Do you feel like following Jesus is difficult? I sometimes think that I must be doing it wrong, because following Jesus seems like it should be easy, but I can struggle with it. Is it is struggle for you too? And what do we do when following Jesus seems too difficult? We so often flee pain, trouble, hardship, and we pursue ease, comfort, entertainment.
In our continuing series on 1st Timothy, we have come to chapter 6, verses 11-16, and Paul talks about what it is like to follow Jesus. As you can imagine, Paul does not tell Timothy to flee the pain and pursue ease. In verse 12 he says this comforting phrase to Timothy: “Fight the good fight of faith.”
Fight is a brutal word. When we hear “fight”, we think of boxing. We think of pushing and shoving and punching and maybe even yelling and pulling hair. Maybe we think of a sword fight or a gun fight or a bull fight.
But the word Paul uses is not necessarily that kind of fight. It is defined as “to strive to do something with great intensity and effort—‘to make every effort, to do everything possible, to strain oneself.’”
Surely that definition could relate to a fight. But it could also be a noncombatant striving, a struggling. And it is intense. It involves great effort. We generally don’t like to hear that. How would you react to the following”
“If you sign up to be a volunteer on the booster club, it is going to be really hard! You’ll have to struggle and put in a lot of work and effort.”
Or, “Please sign up for to be one of our children’s ministry teachers, it is super hard! It will require a lot of you. You will have to be committed in time and energy. It will be exhausting.”
Or “follow Jesus, be his disciple, die to yourself.”
Not a very compelling marketing scheme is it?
How many advertisers do you see that market their experience or product as being a really difficult, challenging, hard experience? Barely any. Maybe the military. Many an elite school.
“Buy this mattress and it will be so awful you’ll have a horrible night’s sleep!” They don’t do that.
Instead, when marketers advertise to us, they want to make their product as accessible as possible. So they generally tell us how incredible and helpful and easy and fun and comfortable their product is.
Jesus apparently didn’t go to marketing school. His call to discipleship is hard. Paul’s charge to Timothy is hard. “Fight the Good Fight.” It is a fight. Fights are hard. They hurt.
There is one word in that phrase I haven’t mentioned yet: “Good.”
Paul says “Fight”, but it is a good fight. It is a good fight of the faith.
What you are fighting for, what you are working for, what you are striving for makes all the difference, doesn’t it? If the cause is just and good, you are much more likely to put in the long hours, to take a pay cut, to exercise, to practice, to make sacrifices. Though it is hard, though it can feel like a fight, and though you might be exhausted, you can continue on because you know what you are fighting for is good.
Finishing a college degree might feel that way.
Raising children might feel that way.
Following an exercise or diet plan feels that way.
Paul is talking to a pastor, so yes, ministry can feel that way.
But all these are good things! In fact, they are very good. While they can feel like a fight at times, while they might inflict bodily damage on you just like a fight does, they are good, and remembering that they are good is so important.
If we are honest with ourselves, though, and I will be honest about ministry, there are moments of doubt. We start to question, is it worth it? How many of you have been there before, when you are involved in something hard? You start to ask “Why did I get into this?”
I’ll never forget the marathons that I have run, having those thoughts, those questions pounding in my mind. In the picture below, see the “FULL” back plate?
In the Baltimore Marathon, the race organizers asked us to pin that to the back of ours shirt because we were running simultaneously with half-marathoners for the last 10+ miles of the marathon. I’m not sure why they asked us to do this. Maybe it was simply so that runners on the course could know and encourage one another. And they did. I was very encouraged when some half-marathoners told me how impressed they were with the marathoners like me.
But at about mile 21 or 22, my body experienced a deep kind of exhaustion that I had never felt before. In training, the most I ran at one time was 20 miles. Now I was beyond that. And I still had 4-5 miles to go. I was cramping, scared something was wrong and this 18 week process was falling apart. I entertained the possibility of quitting, of not finishing. Worse yet, I still had hills to climb. I started thinking to myself “Why in the world did I ever do this? This was so foolish! I’ll never do it again.”
Have you ever doubted your abilities? Have you felt foolish?
Maybe you have doubted our parenting abilities. Maybe you wonder if you are smart enough to finish school. We can doubt ourselves in the middle of the fight.
Have you ever doubted whether you can make it as a disciple of Jesus? Do you ever feel like Christianity, discipleship to Jesus, feels like a fight? Why does it feel like a fight? What are you fighting against? I think we followers of Jesus fight against at least three things.
First, we fight against ourselves. We have free will. When it comes to following Jesus, we freely chose to follow him. Free will, though, means that we can freely choose the right thing, just as much as we can freely choose the wrong thing. We have a tendency to make bad choices, think bad thoughts, and harbor bad attitudes don’t we? Following the way of Jesus can feel like a fight because we ourselves have a free will struggle with our lack of self-control.
The second thing that can make discipleship to Jesus difficult is culture. It is not like our culture has a goal of promoting discipleship to Jesus. I think it is absolutely possible to live as gracious, compelling disciples of Jesus in our culture. But it can be hard. Are there elements of our culture that you find make it hard for you to follow Jesus?
The third thing that can make the good fight feel like a fight is opposition. There is a very real enemy force in the world that would love to see us fail. Satan.
Even though these three things work against, remember that it is a good fight!
What is your personal fight? Here are some personal struggles that people often talk about:
Fear of what other people will say or do to you. Mine is speaking the truth in love. Specifically the truth part. I will often skip the truth part because I am afraid of offending. Perhaps the fight is the busyness in life. Or is it that you feel loneliness, without much support? Our world certainly seems to pressure us to have material comforts. Are you hoping to climb the corporate ladder to the extent you are tempted to let other things go? Why? To get more money, more prestige at work, or to get Power. You can perhaps get all these things, but what will it cost you to get them ? You’ll have to work long hours, and the resultant stress and anxiety will come at the cost of your personal time, sanity, and maybe your family or ministry time.
So Paul says to Timothy, “Fight the good fight of the faith.” If we are to pursue righteousness and godliness, know that it could be hard. But it is good!
In fact, Paul says next in verse 12 that it is not just a mediocre good. Paul says it is a fight to take hold of eternal life. It is that good!
He says that Timothy should, “Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”
Wait a minute! Eternal life? Is Paul talking about getting saved? Isn’t Timothy already saved and going to heaven when he dies? That’s how we talk about eternal life, right? You have your present life now, then you die, and after you die, you will go on to eternal life in heaven.
But think about this passage with me a minute. It would be very strange if Paul thought Timothy wasn’t yet saved, considering that Paul already installed him as pastor of the church at Ephesus. It would be very strange if Paul thought Timothy was not going to have eternal life in heaven, as if Timothy had to now accept Jesus as his savior and become a follower of Jesus. Paul would never have allowed Timothy pastor this church that Paul loved if he, Paul, wasn’t certain that Timothy was a true follower of Jesus who was going to have eternal life in heaven.
You what that means? Whatever Paul is saying here, this cannot be a statement about eternal life in heaven after you die.
Paul is saying that Timothy should take hold of eternal life now. One of my favorite writers on the Christian life, Dallas Willard, says this:
What Willard says fits perfectly with this passage. How do we know this? See the phrase in verse 12: “Take hold”? It is an imperative tense, which means that Paul is commanding Timothy to do this right now.
Later on in verse 14 he even calls it a command. What that means is that this command, “Take hold of eternal life”, is really important. Paul is serious about this. He is saying, “Make no mistake about it, you have to do this, Timothy.”
Live an eternal life right now. Or as Willard put it, learn how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven now.
This is another passage to ask ourselves, “How am I doing in my life? What is important to me? Am I fighting the good fight of the faith to take hold of eternal life now?”
We recently had the season of Lent. Lent is the 7 weeks prior to Easter, and it is a season where people spiritually prepare themselves for Easter. The spiritual preparation in Lent features fasting. The question “what are you giving up for Lent?” refers to this.
I gave up phone games for Lent. I can’t tell you the amount of time I wasted playing games on my phone.
How about you? How are you wasting time? Is what you are doing necessary?
It is good to first ask these questions between you and Lord. Ask him to evaluate you. Ask the Holy Spirit to evaluate you. David in Psalm 139 says:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
But you can compound the effectiveness of the evaluation by asking godly, wise people to evaluate you, to speak the truth to you. One of one or in a small group, ask for accountability.
You know what the result of all this fighting the good fight, and taking hold of eternal life, will be?
We can live eternal life now! That is so amazing to consider.
We so often feel desperation and frustration in life, and we think “I can’t wait for heaven and eternal life when all this pain will be gone.” But in so doing, are we enabling ourselves to continue living in the muck of life? Are we allowing ourselves to stay stuck in our bad habits, stuck in sin, feeling distant from God, feeling powerless to change?
Remember that Paul says “you can experience eternal life now!” And actually he goes farther than that. He commands it. He is saying you must live eternal life now! Take hold of it!
What an awesome privilege we have. Following the way of Jesus might feel like a fight, but remember it is a good fight, because it means that we can take hold of eternal life right now.
I love the illustration at the top of the article because it shows how physical life and eternal life overlap. We can and should experience eternal life now. In fact, that is what God wants. He wants the eternal life of his Kingdom to radically impact our lives, our world now, so that we and our world are being transformed now.
Paul is right, that might feel like a fight sometimes. Anytime we go through transformation, it is usually hard. But consider what transformation means: it is a good fight that means we are being changed to look and act more like Jesus. It means that the list in verse 11, all those qualities of eternal life, are more and more are part of our lives.
So Paul finishes with a wonderful benediction in verse 13-16, charging Timothy to keep this command, and thus it is a charge to us as well, to flee evil, pursue Jesus, fight the good fight, take hold of eternal life now, until such time as Jesus returns or God takes us to be with him.