Running to Win

Reflections from running the Coyote Hills Half Marathon

On April of 2007, I participated as a runner at the La Jolla Half Marathon. Having never entered a long-distance race up to this point, I had as a lone ambition to finish the course at a reasonable time. That I did.  

Almost nine years later, things were much different.  

Last Saturday (January 23, 2016), I ran the 13.1-mile race for just the second time in my life – this time at the Coyote Hills Half Marathon Race in Fremont, CA. When I realized that there was a very real possibility to place in my age group and finish in the top ten in the race, my approach to both training and competing changed drastically. The level to which I buffeted my body and enslaved it over the last twelve weeks of training for the sake of a perishable prize was unprecedented in all of my distance-running endeavors. Running the race to run and running the race two win, I realized, result in two completely different levels of self-control and training. 

As for the race itself, I finished third in my age group (males 30-34 years old) and twelfth overall. The course itself was grueling; the conditions (the clouds decided to weep bitterly) made it tougher. In addition, I actually took a wrong turn on the course during the last mile of the race – adding about a minute to my clocked time, and preventing me from finishing in the top ten (I suppose my poor sense of direction really never improved). So I crossed the finish line with mixed emotions of joy and disappointment – joy over the fact that I placed, but disappointed with that wrong turn. Nevertheless, here are some reflections (yes, I was thinking about lots of stuff, even while running) from the race weekend.

Reflection #1: The brand of focus, intensity, discipline, and perseverance that I have been lacking in ministry to both my family and church. Without a doubt, training for and competing in that race to win now serves as a parable for how to live the Christian life and engage in Christian ministry (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Ministering to others for the sake of the gospel indeed involves battling external elements as well as the inertia posed by my own fleshliness. The morning of the race, as I was meticulously measuring the amount of liquids that I was consuming to ensure optimal hydration, I felt a great sense of shame upon realizing that the level of self-control, discipline, and focus that I had exhibited in ministering to both my family and the church was nowhere near where it needed to be. It dawned on me just how purposeless, unprepared, and distracted I can sometimes be when engaged in serving those around me for the sake of the gospel. I’ve resolved to change, and to up the ante.

Reflection #2: The integration of competitive sports training and parenting. I realized that Jayden and Emma had a chance to witness something that a lot of children nowadays don’t normally get to witness: their father competing athletically. I’ve told Kathy in the recent past that it’s always been my desire for my children grow up watching their dad compete in sports – be it tennis or running. Both kids were oh so excited to play with the medals that I received, and spent the following moments trying to imitate me and asking me if I could teach them to run. It was wonderful to see that my athletic endeavors need not to be mutually exclusive from my duties as a parent. Rather, engaging in competitive athletics as a father can serve as useful tool in fathering my two precious children who I one day hope to encourage in their own athletic pursuits. When that day comes, they’ll remember that their father walked the walk (or ran the race) himself.  

Reflection #3: The consequences of veering off course in actual life and ministry. 2 Timothy 2:5 is an athletic analogy for a pointed reality: “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” That frustration and I-trained-this-hard-for-nothing sensation that I felt after making that wrong turn on the 12th mile are ones that I never desire to re-experience in a race…and surely something I never want to experience in life and ministry. All of the passion, intensity, and diligence that a man exhibits in his endeavors for the Lord are vain if they are not exhibited with integrity. The importance of staying within God’s parameters has become all the more clear.

Reflection #4: The fact that total transformation is possible in life. Waiting for me at the finish line alongside my wonderful wife and children were my mom (she came down for a surprise visit to cheer me on), my brother-in-law, and my two sisters. My sisters both mentioned to me afterwards how they near tears as I ran that last stretch to the finish line. Part of it was that what they saw was a complete 180 turn from what I used to be as a young boy and early teenager. Back then, I was overweight, with seemingly no athletic inclinations, and seemingly no hope to ever get in any kind of shape. For them to watch their same brother legitimately competing in a half marathon and placing was, as they both put it, “inspiring.” I thought about the fact that total change is indeed possible – not just in the realm of athletics, but in the realm of Christianity. In the Christian life, total transformation is not only possible but expected. God’s regenerated ones are changed from ungodly to godly, from dead to alive, from old creatures to new creatures – in action, volition, emotion, and inclination. The Lord sanctifies His children entirely. Thus, Scripture says, “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Ephesians 4:24).  

Reflection #5: The benefit of engaging in competitive athletics as a husband, father, and minister. Like it or not, competing athletically is part of the fabric of males by God’s design – at least for the majority of us. Training and competing in this race not only served as a parable for my ministry endeavors, but also served to directly impact my ministry by increasing my capacity for work. For many ministers, myself included, a common sentiment is “the spirit is willing but the body is weak.” Truth is, all of a man’s endeavors are carried out through the vessel of his physical body. And the condition of this vessel will indeed affect the quality and quantity of his work. These last twelve weeks of training marked the period during which I found myself in the best physical shape of my life – even more so than my years as a high school athlete. It was no surprise then that I had much more energy during the work week, slept better, was much more emotionally serene, and felt much more able to handle all of the demands of family life and ministry with a tranquil and thankful heart. My mind was thinking much more clearly and crisply, surely affected by the condition of my body. For when the body is strong, the spirit’s desires can be accomplished.  

  

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When I Learned to Honor My Parents

Personal and biblical reflection on honoring one’s parents in adulthood

“Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.”

~Ephesians 6:2-3

As I packed up my tiny white Hyundai Accent with the last of my belongings the evening of September 5, 2003, I told my mother that it was time for me to go. We had been switching gears back and forth that evening between loading my car and watching the U.S. Open semifinals. But the drive from Las Vegas to San Diego would be close to five hours long, and it was already a few minutes passed eight. Mama knew just how excited I was to be starting college, so she didn’t delay. She simply asked if I wanted to take a picture with my dog, Shadow – who I would be leaving behind with her – before hitting the road. I obliged, not thinking much about anything else except for which CD’s I was going to play in the car to entertain me during the boring evening desert trek.  

Then, it happened. I didn’t think it would, but it did. Mama started to cry. She was a single mother who worked two jobs to support her children and was tough as nails emotionally, but this time was different. There was a pain, a wrinkling in her face that suggested something different about the emotions that she was experiencing at the very moment. I stood there -stunned and scowling. Mama never demanded hugs, kisses, or “I love you” salutations from her children – particularly not from me. I reached over anyway and embraced her, assuring her that I would be ok and that I would call her as soon as I reached San Diego. But she continued to cry. I quickly got into the front seat of my car, shut the door, backed out of the driveway, waved goodbye…and started to sob. Alone in my car, finally on my way to college, I continued to sob audibly for the next two hours. All I remember thinking of was, “I wish I could turn back time ten years, so that I could be her little boy again and she could be my mom again.” I thought that the beginning of college would mark the end of the parent-child relationship chapter of my life. After all, I was now an adult – no longer under the financial provision of my mother, and having not even seen or spoken to my father in six years.  

Little did I realize that leaving home and starting my adult life would, ironically, mark the beginning of what has been a long journey of learning to honor my parents (yes, both of them).

Exactly twenty days after I left for college, I was saved and became a follower of Jesus Christ. From that day, the seed of the Word was implanted in me and has continued to grow. In so doing, it has changed my perspective with regards to honoring my parents. More specifically, it has changed my perspective and practices with regards to honoring my parents as an adult. I’m thirty-one now – myself the head of my own household and father of two young children. I take charge of life decisions for myself and my family. Today, my parents never nag, never demand, rarely request, and rarely – if ever – give their opinions as to what I ought to be doing with my life. I see my mother about three times a year at max, and my father once every year-and-a-half or so (purely for logistic reasons). But by the grace of God, my relationship with them has been preserved throughout the thicks and thins of our crazy lives. And, though I’m no longer a child, I’m still their son. I still refer to them as Papa and Mama – not as Vicente and Emecita. And with that comes the biblical and binding command to honor them.  

Yes, even when they never demand to be honored, and even when they restrained themselves from rebuking me during those numerous times that I had dishonored them.

That fifth commandment – the first of the ones that directly address human relationships – is unique amongst the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17) in that adherence to it takes on a different expression depending on a person’s age. The call to honor one’s parents looks different for a ten-year old and a twenty-five year old. Part of the problem has been many a cultural tradition that equates honoring to obedience. But while obedience is an expression of honor ascribed (and a mandated one for children), the two are not synonymous. Consider, for instance, that the Scriptures call a man to honor his wife, but not to submit to her as her authority (1 Peter 3:7). It also calls the church to honor widows, but doesn’t say anything about widows ruling the church (1 Timothy 5:3). And it also calls for fathers to manage their children with dignity (or honor), but not to obey their children (1 Timothy 3:4). So also does God call us to honor all members of the church, but not necessarily to obey all (1 Corinthians 12:23).

Here’s where some morphology may be helpful. Having looked up the original Greek and Hebrew words used in Exodus 20:12 and Ephesians 6:2, the verb “to honor” literally means to ascribe value. To honor someone then, connotatively speaking, would mean to treat someone with a sense of “weightiness.” It implies giving someone the care, love, esteem, and respect for which their value demands. But honoring is more than a practice; it is a disposition of the heart from which particular actions flow out. Jesus makes it clear that it is possible to honor someone with your lips, but to dishonor him with your heart (Matthew 15:8). Surely, then, to honor one’s parents has more to do with whether or not you obey them or defer to their wishes and desires. It has to do with how much you truly value them from within.

As mentioned earlier, the expression of honoring morphs as one transitions from childhood to adulthood. Children living under the provision of their parents are mandated to obey their parents (unless, of course, they are being asked to sin). Adults, on the other hand, are not. I know that this may rub some the wrong way, but I do believe that the Scriptures are clear that adults are no longer under the authority of their parents and are expected to take full responsibility for their actions, decisions, and ambitions (cf. Numbers 32:11, 1 Corinthians 7:39, Mark 1:20, John 9:21, and more). This includes decision from where they go to college, what they choose to study, what career path they opt to take, who they decide to marry, what they choose to name their children, where they decide to live, and where they choose to spend Christmas and Thanksgiving (I don’t have the space to expound on this for this particular entry, but here’s a good interview to read by Jim Newheiser: http://www.alexchediak.com/2010/07/interview_jim_newheiser_you_ne.php). Personally, I’ve had to think long and hard about this from a biblical perspective due to some life circumstances that my wife and I had to endure, but that’s for another story. But all to say, the mandate to obey one’s parents is a temporal command that no longer binds to those who have crossed over into adulthood (in America, that would be at 18 years of age). For myself, personally, this was indeed the case at 19 when I left home. But like I said, though the mandate to obey my parents ended that day, honoring them had just then begun its journey.

Understanding the difference between honoring and obeying is crucial mainly because of a presently existing familial paradox – that there are many young adults who both obey and dishonor their parents. I’ve seen it much too often. I’ve watched young men and women “of age” submit to all of their parents wishes and expectations regarding just about every area of life. Yet, these same people defame their parents behind their back – belittling them if they’re “old-fashioned” and “unreasonable,” and sometimes even “dumb.” I’ve heard them speak of their believing parents as “immature Christians who need to grow,” as nagging and annoying, as hypocrites, and more. They follow instructions, but not without a good heated argument with hurls of insults and door-slamming. They obeyed their parents as if they were God, but talked about them as if they were idiots if not devils.  

Conversely, I’ve also witnessed many (and praise God for them) who, once they reach the age of adulthood, have learned to go against their parents’ wishes on many significant issues – particularly the larger decisions – but who have continued to honor them in the process. These are the saints who speak of their parents with high esteem, who treat them as if they were the most wonderful and important people in the world apart from their own spouses and children. These are the saints who, though they make their own decisions, truly value their parents counsel and wisdom and refrain from arguing – even if they choose to go against it. These are the ones who do all they can to protect their parents’ reputation, take into due consideration their parents’ emotions, and are more than conscious of their parents’ physical needs that inevitably grow with age. I remember my brother being one of these saints.  

And over the years, I’ve had to simply learn from his example in how exemplified this. Though he was the first to ever disobey my parents in a significant area of life (namely, by becoming a Christian and leaving the Catholic faith), I’ve yet to see an adult honor his mother and father the way he has. From him, I learned what honoring parents as an adult really looks like. It means listening to them when they give suggestions rather than arguing back when you don’t like what they say. It means showing understanding and compassion when they struggle with having difficult days. It means picking restaurants that you know suit their likings and preferences (even if they insist on you choosing). It means valuing the wisdom they offer, rather than insisting that they “don’t know what it’s like.” It means respecting the values they have for the home and home preferences. It means helping them vacuum the house when you know that they’re tired (if you still live with them) rather than going straight to your room or plopping straight in front of the TV. It means speaking highly of them in front of your friends. It means thanking them for all that they do for you – from paying for your education to adding cheese to your spaghetti. It means teaching your own children how to value the presence of their grandparents more than they do their school friends and video games. It means showing consideration (even when you don’t agree and won’t submit) when they’re having a hard time with a life decision you are on the brink of making. It means refusing to retaliate when they criticize or insult you, but rather returning a blessing instead. It means refusing to hold their wrongdoings against them, but covering whatever multitude of sins they committed with love.  

Honoring your parents means doing all of these things for them until the day they die.  

Like I said, leaving home for college marked the beginning of my journey of learning to honor my parents. Up until that point, I honestly never thought about it much. But post-salvation, I realized just how much I, unknowingly, had disrespected them – even if I hadn’t intended to. From my sharp remarks, to disregarding when they would request for me to spend vacations with them, to my annoyed demeanor when I was asked for favors, to my barking back when they’d give advice about school, I was convicted by the Spirit of what had been a historically dishonoring heart attitude towards two of life’s most precious jewels. I have since vowed to change, and have been working hard year after to year to show them the honor that the Lord commands (and because I realize that they actually do know what they’re talking about!)

How can I not, when I remembered the Savior Himself – in his last, dying breaths while absorbing the wrath of God on the cross for our sins – calling out to his mother to ensure that she would have a place to live in her old age?  

Bearing the Yoke in Your Youth

  

Encouragement to those who suffer greatly before they turn thirty

“It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth.”

~Lamentations 3:27

“Too much pressure on such young shoulders.” Sandra Bezic said it first; I said it the next three hundred times.

I’ve always known that those who God uses greatly are the same ones He hurts deeply. Never have I desired to be left out of that group, and I hope still that God desires me to be so. Thus, I’ve never wanted to be spared of the yoke of suffering that many of Christ’s most valiant and influential soldiers have been called to bear.  

I just never expected that I’d have to bear a part of that yoke before I turned thirty.

I’ve often wondered why God orchestrated it in His counsel for me to endure through my life’s particular pains, suffering, persecutions, and disappointments before the age of thirty. I would often question why God did not wait till I was more aged, with more perspective, before allowing me to be put through the furnace. I wasn’t the only one to exhibit such a sentiment. A number of years ago, I distinctly recall one of my church leaders telling me the following amidst one of the most difficult periods of my life (I was in my twenties then):

“JR, what you guys (referring to me and Kathy) are experiencing is probably the most difficult trial in our church right now…and you guys are young.”  

This he said, not out of admiration, but out of deep concern for the future of my physical and spiritual well-being. Likewise, I’ve historically been afraid that the particular experiences our family has had to endure would leave us scarred and jaded instead of refined and strengthened. Many times, I had the sinful sentiment that the Lord was unfair to me by calling me to bear my particular yoke of suffering during the years of my youth.

Needless to say, experience has taught me otherwise. I’m now over thirty (my lower back agrees), with a whirlwind of experiences from my twenties under my belt. Scarred skin, I realize, is tougher skin. And no, I’m not jaded – contrary to what I feared. Quite the opposite, in fact. I sometimes, during solitary drives to and from the church office, find myself experiencing a unique outburst of praise to God for permitting me in His wisdom to experience and endure the kind of trials that I have. For I have found that there is a measure of strength, a brand of wisdom, and a breadth of perspective that can only be gained through the academy of affliction…not through a seminary education, series of mid-week Bible studies, or week-to-week discipleship. God was gracious – very gracious – to grant these to me.    

That it is good, and not harmful, for a man to experience tremendous amounts of affliction during the years of his youth was not just a lesson learned from experience, but a timeless truth of Scripture whose application I just so happened to glean during my transitory presence on earth. Lamentations 3:27 states this clearly, that it is good for a man to bear the yoke (of suffering) in his youth. The Scriptures are pointed; they strike against the philosophical fiber of modern clinical psychology. It is good, not damaging. It is good, not woeful. It is good, not detrimental. It is good, not because God intends to scar a man’s soul for life, but because He intends to prepare the soil of his soul to absorb the tremendous mercy and compassion from the Lord and later testify of it with utmost sincerity and perspective (Lamentations 3:32).  

It is now that I realize that he who is afflicted during his prime-of-life years is not to be considered a victim of unfortunate and permanently damaging circumstances. Rather, provided that his faith in Christ is genuine, he must be considered blessed. For such a man is one who God intends not to shred, but to strengthen. Because of this, I truly rejoice in thanksgiving and hope that God called me to experience those trials, afflictions, and persecutions during my twenties, and not during my fifties (though I’m sure there is more to come when I hit that stage). He was good, truly good, for doing so. And I only hope that I would honor such grace through the engaging in the ministry now entrusted to me with the strength and wisdom that has been made available to me through such unexpected packages.   

Chemistry…does it Matter?

It took me over twenty years to make a decision. But I’ve finally decided that my all-time favorite movie is the Karate Kid.

And yes, I’m speaking of the original 1984 film with Daniel-San and Mr. Miyagi (Wax on!!!!!!!). On paper, the film hardly impressive. The storyline structure is all but original – that of the underdog overcoming adversity and earning both self-respect and the respect of others under the strict but caring tutelage of an older sage. The setting in the San Fernando Valley by Los Angeles – wow! – and the fight scenes involves no special stunts or effects (I think my grandmother could do the Crane Kick if she really wanted to).   Continue reading

Five Years with a Gospel-Woman

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Reflecting on my fifth year anniversary of marriage

Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.

~Mark 10:29-30 

I’m not a fan of paperwork.  And it hasn’t helped that my handwriting has progressively degraded in form since sixth grade.  But I have to admit that, whether its filling out employment documents or other formal contracts and questionnaires, I still get oh-so excited when I’m asked to check the appropriate box regarding my marital status.  Getting to check off the “married” box still gives me Goosebumps.  I suppose it’s still hard for me to believe that God has looked upon me with this kind of favor, so as to give me one who I consider to be a true woman of the gospel.

Gospel-women are tough to find.  That’s for no other reason than the requirements that Jesus laid out for the rich young ruler in Mark 10:29-30.  A most radical call in Scripture, directed toward a man who was falsely convinced with regards to his eternal state, Jesus said: “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.”  I’ve realized that, by nature, many women value relationships and security, much more so than men do.  For the record, relationships and security aren’t bad things.  It’s just that, in many instances, living for the gospel requires one to relinquish one’s hold on them.  Any arguments for otherwise must be taken up with the Savior Himself who said the words in Mark 10:29-30.  And so for the woman who places her comfort in her friendships, family, and safety, living for Christ and His gospel often demands for her to leave the things to which her soul so firmly held as precious in her former life.  Thus, a gospel-woman (GW) is synonymous to a steel-made woman.  Trying to find a woman as such is as akin to trying to spot a Red Panda in the Himalayan Mountains.

On July 19, 2008, when I got down on one knee and asked Kathy to marry me, she was a scholarship-awarded law student with a close knit family and a broad-but-deep circle of friends.  Not surprising, as she’s as intelligent and likeable as they come.  When I proposed, I did so because I loved her, and because I was fully convinced that – as a man who had both spiritually and vocationally given himself to the ministry of the gospel – she was the woman who God wanted by my side.  Indeed that the two of us had during a pre-marital homework session, she let me know that her ambition was to support my ministry, for she was convinced that it was one that would be invested into the growth of the gospel.  Neither of us every imagined, however, that her “yes” would cost her what it did.  Nor did we ever try or plan for it.  But here she is, five years after the day we both said “I do,” without any of those things that she had before.  Her career – she left it behind to be a full-time homemaker.  Her family – that’s for another story.  Her closest friends – they’re no longer there.  And her financial security – such a concept doesn’t exist for ministry-bound couples.  These she lost, not because she brought it upon herself, but because the ministry of the gospel and the commitment to righteousness as resulting from our marriage caused it.  I’ve pondered this many times over the past few years, often asking God to alleviate some of the pain from the wounds that she endured over the last number of years.  And, honestly, it breaks my heart when I dwell for too long a time on the kind of affliction, suffering, and persecution she’s had to endure for the sake of being my wife.  The last thing I ever wanted for my precious bride was for her to be stripped of those things that were precious to her.

But, at the same time, it’s when a woman is barren of her relationships and security that her character is most fully exposed.  And so there I was on Sunday during our fifth anniversary celebration at Shoreline lake, rowing a small boat at whose bow was seated a smiling woman.  She was shining, much like a rare jewel underneath the setting sunlight.  A woman stripped of the world, with her God-fearing character now bare in front her husband…a beautiful, beautiful woman she was.

Five years being in the same household of such a woman indeed does something to a man.  It sharpens his character.  It lights up his smile.  It encourages his spirit.  It soars his ministry.  I forgot what life was like before marriage, but I know that I’m a far different person after marriage.  That she is simply outstanding is not a biased statement from a happy hubby.  A close buddy once came up to me and said point blank, “My wife can’t handle what Kathy does.”  Another told me, “If I ever marry anyone, I hope she treats me the same way your wife treats you.”  One woman told me, “Kathy…she reminds me of that woman.  The one from Proverbs 31.”  During a recent conversation with my pastor, he encouraged me to take the topic of our conversation and bring it to my wife, for “she’s really intuitive.”  Kathy doesn’t think of herself in this way, obviously.  But just because she doesn’t, doesn’t mean that she isn’t.  I, along with all these other people, can attest that she is.  And I have no shame in sharing it.

Five years of marriage – five years of sweet joy.  There’s no such thing as a perfect earthly marriage, and there’s no such thing as a perfect wife.  But there is such a thing as a Christ-empowered marriage, and there is such a thing as an excellent woman.  I can list a million reasons regarding why I’m thankful for Kathy – from how she frequently transforms cardboard into first-class meals, to her never-complaining attitude, to her razor-sharp discernment of people, to her smile and laughter that light up any dark room, to her steadfast commitment to caring for her household, to the dignity with which she engages in motherhood.  But what I am truly tankful for, more than anything, is that God joined me to a woman who has committed herself to honoring the person and work of Jesus Christ in how she loves her husband, her family, her church, and her community.  I’m thankful, that He has joined me to a woman whose character and conduct have left me with no other alternative than to stay in the gospel ministry, and to remain sharp in doing so.  I rejoice in thanksgiving that, for now half-a-decade, I have been cleaved and waved to nothing short of a GW.

Happy Anniversary, Red Panda.  You’ve made one man the happiest man in the world.  And, without a doubt, a smile to our Master’s face.

A Passenger’s Perspective

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Respecting the Sovereign Will of God in Future Endeavors

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.  You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”

~James 4:14-15

If points for frequent flier miles had existed since the 1980s, I think I’d be a top scorer for my generation.  Though I still dislike the ear-popping sensation, the nearly-non-reclining seats, and the inevitable resulting jetlag, I’ve been a regular airplane passenger for both domestic and international flights since toddlerhood.  And yet, till today, my heart rate still increases during take-offs.  The reason for that: I still experience the same kind of dire helplessness when I get on planes today as I did when I first consciously discovered myself on Japan Airlines as a three-year old.  For clarity’s sake, I don’t have a phobia of flying.  I know that planes all over the world take off and land safely every day.  I’m mindful of how, in all of my years of flying, no one that I’ve known personally has ever experienced being in a plane crash.          

The sensation of helplessness results from the simple fact that the cockpit remains the only part of the plane in which I’ve yet to seat myself.  I’ve always been a passenger, and never a pilot – fully aware that I have absolutely no control over where the plane will go and how the plane will hold up in the sky.  I still communicate my arrival times to the people who plan to pick me up from the airport.  But I do it with a kind of mindset void of any presumption or arrogance, but that has completely entrusted itself to the skill of the pilot, the condition of the plane, and the permission of the weather.  Really, communicating arrival times to folks comes with a silent preface: “If the plane doesn’t crash and everything remains intact and the pilot brings us to the correct destination, I’ll be waiting for you at 5:45 pm outside terminal A, door B4.”  Experienced fliers must be respectful fliers – respectful of the fact that whether or not they safely arrive to their destination is entirely out of their hands.    

For this reason, though I’m a frequent flier, I’m not a fan of flying..  Perhaps it’s because I’m a Type AAA personality – always the visionary, always the stubborn planner.  While I have few opinions about what others should be doing with their lives, I’ve historically been close to OCD when it comes to how I live mine.  Calendars (both wall ones and electronic ones), excel worksheets, tables, graphs, palm pilots, appointment books have always been utility companions for organizing and projecting life endeavors.  “Where do I want to go in life?” resonates through my head as much as “What do I want to eat?”  Far from the “laid-back, go-with-the-flow personality when it comes to life’s big ticket items, I’m not a big fan of uncertainty regarding my future.  I like to plan.  And I tend to stubbornly stick to them.  Inevitably, I’ve tended to get upset, frustrated, anxious, and paralyzed when I sense that I’m staring down the barrel of the unknown. 

Perhaps that’s why I’ve never had to highlight James 4:13-15 in my Bible to remember it.  For few words can be more pointedly sobering to the Type AAAs. 

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.  You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)

I can’t claim, however, to have always understood it.  Even, admittedly, after 4.5 years of seminary  training (which included a class on James) and over 5 years of pastoring and preaching.  But I’ve matured since as a believer, and so has my understanding of what James intended with these verses.

The biblical wisdom addressed by James here isn’t talking about the level of certainty that you can have about the future.  It isn’t a passage designed to keep you anxious, unsure, or half-hearted in faith (remember Mark 11:22-25?).  Rather, it’s wisdom that addresses the object of your respect with regards to your future endeavors.  When it comes to future planning, there’s a difference between confidence and arrogance.  Confidence deals with certainty, and ought to be exhibited (Philippians 1:20-25, 2 Timothy 4:18).  Arrogance, on the other hand, deals with perspective, and it ought to be denounced.  Confidence is one’s assurance of what’s going to happen to him.  Arrogance is the attribution of such assurance to one’s own abilities and strengths.  Confidence has to do with what you are certain of; arrogance has to do with who you are certain in.  Being confident about your salvation, for instance, is different than being arrogant about it.  Being confidence about my wife’s future fidelity, as another instance, is different than thinking that my charm and character are strong enough to keep her.  And so with regards to God’s grace bestowed on your future endeavors, you’re called to be confident about it.  But never – never – arrogant. 

James 4:13-16 isn’t calling you to live in a perpetual “maybe” state of uncertainty.  Nor does it require you to preface every prayer request or conversation about future plans with cliché-type “if it’s in God’s will” subjunctive statements.  Rather, it’s calling you to exhibit a mature perspective towards your future.  It’s a call for you to, in your heart, give credit to whom credit is due.  It’s a call to attribute the proper copyrighting with regards to the prospective chapters of your life to the ultimate Author of your life.  Psalm 139:16: “And in your book were written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there were not one of them.”

God never calls us to be uncertain about His future grace; the Bible is a book of promises and not possibilities.  Jesus commended the bleeding woman and the friends of the paralytic for their assurance in His grace, while He rebuked His disciples on the boat for their lack of assurance.  There is no such thing as a double-minded, uncertain faith.  In the same way that it hurts me to think that my young children may ask me to provide them with food and to play with them with a doubting heart as to whether or not I’d give them those things (Dads, you understand), so also it displeases God when we approach Him with our needs without the assurance that he will give us what He deems best out of His tender compassion and mercy.  To live by faith, after all, is to live with assurance (Hebrews 11:1).    

But God does call us to respect His control over our lives.  His hand, not ours, deserves all the credit.  He calls us to attribute everything about our future to Him.  That includes our educational pursuits.  And job pursuits.  And plans for marriage and family.  And ministry desires.  That includes all of our future accomplishments, successes, and blessings.  That includes our future physical survival.  James 4:13-16 paraphrased: You are what you are and you will be what you will be, ultimately, because the Lord willed it.    

The paradox in all this: maturity manifests itself in both confidence and humility.      

A life marked by humble confidence is a life founded on the gospel.  God saved us by faith, so that we may live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4).  Men and women saved by God are to live with the confidence that the heavenly blessings will be bestowed upon them – not because of our own merit, but because of God’s unconditional love and unhindered faithfulness through the cross of Christ (Romans 8:28-39, Ephesians 1:3ff).  The credit does, and must, go to Him and Him alone.  Therefore, as Ephesians 2:9 says about the reality of your present salvation and as James 4:13-16 says about the reality about your future blessings, may you never boast. 

For, good sir, you are nothing more than a passenger.  

Special Category 5

(Photo from Wikimedia commons by Duncan Rawlinson)
(Photo from Wikimedia commons by Duncan Rawlinson)

For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.  For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience?  But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.  For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.

~1 Peter 2:19-21

I’ve been mentally consumed with athletics ever since I re-started my career as a personal trainer.  Add to that the fact that the Sochi Olympics just marked its way into history not too long ago.  In my daily pondering, I’ve discerned five categories of people with respect to athletic ability and endeavors.

Category 1: The people who simply aren’t athletic enough to make it to the Olympics, and thus never make it there.  The vast majority of humanity falls into this category.

Category 2: The people who make it to the Olympics, and possibly even prosper, but do so unjustly.  Knee-whacking figure skaters and PED-using sprinters fall into this category.  It’s the most pitiable of categories, as their members face life-lasting consequences and live the rest of their lives in infamy.

Category 3: The people who are athletically gifted enough to make it to and compete at the Olympics.  A small majority of humans, but the vast majority of Olympians, fall into this category.  This category is satisfying to observe, as they seem to be enjoying the rewards of their hard work while simultaneously competing pressure-free, unlike those in category 4.

Category 4: The athletes who compete as medal-contenders in the Olympics.  The categories are getting smaller and smaller.

Category 5: The Olympic gold medalists.  This is the smallest category – and most coveted.  The levels of discipline, dedication, sacrifice, and resilience it requires to find oneself in it are off the charts.  It is their members, however, who leave the legacies which shape their sport.

Since the Bible in several places analogously links competitive athletic rewards with eternal rewards for righteousness (ever heard of the crown of righteousness), I began to ponder the different categories of people with regards to righteousness and suffering.

The parallels are striking.

Category 1: Wicked people who suffer for their wickedness.  The vast majority of humanity falls into this category.  Before God’s eyes, all men are wicked.  And, in this lifetime, most of them reap what they sow.

Category 2: Wicked people who seem to prosper.  From Bible, men like that rich man (who taunted Lazarus) and the Pharisees fall into this category.  This is the most pitiable of the categories.  Their members are in the most perilous of states, for their present and earthly prosperity blinds them from the eternal wrath stored up for them.  Blessed are those who laugh now, for they will weep.

Category 3: Righteous people who prosper for their righteousness.  This is the most satisfying of categories.  I’m speaking of believers – those clothed with the righteousness of Christ through His atoning work – who, for the most part, prosper in their lives and reap the fruits of their righteous sowing.  The world rejoices with these folks.

Category 4: Righteous people who suffer and deal righteously with suffering.  The categories are getting smaller.  These include those believers whose lives seem to be filled with affliction and misfortune, though they do all they can to honor God.  But, contrary to the worldly, respond to suffering in a God-honoring way.  They handle all that life throws at them with a godly perspective.  This is the most admirable of categories. 

These categories cover the majority of the planet’s population – historically and geographically.

And then there’s Category 5.

Category 5: Righteous people who suffer for their righteousness. 

It’s a special category – a unique one that God has set apart in a distinct manner.

Unlike those in category 4, members of category 5 are those who suffer not just while pursuing righteousness, but because of their pursuit of righteousness; righteousness is not just the result of their suffering, but the cause of it.  It is this category that consists of righteous people who suffer unjustly.  For their choices to honor the Lord, they not only experience affliction and misfortune, but persecution.  It is this category whose members the world esteems with great pity and shame, but who God esteems with great favor.  Christ mentions them in the Beatitudes; Peter encourages them in his epistle.  For it is to this category that Christ – the Author and Perfecter of faith – belongs, as well as those apostles who followed him most closely.  It is to this category that the men and women who leave lasting legacies that shape Christian community, for such saints have shed blood that still speak.  It is this category that contains the men and women who have been called to experience fellowship with Christ to a depth that the rest of the community simply won’t.  It is from this category whose members know the Savior most deeply.  It is for this category that the hottest part of God’s refining fire has been directed; it is from this category that men and women of gold come forth.  These are the gold medalists of God’s people – the ones for whom heaven’s greatest rewards and highest esteems are reserved.

Members of category 5, you are the ones who the Lord Jesus considers the most blessed – the most fortunate of humanity.  And you belong there because the Almighty God, in His sovereign wisdom and lavish grace, elected you to it.  For such a dignified calling, an unworthy man cannot summon upon himself.  But for those who have been counted worthy, may they rejoice greatly – knowing that the same lot was cast upon God’s most greatly utilized servants.

I first studied these passages when I was born again over ten years ago.  And, as hard as life was and has been, I knew full well that God had not yet considered me as a candidate for that special category.  My life, for the record, hasn’t been immune from affliction and suffering.  And I’ve learned to deal with suffering in a more God-honoring manner than I had previously.  But day after day and with eternity in mind, over these last ten years, I’d wonder if He would ever graciously grant me the privilege of being a part of that golden group.  I’ve wondered if I would ever be able to personally testify to the reality of 1 Peter 2:20.  It is, after all, His choice – not mine.

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

“So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.” (Acts 5:41)

I only hope that, by the end of my life, He would have considered me worthy to be part of special category 5.