Maintaining Spiritual Traction in a Shifting Culture (2 Timothy) – “Handling Hardship, pt 1” 2:3-7

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Maintaining Spiritual Traction in a Shifting Culture

Part 4 – Handling Hardship, Part 1

2 Timothy 2:3-7

Bruce A. Hess

Welcome this morning. If you would, please take out your Bibles and turn in them, in the New Testament, to the book of 2 Timothy. If you don’t have a Bible, there should be one under a chair in front of you and you can take that Bible and turn to page 165, in the back part, and you would be at 2 Timothy.

In his book, Finishing Strong, Steve Farrar tells the story of John Bisagno. Now, John Bisagno spent some time as a pastor in Del City, Oklahoma and also as a pastor in Texas. Here is the way he relates the story, ‘When John was just about to finish college, he was having dinner over at his fiancé’s house one night and after supper he was talking with his future father-in-law, Dr. Paul Beck, out on the porch. Dr. Beck had been in ministry for years and that was going to inevitably be the subject which the conversation turned to.

“John, as you get ready to enter the ministry, I want to give you some advice,” Dr. Beck told the young man. “Stay true to Jesus; make sure you keep your heart close to Jesus every day. It is a long way from here to where you are going and Satan is in no hurry to get you.” Then, the older man continued, he said this, “It’s been my observation that just one out of ten who start out in full-time service for the Lord at the age of 21, are still on track by the age of 65. They’re shot down morally, they are shot down with discouragement, they get obsessed with making money. But for one reason or another, nine of ten fall out.

Well, the 20 year old Bisagno was shocked, “I just can’t believe that. That’s impossible. That just can’t be true.” Then, when he went home, he decided to take one of those blank pages in the back of his Bible and he wrote down the names of twenty-four young men who were his peers and contemporaries. These were young men in their twenties who were sold out for Jesus Christ. They were trained for ministry and burning in their desire to be used by the Lord. Then, Bisagno goes on to relate “I am now 53 years old and from time to time, as the years have gone by, I have had to turn back to that page in my Bible and cross out a name. I wrote down those twenty-four names when I was just 20 years of age. Thirty-three years later, there are only three names remaining of that original twenty-four. One out of ten remained steadfast and forged on in their walk with Christ. Nine faltered, became discouraged, drifted off, or dropped out.”

Philip Ryken cites these statistics; he says that 1700 ministers leave the ministry every month. Half of the people who are still in the ministry have considered leaving the ministry in the last few months and only half of those who are starting out will last five years. Barely one in ten will actually retire as a minister.

There you have that one out of ten again. What is true of spiritual leaders, men and women, is also true of us as a group.

Why does something like this happen? I think there are several reasons behind it, but at the top of the list is a failure to handle hardship. Maybe you are here today and right now, right now in your life, you are facing discouragement or maybe some difficulty or even disillusionment. Hardship comes in many flavors [different kinds, variety]. But if that is your situation, now or it will probably be soon, we have help from Paul in 2 Timothy. My goal is, let’s just up the stats, let’s get better stats than one out of ten.

We are involved in a message series on 2 Timothy that we have entitled, ‘Maintaining Spiritual Traction in a Shifting Culture.’ The message title for today is, Handling Hardship, part number one. We see hardship being addressed in verses 3-13 of chapter 2, but we are just going to do part one today. In order to do that, I want to read verses 3-7 and invite you to follow along in your Bible as I am reading.

Paul writes, “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” 

Now, when it comes to finding help in handling hardship, we are going to see this whole overall section…four key things.

*Number one, we need to avoid the common error. We are going to see that in verse 3.

*We need to learn from life’s analogies, in verses 4-7.

*We need to look at two motivational examples, in verses 8-10.

*And, then, there are some pivotal principles we need to embrace in verses 11-13. But, we are only going to be covering the first two today because this is part number one.

So, we are going to look at avoiding the common error and we want to learn from life analogies.

Let’s begin where he begins with the idea that we need to avoid the common error. Look at verse 3 again. “Suffer hardship with me,” he says. The NIV, I think translates it, “Endure hardship with me.” What is significant about that verb is, that it is a ‘together with me’ kind of a verb, that is the way it is structured. In other words, what Paul is saying is, this is a common experience for a follower of Jesus, to experience hardship.

You know what I find so fascinating and even I struggle with this, from time to time, is, we have this tendency, and this tendency is to buy into a certain idea. The idea seems to be, that we think somewhere in our mind that when we are forgiven, when we are part of God’s forever family, somehow it just seems that troubles ought to melt away, that we ought to be able to go on spiritual cruise control. Where somehow we succumb to a mentality that says to ourselves, ‘You know, God’s primary plan is to make me feel good. His primary plan is for me to be comfortable in life.’

Often I think, deep down, we wish life was the opposite of the way that it is. I like what this one Christian humorist said about life, he said, ‘I think the life cycle is all backward. You should die first, then get that out of the way. Then, you live twenty years in an old age home, where you wake up feeling better each day. Then, you get kicked out when you are too young and you go and collect your pension and get a gold watch on your first day at work. You work forty years until you are young enough to enjoy your retirement, you go to college and have a great time with your friends until you are ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a little kid, you play, you have no responsibilities. You become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating peacefully and you finish up as a gleam in somebody’s eye.’

Well, we sort of wish life would go that way. But here is what happens if our expectation is that we are going to have smooth sailing or be relatively trouble free, eventually what happens is, eventually there is a jolt that comes and we find ourselves face to face with difficulty. It may be fatigue, it may be trouble, maybe rejection, it may be failure, it may be some kind of emotional pain we are experiencing.

Yet, the New Testament makes clear that is not the way that it is going to go. Jesus said, in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.” Could it be more clear?

In Acts, chapter 14, verse 22, when Paul was going back around to the churches he had founded and he said he was “strengthening the souls of the disciples” and he wanted to “encourage them all to continue in the faith, saying, ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

Then, in 1 Thessalonians, chapter 3, verse 3, he said, ‘I sent Timothy to you, in part, “So that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions,” that they were experiencing. For he says, “You yourselves know,” because Paul had taught them this, “that we have been destined for this.”

You know, Satan wants to destroy our faith through suffering, God wants to refine our faith through suffering. Most of us, I think, maybe have been believers long enough to know this, at least in our heads, but God’s primary plan is not that you and I would feel good about everything, that we would be comfortable, His primary plan is to make me and you like Christ. His primary plan is that we would grow up.

Jim Harrell is a gentleman who has ALS. Reflecting on his slow death that ALS is bringing in his life, he was pointing out that this has helped him to discover real life, having ALS. He wrote these words, “Suffering is the icy cold splash that wakes us up from the complacency of living this life. We truly don’t see God and His purpose and strength without suffering, because we just become too comfortable.”

I read this week, a survey of hundreds of believers and they were asked this question, ‘What factor was most influential in your spiritual growth?’ You know what the number one answer was? Times of suffering and pain.

The Washington Post conducted a survey of Hurricane Katrina survivors. These are survivors who ended up in the city of Houston. The survey asked them about their faith in God. Here is what is interesting, 81% said the ordeal of the hurricane had strengthened their belief, while only 4% said that it weakened it.

See, hardship, men and women, is normal. Part of what Paul is trying to communicate to Timothy, and to us is, ‘Don’t fall for that defective, faulty presupposition that we tend to make and that life is just to be smooth and that we can coast.’

So, he says there, “Suffer hardship with me.” In order to underscore all of this, he is going to share three analogies. So, remember what we are doing here. We are learning about handling hardship and the first thing he says is that if we are going to handle hardship we need to avoid the common error. The second thing we need to do is, we need to learn from life analogies and he is going to deliver three of them here.

“Suffer hardship with me,” he says, “as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.”

It is kind of interesting to see how frequently Paul uses military metaphors in his letters. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise because he spent his entire first imprisonment actually chained to a guard, who was with him in his own living quarters all the time. So, it seems like Paul just had this interaction, probably had a lot of discussions, so you see a lot of military metaphors in his writing.

You know, military things are very inspiring. They are to me. I love the motto of the Marines, Always Faithful.

The Coast Guard, the U.S. Coast Guard has an interesting motto, Always Ready, Always There.

Then, the U.S. Air Force recently, a few years ago, came out with a new motto, their new motto is, Aim High, Fly, Fight, Win.

There is just something about military analogies that are very, very inspiring. What he is really saying, I think is, that living our Christian life is very much life being a soldier. As we have heard it said, being a soldier is the toughest job you will ever love. The Christian life can be very much the same way, the toughest job you will ever love.

See, for a soldier, hardship is part of the job description. In each of these analogies I believe there is a main lesson he wants to communicate to us, so here is the main lesson from the analogy of being a soldier. That is, focus on the commander.

Notice he says there in verse 4, “No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life.” Now, some have gone to this passage of Scripture where it says that no soldier entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life and they have said some rather weird interpretations. For example, some people would say this means that if you are a believer, a follower of Jesus, you don’t want to get involved in everyday life stuff, so that means that you should not get married, because that gets you entangled in everyday affairs.

Some people would say it means you shouldn’t own anything because when you own stuff then you are involved with everyday affairs.

Some people have said that what this means is that the only legitimate vocation anyone should have would be full-time ministry not everyday life stuff. Of course, that is just nonsensical because if we were all full-time in ministry we wouldn’t be making any money because we would all be in full-time ministry.

So, there are a lot of strange interpretations that have come from this, but what is he really talking about when he talks about the affairs of everyday life? I think he is talking about what we might call the lesser things, and they are only lesser because they are temporary. Remember we said, before in our study, what are the two things that are eternal in this world? What are they? Remind me.

God’s Word and people.

The key phrase here in verse 4 is that phrase ‘entangles.’ I think the New Living Translation says, ‘Don’t become tied up with the affairs of everyday life.’ Don’t become so tied up and so entangled that we are distracted from following the commander’s directives.

Someone has said that a distracted soldier is a defeated soldier. “No soldier in active service entangles himself,” becomes overly tied up and entangled in all these things, “so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.”

One thing we cannot do in life is, we cannot choose our circumstances. Another thing we cannot do in life is, we cannot control people. But, there is one thing that we definitely can do and that is, choose where our focus is going to be. When we are in hardship, we need to remember to focus on the Commander.

In Hebrews, chapter 12, verse 2, it talks about, using the analogy of a race there, how we are to do that, fixing our eyes on Jesus. Do you remember that? As we are facing hardship we keep our eyes on Him. See, the core goal of a soldier is to please his commander. To hear from him, ‘Well done, good and faithful soldier.’

So, if we are going to handle adversity, we need to learn from these life analogies. The first one is that of a soldier, but there is a second one that he parades out for us and that is the analogy, the life analogy, of being an athlete.

Notice verse 5, “Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” There are many of us who love sports. I am one of them. I really love college football. I really love college basketball, I can’t wait until tournament time to come around every year and I have really grown to love the Oklahoma City Thunder [professional basketball team]. I like a lot about sports. You know what? I think Paul was a lot the same way. I think Paul really enjoyed sports, it is interesting to see as he writes, the imagery that he goes to. He uses imagery of boxing in his writing. He uses imagery of running the race, he uses imagery from the wrestling world and he uses imagery from the Olympic games. He is now going to use this analogy of athletics and sports to teach us something about handling hardship.

We have a very common saying that goes around in the sports world today, it says, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.’ How many people have ever heard that phrase? I think Paul would change the wording a little bit. I think his wording would be like this, ‘Whether you win or lose depends on how you play the game.’

The main lesson, remember the main lesson on a soldier was focus on the commander, the main lesson on an athlete is, dedication to the code. Look again at verse 5, “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize,” key phrase, “unless he competes according to the rules.” Of course, in those days, when they talked about a prize, it wasn’t a cash prize, it was a victor’s crown that they would get. But, you don’t win the victor’s crown unless you compete according to the rules.

We have the same concept in our sports world today, right? If you don’t compete according to some of the rules, you’re not going to win the victor’s crown. We have that with performance enhancing drugs in our sports world. We have Roger Clements in baseball, you have Lance Armstrong in cycling. Some of them even gain certain honors and then they lost certain honors.

We see that in our sports world when it comes to violating playing rules, if you violate the playing rules, you can be disqualified for the game or you can be disqualified for the season. I think of the National Football League, the professional league, and the New Orleans Saints, and some of the things that were going on in their football world. They violated some of the rules. We even see it in both college and pro football, if you are a football fan, where if you hit somebody high with your head gear and there is going to be a penalty and the potential disqualification and they are talking about making that even stronger in the coming seasons.

So it is, Paul is saying, in the Christian life. Even though we may be facing hardship, even though we may be fatigued, even though we may be surrounded by troubling circumstances, even though we may be experiencing relationship struggles, if we are going to handle hardship, we need to still live by God’s code. We need to still live by the commander’s rules if we want to receive the crown.

Really, when we talk about God’s code and God’s rules, we are talking about this book [Bruce holds up his Bible]. We are talking about passages, for example, like Ephesians 4:28, when it says, “Let him who steals, steal no longer.” That is part of the code.

It is interesting to me how many times people who profess to be Christians, are involved in embezzling money. Now, they always have some kind of reason, maybe they were in a financial crisis, or whatever, or they wanted more things. But, they embezzled money.

Stealing happens in another way on the campus, where people cheat. It is interesting, there is a story in today’s Daily Oklahoman [local newspaper] about how cheating is on the rise at the University of Oklahoma. It is just part of the code. Some people say, ‘I’m under the pressure…the hardship…I’ve got to get this such and such…’ Wait a minute, now, it’s not the way that you handle hardship.

In I Thessalonians, chapter 4, verses 3 and 4 it says, “For this is the will of God, that you abstain from sexual immorality,” it is that word that includes all sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman, “that each of you know how to possess his own vessel,” or body, “in sanctification,” or in holiness, “and honor.” Part of the code.

This includes all sexual sin, whether it is sexual sin of people who are single or sexual sin of people who are married. It is a damaging violation of the code and there may be hardship that makes us lean in to wanting to do those things, but we should not violate the commander’s code.

Another example of this is I Timothy 6:17, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world,” and I always say that is most of us in the western world. If you have a vehicle or a car, you are in that group, “Instruct them not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God,” and you know, it is amazing how often the love of money and stuff has side-tracked many people who name the name of Jesus Christ.

If we are going to handle hardship, we need to avoid the common error and we need to learn from these life analogies. You have the analogy of the soldier, you have the analogy of the athlete.

The third analogy he is going to mention is the analogy of a farmer. Look at that in verse 6, he says, “The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops.” And here is what I think the main lesson is about this farmer analogy, the main lesson is, diligence with the end in mind. He describes the farmer as the hard-working farmer in verse 6. How many people grew up around a farm? Let me just see some hands out there. Quite a number of you. Did you notice that the harvest does not automatically appear and automatically march into the barn? No, you have to go out, you have to plow, you have to plant, you have to fertilize, you have to water, you have to harvest, you have to transport. All that means sweat and it means aching muscles and it means exhaustion. You have to also battle the weeds and you have to battle the pests and you have to battle the weather, especially in the plains states.

I did my pastoral internship in Sterling, Kansas, which is wheat country supreme. While I was there, that one particular summer, they had a great wheat crop coming up, but this hail storm came and it just shattered the heads of the wheat in the fields. I was watching the reaction of the farmers. It would have been pretty easy for them to say, ‘Why bother doing this? I think I will just quit being a farmer.’ No, what I saw from them was this dogged persistence. What was driving them through that adversity? It was the potential benefit of a harvest, they were thinking about the reward of a sweet harvest that will come eventually, so okay, that happened with that one, but we’re going to replant, we’re going to do it again, because they were focused on the harvest.

Too often I think what happens in the Christian life, as we face adversity, as we battle disappointment, as we are facing emotional pain or rejection or failure, we just choose to quit rather than battling through and keeping our eyes focused on the potential harvest ahead.

All effective farmers understand one thing. That is something called delayed gratification. Farmers understand. See, the world wants to sell us a different direction, you know, ‘Get it now, if it feels good, you just do it, why wait? Just go out and charge it, satisfy yourself first.’ The farmers say, ‘Wait a minute, now, this is all about delayed gratification.’ Part of what he is saying to us is, we need to learn and become familiar with that term ourselves in our Christian life, delayed gratification. We need to learn from the farmer. We need to learn from that principle of delayed gratification.

Those of you who have been around Wildwood know that when we work our way through Scripture, it is very common for us to pause and say, ‘What life response can we have to what we have looked at so far here in part number one?’ What is interesting to me is that Paul includes his own life response. I don’t have to do anything here, it is right there in verse 7. He says, “Consider what I say.” The NIV says, “Reflect on what I say.” What is he saying to you and to me? He says, ‘What we need to do, having looked at what we have looked at today is, we need to step back and reflect. We need to ask, ‘What is this saying about my life? What is this saying about my attitudes? What is this saying about my choices?’

I am going to be very blunt for just a moment and I am going to criticize us as a culture. One of our problems, as a culture is, we are too busy. We are too distracted. Frankly, at times, I think we are just too lazy. Then, hardship comes and it runs right over the top of us. We need to step back and reflect, he is saying. The things we’ve looked at today, how does this apply to my life? What does God want me to learn from the verses that we have looked at today? To reflect on when haven’t I handled hardship well? Where was the breakdown in my perspective? To ask ourselves, how am I handling hardship in my Christian life?

From the analogy of the soldier we learn that we need to focus on the commander. From the analogy of the athlete we need to remember dedication to the code. From the analogy of the farmer we need to remember diligence with the end in mind.

I want you to go back, for a moment, and think about that nine out of ten. In many cases of that nine out of ten they took their eyes off of the commander. In many cases of that nine out of ten they jettisoned their commitment to God’s word. In many cases of that nine out of ten, they chose instant gratification over delayed gratification. Not a great mystery.

A soldier sets his sights on victory, an athlete sets his sights on the winner’s crown, and the farmer sets his sights on the coming harvest. Look at verse 7 again, “Consider what I say, for,” here comes the promise, “The Lord will give you understanding in everything.” He is ready to give all the wisdom and insight we need. He is ready to do it.

I want to close our time together, and then we will sing, with a little thing called the soldier’s pledge. This has been around for a while, it has gone around in Baptist’s circle and has come out in different forms and I have done a little editing of it myself. Here is the soldier’s pledge.

I am a soldier of the army of my God. The Lord Jesus Christ is my commanding officer, the Bible is my code of conduct. Faith, prayer and the Word are my weapons of warfare. I have been taught by the Holy Spirit, trained by experience, tried by adversity and tested by fire. I am enlisted for eternity. I will either retire in this army at the rapture or die in this army, but I will not get out, sell out or be talked out. If my God needs me, I am here and ready. I am a soldier, I am not a baby. I do not need to be pampered, petted, pumped up, picked up, or pepped up. I am not a wimp. I am in place saluting my King, obeying His orders, praising His name and building His kingdom. I am committed. I cannot have my feelings hurt bad enough to turn me around. I cannot be discouraged enough to turn me aside. I cannot lose enough to cause me to quit. When Jesus called me into this army, I had nothing. If I end with nothing, I will still come out way ahead. My God will supply all my needs, I am more than a conqueror. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I am a soldier, even death cannot destroy me. When my commander calls me from this battlefield, he will promote me to captain and then bring me back to rule this world with Him. I am marching forward, claiming victory by faith. I will not give up, I will not turn aside or turn around. I am a soldier marching heaven bound. Here I stand. Will you stand with me?

Let’s pray together. Father, we just want to thank You again for Your word. I am always completely amazed at how practical it is and may we take some time, as we are encouraged, to consider what Paul has told us here, knowing that the guarantee is that the Lord will give us understanding in everything. We thank You, God, that You are a God that we can trust no matter what. And, we pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Questions for Reflection: (week four)

–At some point did you expect the Christian life to be easy or hard?  Why?

–Has there been a time when you fell victim to the “common error” [that the spiritual life would be relatively smooth sailing and trouble free…that His plan was basically to make you comfortable] and you found yourself disillusioned?  Fill in some details…

–If the Christian life is a race (and it is!) have you ever honestly felt like quitting?  If so, when and why?  What helped you the most in getting through that hardship?

–Did the statistic—that among those who start out at age 21 “sold out for Jesus” in full time ministry, only 1 of 10 are still on track at age 65—startle you?  Have you seen people “drop out” of the spiritual race after experiencing hardships?

–Which of the three metaphors (and the main lessons of each) do you most identify with and why?

–Have you experienced significant spiritual growth because of a time of suffering or hardship?  Another way of wording it would be, have you had an experience that you’d never wish on anyone, but something good came out of it?  Elaborate…

What is the top thing you believe that God wants you to learn/apply in handling hardship?

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