not of the world any more than I am not of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth" (John 17:11, 14, 15-17).
Loyalty to this Lord will mean decisions resulting in self-denial, hardship, sacrifice, service and growth into His likeness. We make those decisions because we love our Lord, but also, like Moses of old, because we look ahead to the "reward". "By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the other people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward" (Heb.11:24-26).
The decisions we face regarding resisting temptation, being steadfast in our labour for the Lord (I Cor.15:58), a proper and permanent marriage, responsible parenting and loving and caring relationships with others - all of these should result from our first choice, to enter the "narrow way". Jesus encouraged this decision. He said, "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate, and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Mt.7:13,14).
An elderly African lady was dying. Friends and loved ones from the entire community had gathered to her home and were quietly comforting one another with prayers, handclasps and tears. Maude had been an inspiration to all who knew her, having raised five children, cared for her neighbours and steadily worked for her church. She would be gravely missed. A handful of her closest family stood now above her bed, whispering all the appropriate epitaphs, when Maude spoke up with her typical wit and wisdom, "Why's everyone cryin'? I'm not lookin' for the undertaker, I'm lookin' for the uppertaker!"
How do we look at death or at the coming of the Lord? Do we have the undertaker or the uppertaker view of death? Are we among those like Paul who "desire to depart and be with Christ" (Phil.1:23); those who "have longed for his appearing" (II Tim.4:8)? Do we welcome this event as Jehovah does, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Ps.116:15)?
Although many believe in and sometimes talk about eternal life, most people, even Christians, look on the transition to such with fear and uncertainty. Why? In general the pain involved in death does not appear to be that dreadful! Do we fear change? Do we fear the loss of associations and possessions here on the earth? Truly, we have many meaningful and precious relationships and, in our culture, an over-abundance of material possessions, and the security provided by them in a stable society. But how dependable and durable are these things that we can feel and touch? "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Mt.6:19-21).
We must be careful that our treasure is not in the wrong place, if we would be winners. In one place it is secure while in the other it is insecure.
Note the contrasts. "Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling ... For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life" (II Cor.5:1,2,4). "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Rom.8:18).
"Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev.21:3,4).
How real is this better life? Would that we all had the confidence of G. C. Brewer who once said, "Someday you will read in the newspaper that G. C. Brewer is dead. Don't you believe a word of it. At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now."
The challenge is for us, with a view of eternity, to live as Paul lived. "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Phil.1:21). Faith in eternity gives us strength, peace and courage, because working, playing and living, we know that, come what may, there is a life, infinitely better than what we know now, waiting for us. We thus have "the peace of God, which transcends all understanding," guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Phil.4:7).
How do we live with this in view? Although he preferred "to be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (II Cor.5:8), Paul had decided (made it his goal) to please the Lord, "whether we are at home in the body or away from it." Anticipating the judgement, he stated, "Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men." Again, although he confidently stated that "to die is gain", and that his desire was to "depart and be with Christ" which is "far better", Paul was ready to continue in the flesh - to do God's will. His hope was that he would "in no way be ashamed" and that "Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death" (Phil.1:20). He was willing to abide, which would mean "fruitful labor" for him and which was "more necessary" for the Christians.
As with Paul, as long as we live, we have a useful purpose in life, we are vessels for God's use. This is not meant to be an unwilling but a voluntary service, "faith expressing itself through love" (Gal.5:6). We love Him and want to please Him who loves us so much that He gave his Son to restore our relationship and is so patient with us.
Realizing the fate of those who fail to decide for God, we persuade men out of love and concern rather than out of duty. Loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, we work for their well-being, especially the eternal well-being resulting from continued faithfulness.
Involved in all of these matters is the necessity of making decisions regarding both the general trend of our lives and the myriad of lesser choices which present themselves to us each day. In Galatians 5, Paul lists the "acts of the sinful nature" which prevent participants from inheriting the kingdom of God, and by way of contrast, "the fruit of the Spirit", which, by implication make it ours. In the next chapter, he used the sowing and reaping analogy to emphasize the same truth.
"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life" (Gal.6:7,8).
"By the 'sowing' the apostle appears to be referring to the whole pattern of our thoughts and habits, our life-style, life direction and life-discipline. It includes the company we keep, the friendships we cultivate, the literature we read and the films we watch..., the kind of pursuits with which we occupy our leisure and everything which engrosses our interest, absorbs our energy and dominates our mind... For by these things we are sowing, sowing, sowing all the time; and according to what and where we sow, this shall we reap" (John R. Stott, Baptism and Fullness, pp. 81,82).
These all involve decisions. By sowing to the Spirit we reap eternal life. Stott describes this life as "a deepening fellowship with the living God now (to know whom is eternal life, John 17:3); together with that fullness of fellowship with him which defies imagination and which awaits us in the last day."
Because we have eternity in mind, we set our "minds on things above, not on earthly things." And, "When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col.3:1-4).
"All through the inspired word the prize set before us, the goal to attain, the motivation to service is always eternal life. Not a phenomenon to be feared but a paradise to be desired" (Gary Beauchamp). If this goal becomes or is unreal or secondary in our thinking, we will tend to make the wrong decisions and consequently fail to glorify God in our lives.
We have been deeply touched by stories or scenes of the emotional welcoming home of POW's or hostages, long separated from their families. This cannot be compared to the reunion with our heavenly Father when we go home. Yet, with many, there remains a dread of this transition instead of it being viewed with anticipation.
We are God's family. He cares for us. We can't lose. In 1990, sister Joan Smith who had patiently endured a valiant but losing 10 year battle with caner, wrote a series of articles for the Women's Page of this paper (The Gospel Herald). She tells in detail of the way she came to look at and face this affliction. During the time of her battle, including operations, chemotherapy, much suffering and the accompanying mental stress, she was a faithful wife and mother and served with dedication and efficiency at Great Lakes Christian College and in the church. She began the series by quoting, "My help comes from the Lord" (Ps.121:2). She explained her positive attitude, and continuing and dedicated service beyond "the call of duty" in the following statement: "I am a survivor. I am not a loser. God is allowing me to stay here a while longer. I can be with my family and still work for Christ. If I don't survive, I am still not a loser. I have a home in heaven waiting for me. Sister Smith has since gone on to that eternal home.
All Christians should think of this life as the journey, the preparation for eternal life. We are sojourning here. Like the faithful of old, we must confess by life and word that we are "aliens and strangers on earth. People who ... show that they are looking for a country of their own ... longing for a better country a heavenly one." God is not ashamed to be the God of such. He "has prepared a city for them" (Heb.11:13-16).
Those who become sick and are in hospital look forward to going home. Sometimes it means going home to the joys of reunion with a loving family; sometimes going home to a loving Father in heaven. In either case, they are winners.
The crown of righteousness is, according to II Timothy 4:8, "to all who have longed for his appearing". We long for his appearing only if we are confidently prepared and in the process of fighting "the good fight", finishing "the race" and keeping "the faith".
As the Jews journeyed from their various villages on their pilgrimages to Jerusalem, trudging on foot through unfamiliar places, they would sing songs of encouragement. As they approached Jerusalem, the men would sing:
"I lift up my eyes to the hills
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord
The Maker of heaven and earth."
The women and children would then reply:
"He will not let your foot slip
He who watches over you will not slumber;
Indeed, he who watches over Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep."
Then the men would sing:
"The Lord watches over you
The Lord is your shade at your right hand;"
The women and children would reply:
"The sun will not harm you by day,
Nor the moon by night."
The men would sing:
"The Lord will keep you from all harm -
he will watch over your life:"
Then everyone would join to affirm:"The Lord will watch over your coming and going
Both now and forevermore" Psalm 121.
As these people "went out" from their familiar villages and "came in" to a city in which things were strange to them, they moved from one world to another. Heartened by the lines, "The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore," they pushed on. Surely, these lines have a similar application for us as we journey to our Holy City.
Having in mind a beautiful view of eternity, let us live each day in anticipation, hope and faith, repeating to ourselves the powerful words of Paul, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."
Eugene C. Perry
Published in The Old Paths Archive