Juhani Uljas | 2000 The Treasure Hidden In a Field --
Christian Doctrine Teaches Us About Endeavoring
“In the life of a Christian is God's peace and joy, but also weakness of faith, temptations, and oppression. God guides His own along the narrow way of the cross. With sufferings, He wishes to try their faith, keep them humble, and draw them into ever closer fellowship with Him. God also often sees His children worthy to confess their faith by their suffering. When a Christian remains in God's hands, his life is supported by an ever deepening confidence that God leads everything for his best benefit. Humble thanks fills his heart because God has been patient to care for him, who is worthless, as His child. The hope of the coming glory also becomes more and more vivid to him. Watching and praying he awaits the final fulfillment of salvation” (CD 84).
The Endeavor Is God's Work
Scripture often depicts a believing person's life and endeavor as a journey and being on the road. The traveler wants to reach his destination. To achieve this, it is necessary to travel on the right road without turning back and tiring on the way. Isaiah encouraged the Old Testament believers who were journeying amid the trials of forced captivity, “And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called the way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein” (Isa. 35:8). When Paul stood before Governor Felix, accused of starting a rebellion, he confessed his faith, “But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and the prophets” (Acts 24:14).
In His farewell speech, Jesus said that He was going soon to the Father, but that the disciples need not be concerned, for they also knew the way there. Still, the disciples were not sure where it was that Jesus was going and, therefore, did not know the way, either. For that reason, Thomas demanded an additional explanation and Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). This is the core of one's endeavor. The endeavor is not of our doing or achievement, on which basis we would attain eternal life. If it were so, our salvation would depend upon us and would no longer be a gift of God. Fortunately, it is not so. By grace, we have become partakers of God's love and Christ's righteousness. We have received this through faith, which God has effected. Faith is being in the righteousness of Christ and living in forgiveness every moment. We endeavor to preserve this treasure.
There are powers around us that would want to wrest it from us. For that reason, the admonition of the resurrected Christ is meant for us, “Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (Rev. 3:11). Paul instructs, “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him” (Col. 2:6). Therefore, we are not endeavoring by our own strength, but by the influence of God's Spirit. When Paul encouraged the Philippians to a steadfast endeavor in faith, he also revealed with whose strength the children of God endeavor, “Wherefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling: for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12,13). Christ's Spirit dwells in our hearts through faith and works the will and the doing in us.
The Endeavorer Is a Contestant
Endeavoring is an archaic word. It is generally used only in discussion about matters concerning faith. In modern speech we speak about competing. Therefore, believers are competitors. The competition is lifelong. One who drops out of the race will never win, whatever the reasons for his dropping out may be. Already during Bible times, in Greece they had arranged Olympic Games, whose program included races of various lengths, throwing the discus, wrestling, and boxing. When Paul advised people to endeavor in faith, he compared a believer to an athlete competing in the Olympics (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
Paul certainly did not encourage the young men to participate in the Olympics, for they were part of the heathen religious practice which the Christian's had rejected. He only took an example from an event which was as familiar to the Greeks as the modern Olympics are to us. He invited the young men to enter a more noble contest that lasted an entire lifetime. The runner practices self-discipline so that he would win the prize, and the boxer fights with a definite purpose, and not by flailing the air. The crucial matters of endeavoring in faith are emphasized in Paul's teaching. In the Olympics, the best contestant won and received the prize, which was a crown of laurel. In the endeavor of faith, every one who reaches the end will win and receive a crown. It will not wither or perish, as in the Olympics, but be everlasting. The contestant practices self-discipline because he wants to win. He has a clear goal, which guides his entire life.
The Endeavor Is a Battle
When Paul also compared the endeavoring person to a boxer, he exposed the other side of endeavoring. There, where the runner concentrates on his running and strives purposefully for the victor's prize, the boxer must struggle with and overcome his adversary. The endeavor of faith is a battle also. Who are the opponents of a Christian in his endeavor toward victory? The familiar phrase from the Catechism answers this question, “We have warfare against a threefold enemy, the devil, the world, and our own flesh.” The warfare becomes difficult because our own corrupt nature is in league with the opponents of God. We cannot flee from the battle nor withdraw into a fort against our enemies, for the front line of the battle goes right through our own heart. There we fight the hottest and most painful battles.
We need weapons for battle. Paul described the weaponry of the Christian in his Epistle to the Ephesians (6:10-17). He first reminded them by what strength we are fighting, “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” Then he admonished them to put on armor, so that the attacks of the enemy of the soul would bounce off of them, “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” War veterans have described how, during continuing battles, they cared for their equipment because they needed it. On the other hand, during a stationary war, when often the concern was just to be on watch, the equipment tended to be forgotten. Who wanted to carry a dangling gas mask or helmet when there appeared to be no need for them?
This can happen in spiritual warfare, also. However, there is no room to lull oneself into false security. We need all of our equipment because the enemy uses surprise attacks. “Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The other equipment is for defense; only the sword, God's Word, is fitting also for attack. We do not fight with the arm of the flesh, but with God's Word. Jesus, himself, gave an example of this. When the enemy of the soul tempted Him, He overcame the temptations with God's Word.
From Under the Cross to Under the Crown
The endeavor is following Christ. He teaches, “And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38). The endeavor unavoidably includes bearing the cross of Christ. What does this symbolic teaching of Jesus mean?
Crucifixion was a cruel form of condemnation to death that was in wide use in Jesus' time. The condemned person had to carry the crosspiece and the sign on which the bases of his judgment were written. Jesus had to personally experience this. His followers travel the way that their Master has laid out.
Carrying the cross signifies first to confess that we cannot reach our destination, eternal life, at all by our own endeavor, but that the cross of Christ is our only hope. He has atoned for our sins with His blood and thus opened the road all the way to the destination. The sermon of reconciliation, the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, brings the power of the victory of Christ's Resurrection to our weakness on the way of the cross. To Paul, the prior doer of the deeds of the Law and great apostle to the Gentiles, the cross of Christ was his only reason for pride, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14).
Second, carrying the cross means that, like Paul, we have crucified our flesh with its lusts and desires. The follower of Christ cannot follow the desires and wishes of his flesh when they battle against God's Word and the conscience. This causes many battles, as has been stated previously.
Third, carrying the cross signifies the opening of a boundary between Christ's followers and the world. At the time of Jesus and the early congregation, the believers had to separate from Judaism. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews instructed his brothers and sisters, “Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb. 13:13,14). They did not separate themselves of their own initiative, but when God's time had come, they were shut out of the synagogue community. In his time, Luther experienced the same along with his brothers in faith. We have experienced a great blessing from God that we have been able to believe and to do the work of God's kingdom in fellowship with our nation's [Finland's] church. In spite of all this, we feel that the cross of Christ separates us to “outside the camp.”
Trials become familiar to us on this way. God strengthens our faith with them and teaches us patience. If we did not have patience, we would become discouraged encountering our first adversity and our endeavor would remain unfinished. Patience is especially necessary when we stumble and notice that we haven't become good and exemplary endeavorers. We continue to be weak, and corruption affects and lives in us. Patience is required when it becomes clear that our endeavor is not the reason and basis for our salvation. We must return again and again to the place where our journey of endeavor began. To the place where the Lord Jesus is the only reason for our salvation and that we, although unsuccessful, have the right to believe our sins forgiven in His name and blood. Even Paul, in his endeavor of faith, had come to know his weaknesses. We can join with him to say, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities-for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
At the same time, when Jesus taught His disciples to follow Him under the cross, He spoke of confessing faith, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32,33). Confessing faith is firmly associated with following Christ and one's endeavor in faith. No one can be a believer secretly. The New Testament relates of such people, who tried to believe in Jesus secretly (John 12:42,43, 19:38). They did not want to be labeled or to carry the cross of Christ. The New Testament, in any case, does not relate that they would have reached the destination as victors.
In practice, confession of Christ takes place through speech as well as life. It is not forced or contract work. When we confess ourselves to be followers of Christ, we do not gain merits nor do we become better Christians, but it frees us from the slavery of the world and supports us in our endeavor of faith. God's children feel themselves to be timid and weak confessors. Precisely for this reason, they often have doubts of their own faith. Correct confession is not the expression of one's own strength, but as Peter states, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Pet. 3:15).
I have heard of a believing man, who worked in a factory. He was troubled by the fact that he had so poorly confessed his faith to his coworkers. He lamented of his weakness often to the other believers. However, once one of his coworkers went to speak to their supervisor and asked that he would be moved to another job. He could no longer stand to be in the same job with that man, for unknowingly he constantly preached with his life. The confession of Christ through one's life is not outward righteousness which approaches self-piety, but it is simply living as one believes.
Set Aside All Sin and Burden
What would it feel like to run a marathon with a heavy backpack? Most likely the runner would drop out. Especially if stones were added to the backpack now and then. On the racetrack of faith, this can happen to a runner. The conscience collects sin, matters over which the conscience rebukes and reminds. The journey becomes burdensome and slow, and fatigue weighs heavily. Those Hebrews, too, were tired in their faith, to whom it was once written, “Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). The putting away of sin is confession. Through it, we can remove the backpack. In the following chapter, we will discuss confession more broadly, so in this context, I only refer to this grace privilege.
The endeavor of faith can be slowed also by a burden that of itself is not sin. The trials and sorrows of life are such. There is reason to discuss them with another believer so they would not become an obstruction to faith, but that the endeavoring one would receive strength to take them from the hand of the Heavenly Father. Jesus teaches in His Sermon on the Mount that we need not worry about the morrow because our Heavenly Father takes care of us (Matt. 6:25-32). Peter exhorts, “Cast all your care upon him; for he careth for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).
We Do Not Endeavor Alone
In the previous section, we examined the endeavor from the viewpoint of an individual Christian. However, we are not isolated endeavoring persons, but we belong to a battling and endeavoring congregation. We would not last long alone, but God has united us in the fellowship of His congregation to partake of all the instructions of grace. They are part of the equipment which we need in our endeavor. The competitor and the fighter need nourishment so that they will have strength, for “an army marches on its stomach.” Fellowship of the congregation means that “we do not despise the sermon and God's Word, but we keep it holy, and willingly hear and learn it,” as the Small Catechism teaches us. The services of God's children are important to us. At services we receive the food which we need while we endeavor. In the fellowship of God's children, we can also hear the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, which frees our consciences of useless ballast.
Among the children of God we have also those closest brothers and sisters whom God has given us as escorts. We can speak to them when it feels that, “I do not have strength any longer,” or “I do not understand what I should do in this difficult and problematic situation.”
I Shall Be With You
The Old Testament tells us about the journey of the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land. At the same time, it symbolically depicts the journey of God's people to that land which God has prepared for His children. When the people traveled in the desert, a pillar of cloud moved ahead of them by day and a pillar of fire by night. Thus, God assured His people that He travels with them. Matthew tells us that the last words of the Resurrected Christ, before He ascended into heaven, were, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). For an endeavoring person who is weak in himself, it is comforting to know that the Good Shepherd, who gave His life for His sheep, still journeys with and leads His own. With His blood, He has opened the way to the destination.