We all love to watch the occasional fail video, don’t we? What started years ago on primetime television has migrated to YouTube and become one of our beloved pastimes. Some of my favorites are “finish line fails,” compilations of athletes celebrating just a bit too soon.
In one of these finish line fails, an Olympic runner is nearing the end of his race, still going at a tremendous pace. He has swept around the final turn and is now just 15 or 20 meters from the finish line. Convinced that he has an insurmountable lead, he slows his pace, raises his arms in victory, and coasts toward the tape, savoring the adulation of the roaring crowd. But he has failed to keep a watchful eye on the competition, and another runner is far closer than he thinks. This second place runner sees his opportunity. Digging deep, he summons a last reserve of energy and surges forward. Just a step from the finish line he pushes past to claim the gold, an inch ahead of the careless runner.
As a Christian man, you are running the race of life and looking forward to victory. You are running to win! But like that embarrassed and disappointed Olympic athlete, it is imperative that you do not claim victory too soon. He, too, was running to win, but he let up. He neglected to maintain his pace and neglected to watch out for the competitor who was close behind. The arms that were raised in victory were soon forced to collapse in defeat. If you are to be victorious in your race, you must maintain your pace all the way to finish line.
So far in our series “Run to Win!” all that we have covered relates to character, to the inner man. I have encouraged you to embrace your purpose, to renew your mind, to know your doctrine, to practice your devotion, and to prioritize your church. These practices are all for growing in godliness, for exhibiting the Christ-like character God so values. In the articles that follow we will transition to the outer man, to areas related to life and relationships. But before we do that, I want to provide a sober call for watchfulness. If you are going to run to win, you need to maintain your vigilance.
Maintain Your Vigilance
I’ve heard it said that what distinguishes a world-class athlete from the hundreds of thousands who never quite make it is situational awareness. Wayne Gretzky remains the greatest hockey player to ever lace up a pair of skates, and he often attributes his success to counsel his father gave him when he was a boy: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” This required more than sheer speed or dexterity, though Gretzky had both in abundance. It required keen observation, constant awareness, and split-second decision-making. Gretzky had a unique sense of how players moved across the ice, how plays developed, and of where the puck would head. Most often, he would get there first, which is why he remains the all-time points leader with no close competition. It’s for good reason that he’s known throughout the hockey world simply as “The Great One.”
If you are going to run your race successfully, you need some of that situational awareness. You need to know that you are in a grueling competition and facing constant challenges from deadly enemies. You need to know where they are most likely to attack and where you are most likely to succumb to their unrelenting temptations. You need to be vigilant, expecting waves of assault and availing yourself of the defenses available to you.
Three Deadly Enemies
There are three great enemies you can be sure you will face from now until the day you break the tape in victory: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Maintain your vigilance against the world. We already encountered the biblical concept of “the world” when we looked at the importance of renewing your mind. The world is any system of values and way of living that opposes God and his Word and finds satisfaction in things that are temporal rather than eternal. Those who follow the patterns of the world become obsessed with “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16). They eschew future rewards in favor of fleeting satisfaction and prefer what they can have today to what God promises in the future. Even though you are a Christian, you remain prone to worldly desires and worldly thinking, both of which lead inevitably to worldly living. Worldliness presses in from around and surges out from within. You cannot avoid it, so must learn to resist it. The Bible warns you not to love the world, not to befriend it, not to be conformed to it, and not to behave like it. It warns that worldliness is the very opposite of godliness.
Maintain your vigilance against the flesh. The Bible often warns against “the flesh.” As a sinful human being, you are “fleshly”—you have a sinful nature that is opposed to God and craves satisfaction in that which he forbids. “Now the works of the flesh are evident,” says Paul, before providing a representative list: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21). When you live according to the flesh, you pursue such odious things. However, when you were saved by God, you were called to live by the Spirit and to begin to display very different attributes. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (22-23). You have a new nature that remains locked in moral combat with the flesh so that the great battle of your life is to put the flesh to death and to come alive to the Spirit. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:16-17).
Maintain your vigilance against the devil. As a Christian, you are also opposed by the devil himself. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Though the world and the flesh are powerful, they are at least inanimate. But the devil is a being who has desires and a mind and a personality. His desire is to destroy you, his mind schemes against you, and his personality is set against you. Just as he custom-crafted temptations to lead David to adultery and Peter to denial, he will custom-craft temptations suited to your weaknesses. His great desire is to promote and expose your sin, to cause you and those around you to doubt your profession of faith.
These are the deadly enemies you face each and every day. They are present and they are strong. Thankfully, though, God provides great defenses with which you can maintain your vigilance.
Three Great Defenses
Maintain your vigilance through prayer. When Paul wrote about the grim reality of spiritual warfare, he instructed Christians to “put on the whole armor of God” and, after explaining the nature of this armor, concluded with a solemn charge: “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…” (Ephesians 6:11,18). Vigilance is inseparable from prayer, which is why in another place he says, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2). Jesus himself told us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). Prayer is our first great defense against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Pray that God would protect you from their encroachment, and pray equally that he would expose and correct any of your particular temptations to sin.
Maintain your vigilance through self-examination. A second defense against your enemies is self-examination. This is using God’s Word to realistically assess your desires, your temptations, your habits, and your sanctification. You must do this in the light of Scripture, for only it “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). God’s Word tells you what is true about yourself, and you are responsible to heed its warnings.
Maintain your vigilance through the means of grace. God extends his grace to his people through very ordinary means. It is his good will to conform you to his image and maintain you in that image through Word, prayer, and fellowship. You must read the Word and pray in your home and in your church, in the quietness of your devotions and the chaos of your family, until you can truly say you are “constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12). You must enjoy Christian fellowship, primarily in the local church, gathering together to worship, to serve, to hear the Word preached, and to participate in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You can trust that it is God’s good pleasure to work through ordinary means to bring about extraordinary holiness. You cannot expect to thrive in the Christian life or to survive the onslaughts of your enemies if you neglect these most important means.
Do It Now
It is a negligent soldier who neglects his duty to watch when he knows the enemy is nearby. Your enemy is approaching right now, so here are a few ways to get started and then to persevere in vigilance.
- Pray. Pray and pray and pray.
- Know your areas of temptation. Where you have experienced and succumbed to temptation before, you are likely to experience it again. You will probably succumb to it again if you have not addressed that weakness of character.
- Enlist an ally. Tell your spouse or a friend where you battle temptation and enlist them to pray for you and to ask you probing questions. Commit to always answer those questions honestly. In the area of sexual sin and temptation, you will probably benefit from regularly confiding in a brother and allowing him to speak truth into your life.
- Trust the means of grace. Trust that God has appointed these means rather than others to promote zeal for godliness, to foster godliness, and to preserve godliness to the end. Trust them and take full advantage of them.
- Prioritize the Lord’s Supper. Make the celebration of the Lord’s Supper a special time of self-examination. When you know it is approaching, take the time to carefully examine yourself according to the Bible’s instruction: “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28).
It is both foolish and perilous to celebrate too early. The world, the flesh, and the devil thrive where there is apathy or pride, where you do not care to maintain watchfulness or where you do not consider it necessary. Conversely, these enemies wither before prayer, self-examination, and the ordinary means of grace. Until the day you are in the presence of the Lord, you must keep up your pace and keep a close eye on your enemies. If you are going to run to win, you must maintain your vigilance.