Anyone who’s been through military boot camp knows well what an obstacle course is. You climb up and down walls, hang off of ropes strung across watercourses, crawl on your belly through slimy mud and under gunfire above your head. You get the picture.
God has an obstacle course, too. It’s called life. It’s an amazing and sometimes unenviable journey that we embark on to find what God’s intended for us. Some leave us early while others journey on for almost 100 years. My grandmother, Stella “Muddy” Wayman, used to say, “Life is great if we don’t weaken. She died at 94.
God is more concerned about how we finish than how we started. Some people dart out of the starting blocks in a blaze of glory and speed looking like a kitty cat with its tail on fire but end up far short of what God likely had for them. As Muddy said, they weaken and believe this ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Unfortunately, some experience what Jesus described as “storms that beat upon the house… and great was the fall of it because it was not founded on a Rock” (Matt. 7:25). Warning to all God’s ‘chillin’: storms will come. Get a solid policy for the house! As my friend Steve Sampson says, “You’re in good hands with All-God.”
Paul’s view of The Journey was that of a marathon runner who was in it for the long haul. In Hebrews 12:1, he encourages us to run the race with patience and remarked in 2 Timothy 4:7 that he had finished his race. There are a few of the places in his letters where Paul goes in for sporting metaphors. For example, one word to look out for is “crown.” This word (stephanos in Greek) has a variety of meanings, but one of them is the prize won by athletes in the games; you might think of a medal, or even, where the context is right, the ‘’Gold medal.” In the first letter to the Thessalonians, which is almost certainly the earliest surviving epistle of Paul, he uses the metaphor, almost unconsciously, in 2:19, when he describes the Thessalonian Christians as “a gold medal to boast about.”
In other places in Scripture, Paul refers to the Christian life as a fight. These are interesting translations:
Other translations: the good strife I have striven (Young’s Literal); The desperate, straining, agonizing contest marked by its beauty of technique, I like a wrestler have fought to the finish, and at present am resting in its victory (Wuest); I have fought long and hard for my Lord (TLB); I have combated the good combat (Darby); the glorious fight that God gave me I have fought (Phillips); I have fought the good (worthy, honorable, and noble) fight (Amp); I have striven the good strife; I have wrestled that good wrestling.
I played sports in school, and I ran track in the eighth grade. I confess I hated every minute of it. Every afternoon about 3:05 we boarded an ugly old bus we called “the Green Goose” and drove several miles to the football stadium where the track was. And every afternoon I thought I was on the bus to hell, as coach sounded as if he was stripping all the gears that old piece of junk had in it. I couldn’t wait to get back on the bus to go back to the school after track practice. Of course, shortly after this reprieve, I began to dread the next day of track practice. We ran our guts out (coach called it “trying to see who had ‘chitlins’. ” I could have told him I didn’t). Of course that would have given Bob (Bull) Murphy the right to kill me before I reached the age of 15. The next year I played baseball.
As you can attest, life isn’t always a picnic. Personally, I relate to Rocky Balboa quite often. He got his brains beaten out most of the time but somehow got to the 15th round still standing (sort of). I love the one where he fought the Russian who looked like Godzilla in boxing shorts! The Russian said at one point, “Deez guy eez made of iron.” Rocky always ended up taunting his opponent to bash him in the face with everything he had, and then Rocky would cry out, “You ain’t so bad!” I’d call this an overcomer!
The Father knows the beginning of your journey until the end, and, no, He doesn’t always pull us immediately out of the fire because knows the fire will test our mettle:
10 For You, O God, have proved us; You have tried us as silver is tried, refined, and purified.11 You brought us into the net (the prison fortress, the dungeon); You laid a heavy burden upon our loins. 12 You caused men to ride over our heads [when we were prostrate]; we went through fire and through water, but You brought us out into a broad, moist place [to abundance and refreshment and the open air] (Psa. 66:10-12) Amplified
Notice the Psalmist’s grasp of God’s sovereignty in his life. Yes, the devil is a mentally ill mad pit bull on a leash with his teeth extracted, and he comes to try to destroy us through every evil tool in his bag of tricks, but the Father has a better long-term plan – a broad, moist place of refreshment and open air! Woo hoo!
Solomon understood the necessity of human trials for purifying our motives:
21 As the refining pot for silver and the furnace for gold [bring forth all the impurities of the metal], so let a man be in his trial of praise [ridding himself of all that is base or insincere; for a man is judged by what he praises and of what he boasts]. Proverbs 27:21 Amplified
Peter put it this way:
After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you (1 Pet. 5:10). NASB
You’ll recall that Peter, prior this, as Jesus’ disciple, had terrible foot-in-mouth disease, but the Lord saw Peter the Rock in this fisherman, and told him that Satan had asked if he could sift him (Peter) like wheat. (Luke 22:31). Of course, Jesus said no, that he could not, and that all He wanted for Peter was the prosperity doctrine, and that was that. Not! Jesus said only that he was praying that Peter’s faith wouldn’t fail. In other words, Jesus said Satan could test Peter to the hilt. And we know the rest of the story. Okay, Bible quiz time… Who is the only person mentioned in Scripture whose shadow fell on people and healed them? HINT: (Act 5:12-18).
In the spirit, the wheat sifting process is a deliberate, methodical, diabolical (extremely cruel and evil) strategy initiated by Satan to attempt to separate the sons of God from His presence. Farmers will tell you that BEFORE wheat goes through the sifting process, it has ALREADY BEEN separated from foreign grains, dirt, the chaff and then washed, dried and ground. The wheat, people, is (are) Christians (Matt. 13:30).
In the New Testament, we could call the work of the cross in our lives (Luke 9:23) “death on the installment plan.” Of course, understanding the difference between heaven and the kingdom is major. Jesus said quite clearly the kingdom is with in us (Luke 17:20, 21). Moving into a deeper place in God calls for many obstacle courses so that “through much tribulation we may enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). This place is Holy Spirit led kingdom living through which we are trained to walk in maturity and sensitivity to the Spirit of the living God.
Have you ever gotten a “bad” prophecy? I mean one in which the message was one of warning … a kind of “Get ready, boy, ‘cause you’re about to go through some rough stuff?” One of my best friends prophesied to me: “You’ll be cut down like a bush!” I thought, “Well, great, I can’t wait.” Actually, I knew my dear brother was telling me that God was going to allow me to go through severe testing, all for my good. Guess what? He was 100% on the money. It was hellish, hard, miserable, and I often felt I had nothing left – I was cut down like a bush.
Let’s be real, many are called, but few are chosen. Most Christians don’t want a daily cross, don’t want suffering that shapes them into Christ’s likeness or furthermore, to deeply understand the purpose of suffering if they do go through it. These, I would say, don’t understand the purpose of the obstacle course. Seriously, who wants to suffer? May I see a show of hands?
In “Shadowlands,” the story of C.S. Lewis’s life, his wife is stricken with cancer. Before he met Joy and knew real love, Lewis waxed brilliantly philosophical about suffering in the Christian life. He taught the necessity of it as a professor and public lecturer at Oxford University in England. After she died, “Jack,” as he was affectionately known by his family and friends, got extremely angry at God over Joy’s death and his great loss. He questioned all he had taught. Now, he knew suffering in the subjective sense, and not as an unemotional, detached bachelor. The pain was deep, the experiential lesson hard.
The first time I watched Shadowlands some years ago, I cried my eyes out, realizing that I had lived in the Shadowlands all my life. I hadn’t allowed myself to accept suffering as a necessary part of God’s process of making me into a mature son. I felt almost untouchable, and it wasn’t pleasant. Since that time I’ve had my share of the “fun” of being broken by physical sicknesses, trials, disappointments and failures, all sifted through the Hands of my Heavenly Father. Some of it was due to extreme stupidity (bad choices) on my part, but all of it was just good ‘ole Romans 8:28 being played out.
I’ve heard from people who travel in churches throughout America say they’ve never seen people go through such trials, as they (we) are now experiencing. As the old saying goes, “Trials can make you bitter or better.” We’re all going to be tried in various ways, but I think if we can get hold of God’s Obstacle Course and the reason for the season (of trial), we can better withstand it when the storms come. On the other side of this perplexing, chiseling, refinement lies something or someone much better – someone God can really use:
20But in a great house, there are not only vessels of gold or silver, but also of wood and of pottery, some of them for honor and some for dishonor. 21If a man will purify himself from these things, he is a pure vessel for honor, suitable for the use of his Lord and ready for every good work (2 Tim. 2:2) The Aramaic Bible in Plain English