Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Finish Strong

I always read the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles with a sense of trepidation. I know these historical books fairly well, but every time I read of a new king taking the throne, I dread the inevitable assessment of his reign: Was he faithful or disobedient? Did he follow God or turn aside to false gods?

Asa was one of the good kings. He ruled Judah for 41 years and “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, as David his father had done” (1 Kings 15:11). His rule was successful, his reign was honoring to God. He fought and won a great war against the Egyptians because he called out to God and had faith in his deliverance: “The LORD defeated the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled” (2 Chronicles 14:12). He enacted key religious reforms: “He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the LORD, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandment” (2 Chronicles 14:3-4). Perhaps most difficult of all, he removed his mother from her honorific position because of her stubborn idolatry. He was a good king to the end. Actually, not quite. He was a good king almost to the end.

In the 36th year of his reign, almost 90 percent of the way through, he had new trouble with Baasha, the king of Israel. This time, though, Asa did not rely on God but took matters into his own hands. Instead of crying out for deliverance as he had done before, he acted on his own, emptying the national treasury to bribe the Syrians to turn on Israel. Then, when he became ill, he neglected to seek God’s help but relied instead on physicians. For his lack of reliance upon God, he faced divine anger. Now, he was told, he would have constant warfare until the end of his reign and would also be struck with a crippling disease. Asa ruled well for so long and then collapsed. For 36 long years he was faithful, for five short years he was not.

As I ponder Asa, I consider the sorrow of finishing poorly and the joy of finishing well. I consider the terrible reality that a man can live a good life almost to the end, then falter, stumble, and even fall. This is why we so often hear of Christian leaders who had long and faithful ministries, who stood firm in the face of falsehood, who endured trials and persecution, but who then seemed to give way so much in their later years. We also hear of men who remained married to their wives for decades, then walked away near the end. What a tragedy. My friend, if you are are going to run to win, you need to finish strong.

Running and Finishing

A good long-distance runner knows the importance of planning his race. Even as he crosses the starting line he is already considering how he will cross the finish line. Even as he takes his first easy step, he has planned how he will take his last grueling step. A marathon runner may run 25 strong miles, but if he stops before his 26th, what good does that do him? Anyone can start a race, but only training and planning can prepare him to finish it. There are no prizes for almost crossing the finish line. In that sense, the final mile is the most important of all, the last steps are even more important than the first. A strong finish can make up for a weak start, but dropping out before the finish line negates even the most amazing early progress. Any imposter can start a race, but only a true athlete will finish it.

As a Christian man, you are already running the race of life, and I trust you are running in such a way that you will be victorious. Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). To obtain that prize, you will need to run to the very end. You will need to cross that finish line. And to do that, you will need to plan your race. You will need to plan the ways you will run today so you can continue to run in the difficult days ahead. Far better a weak start with a strong finish than a strong start followed by a complete collapse. No runner regrets finishing too strong, but many regret finishing too weak.

You are not competing against other people in this race but against the deadly enemies of the world, the flesh, and the devil. How are you battling them? How do you plan to maintain your pace throughout the race? That is exactly what this entire series has been about. There is so much more that could be said, but I have outlined this plan according to disciplines related to faith, disciplines related to life, and disciplines related to relationship.

I am convinced that if you pursue these disciplines, you will be pacing yourself well and preparing yourself to cross the finish line with arms raised in victory. You will be setting the pace to finish the race. You, like Paul, will be able to confidently say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (1 Timothy 4:7-8).

I will give the final word to J.I. Packer who, in the final steps of his race, has written these words: “Runners in a distance race … always try to keep something in reserve for a final sprint. And my contention is that, so far as our bodily health allows, we should aim to be found running the last lap of the race of our Christian life, as we would say, flat out. The final sprint, so I urge, should be a sprint indeed.” If you are going to run to win, you must finish strong.



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