Only one option remains for us: keep going.
This post was adapted from a message given by Seth Evans,
a preacher at Grandview Christian Assembly
Florence Chadwick was a world-renowned open-water long-distance swimmer. She stormed onto the world scene when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel round trip, smashing records both ways. But her most famous race was a swim from Catalina Island, twenty-six miles to the coast of California. At thirty-four years old, she launched off the beach, flanked by safety boats armed with rifles. The waters were full of overly curious sharks.
For fifteen hours, she swam through strong, frigid currents, until the California fog descended, obscuring the coastline. She stopped, and began treading water, complaining that she couldn’t see the shore, and saying she would have to quit. Those onboard the boats, including her mother, tried to encourage Florence to keep swimming. She swam in the fog another hour, but stopped again, this time for good. One of the boats carried her back to shore. After sixteen hours in the water she had covered over twenty-five miles, and was stunned to find she had stopped a half-mile short of completing her race.
Florence had paid more attention to the fog, than to the voices of truth telling her to just keep going. You and I are probably a lot like her, especially now in 2020, when we find ourselves in a year full of memes about yet another murder, destruction, and political strife. It has been a time of societal and spiritual fog.
A research study on the state of American spirituality measured the results of the Covid-19 lockdown when it initially hit in March. There was a surge of spirituality as people reached out to churches and organizations to help them read their Bible, and pray. Christians were fighting to find new ways to gather, whether in person or online. But as the fog continued, and an end date just seemed to be further and further away, the brief uptick drifted downward.
Another study done in August found that 13.1 million fewer Americans were reading the Bible daily than they were in January, before the lockdown. There had also been a twenty percent drop in the Evangelical Christian Church of people who had not attended online or in person the previous month or longer. Twenty-five percent of those, said they didn’t plan on ever returning to church again.
All of this is to say the Christian population has allowed societal fog to settle within them and become a spiritual fog. One popular Christian author and blogger, wrote, “As I repent of my spotty Bible reading over the past few months, I realize my fundamental problem is not a lack of time, mounting stress, or increased fatigue. Working from home and overseeing distance education for my three kids may be challenging, but it doesn’t keep me from reading Leviticus. My real problem is something else. It’s the fact that I don’t value the Bible as much as I should. I should gobble it up like honey, and treasure it like a stack of gold coins, but on my own, I can drift into acting like the Bible is just like any other book–nice, but not essential.”
I think she really summed up the state of spiritual fog in Christianity right now. On our own, without the body of Christ around us, we tend to drift away and treat the Bible just like any other book. What do we do about this? What is the solution to a disoriented condition in a society full of angst, anxiety, and distractions of all kinds, one that is unrelenting, with no end date? Even if the fog bank lifts, another will come along.
We can see God’s solution in the book of Hebrews, where we should take our eyes off the societal and spiritual cloud, and set our eyes on a different one. We persevere by setting our eyes on the great cloud of witnesses, and Scripture in the church body around us, who encourage us to turn our eyes to Jesus. We’re to be empowered by him to run the Christian race all the way to the end.
12:1-2 Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The great cloud of witnesses refers to the men and women of faith talked about in Hebrews 11. A lot of times when I’ve read this verse, I’ve tended to imagine a crowded stadium, surrounding, watching us, cheering us on, shouting, Go! Go! Go! But the great cloud of witnesses, here in context, does not refer to people watching us. The word “witness” describes those whose lives and words testify to the truth, and so, we look to them. They bear witness of a life lived in faith, grounded on the reality of God, and hoping to receive the rewards for those who finish the race. We are looking to their witness, and not them to us.
In the very next chapter (13), we can also say by extension, that this cloud of witnesses signifies those currently around us. Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” We can look to the faithful brothers and sisters in the church around us, who are ministering the word of God accurately, and living out that word. We should imitate their witness. So we have the example of the faithful in Scripture, and we have the church. You won’t lose your way in this cloud of witness.
The next phrase of Hebrews 12:1 says, “Let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely.” Look at others who have laid aside weights, and sins. We imitate their example, and also lay aside every weight. Weights are things that, in and of themselves, are not inherently sinful. But they’re extra baggage. They hinder us from running. They keep us looking down, focusing on the fog of self, rather than Jesus. When I swam in college, we wore “drag suits,” extra layers of swimsuits on top of our racing suits. But when it came time to race, we would lay aside these extra weights, so we could swim unencumbered, with endurance.
This is what we’re to do with the weights in our lives. Some weights are things like work. Others have to do with relaxation, as one habitually loses himself in streaming programs, or even family time. These things are not inherently wrong, but we can fixate on them, until they become distractions from Jesus. Other weights could be an ongoing sense of anxiety, or depression brought on by watching too much news, or arguments on social media. The faithful examples of people in Scripture and those around us encourage us to lay these things aside.
We’re also told to lay aside sins, particularly the kind that closely cling to us. Sins are things inherently wrong. They shackle our feet together, having a similar effect as if someone tied the laces together on your running shoes. These sins might include binging on food and entertainment, sloth, and substance abuse. Actually, these three things have been cited as the top three replacing daily Bible reading since June.
Of course on top of that, there’s pornography, violence to people, destruction to property, outbursts of anger, and even condoning the sins of others (i.e., I would never do it, but I can understand how others might want to). All are condemned in the Bible, and all keep us in deep fog. They are sins we must lay them aside.
We can then run the race. The Christian life is a marathon, requiring endurance. It is not a sprint. As we’re running, we’ll need to continually find a greater power source than we can locate in ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll eventually run out of steam.
The key lies in looking to Jesus, the ultimate witness, the Person who originally ran the race with endurance. He endured the greatest suffering in all of human history, as He hung on the cross, bearing the sins of the world. He bore the wrath of God that was our due. Having paid the price, He rose from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of the throne on high. As such, He is the great finisher. He is the founder of our faith, that is, the One who began it, and He’s also the one who will perfect it. That’s why we look to Him. Jesus is now doing a perfecting, completing work in us, exposing our “weights” and sins, empowering us with His grace to lay them aside. As we look to Him, we find that same power source, and can run with endurance all the way to the end.
We also find encouragement, because he offers something to those who finish: “to the one who conquers, I will grant Him to sit with me on my Throne as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:17). The glory of this reward causes the fog of lies, and self-centeredness to evaporate.
This isn’t theory to me. You see, I fell right into the very Christian statistics I spoke of earlier. In March I had a spiritual adrenaline surge of reading the Bible, thinking of how to do the church thing, connecting with other believers. All of this was in the midst of having a toddler and a newborn baby, and a wife recovering from surgery. My uptick went on throughout March and April, and then, well, kind of in May and June. Then, not much at all in July and August.
I focused and redirected my thoughts on work. An ongoing, low-grade irritation began to fill me. My Bible reading slipped into just “reading.” It came to a head when one day, I was getting my son ready, and he was trying my patience. Then he did something, and my patience ended, tuning into an outburst of anger disproportionate to his sin. My wife called me out on it, and I repented to my son, and to her. But that wasn’t the end of it. We had a few days of serious conversations, until all of my rationalizations, and head theology turned into a real come-to-Jesus moment.
A plan came together, so that my repentance would turn into actual living. My wife and I picked up a daily Bible time together, at night, after the kids were in bed. And I returned to devotional Bible reading, slow and focused. I still tended to find excuses to get out of it, like not having enough time, but I noticed somehow I still found time to be on social media. If I could find the time for news and sports, I could make it happen for the Word.
I discovered that it takes five minutes a day to read any chapter of the Bible, with a standard deviation of 1.6 minutes, Old or New Testament, reading at 100 words per minute, which is half the speed the typical American reads silently. To do a slow, focused, prayerful read, you can cover any chapter of the Bible in three to seven minutes, devotionally. Armed with these simple facts, when I had a few minutes, I would fight through the fog and spend time in the Word.
A turning point for me happened in the Old Testament, during my reading of Deuteronomy 6:5-6. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” That verse became light to my heart.
The following verses continued the exposure and the clarity: “You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7). How often was His word on my heart, and how often was I engaging my children and wife with it? The verses go on to say, “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and it shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (v. 8). How often in my works was I handling things by the word of God, versus the foggy, befuddled state of worldly thinking? Was there clarity in my life that came from the purity of the Word? “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and your gates” (v. 9). Was I protecting what came in and what went out of my home, based upon the word on my heart? This became a whole new area of clarity within me. I stopped treading water, and started to move forward again.
If you’re like me, and countless other American Christians, who have have found themselves treading water, or off course in the fog, or just stopped, you don’t need to stay there. You can get back into the race.
In fact, the part of Florence Chadwick’s story not told, is how that two months after her failed race, she got back in the same cold water and strong currents, and sharks, and fog, but this time she kept swimming all the way to the shore. When asked what was different, and how she got through the fog, she said, “I kept in my mind’s eye, the vision of the shore, and I swam based upon that truth, and not upon what I could or couldn’t see with my eyes.”
We can also run the race this way, despite fog on the outside or inside. We look to Jesus, and to those who exemplify looking at Him.