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In Matthew 11:12 (NIV), Jesus declared, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” Luke 16:16 is similar. What does this passage mean?
In what sense could it be said that the Kingdom of God was advancing forcefully? The statement must have surprised the disciples. They were expecting a kingly Messiah who would advance by military force to drive out the Roman occupiers, and restore the kingdom of Israel to the glory it had in the days of King David. They were puzzled and confused by a Messiah who showed no sign of doing any such thing. (See Acts 1:6.)
But in the spiritual sense, I think we can see that Jesus’ coming to earth was a frontal assault on the kingdom of satan.
With the Fall of Adam, satan had become “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30), the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). (Also see Ephesians 2:2; 1 John 5:19.) When, in the wilderness, satan offered to give Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” if Jesus would “worship” him (Matthew 4:8-9), satan had the authority to make the offer.
One reason Jesus came to earth was to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), to “destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). When Jesus brought God’s kingdom to earth, there were now two kingdoms, existing side by side: the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of God. (See Colossians 1:13.) There are “children of God” and “children of the devil” (1 John 3:10). (Also see John 8:42-47.)
Satan sensed this attack. He tempted Jesus. He tried many times to have him killed. Wherever Jesus went, the demons manifested. They sensed the threat, for they cried out, “Did You come to destroy us?” (Mark 1:24), “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29).
Shortly before his Crucifixion, Jesus declared, “Now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (John 12:31). Paul says of Jesus, “having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15).
The victory is not yet complete, but it is clear that, in the spiritual world, the kingdom of God has advanced forcefully with the coming of Jesus on earth.
What does it mean to say that “forceful men lay hold of it”? A look at some examples in which people have pressed in vigorously to the kingdom of God may be helpful.
EXAMPLES OF PRESSING IN TO
The Bible gives us a number of examples of pressing in, arising in many areas of Christian life. When we add them all together, they show that God wants us to pursue him, his gifts and his promises, with an intense passion.
BLIND BARTIMAEUS —As Jesus was passing by, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside. “When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Then many warned him to be quiet; but he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be called.” And he received his sight. Then Jesus commended him, saying, “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:47-49, 52). (The verb is sozo, which can mean “heal” but is more often used in the sense of “save.”)
Bartimaeus wanted one thing with all his heart. He wanted to see. He let nothing stop him. Many told him to be quiet, but he kept on crying out. We don’t know how long this went on; it could have been for some time. He would not be kept from the healing he sought. When Jesus commended his faith, I believe Jesus was saying that he had shown his faith by his persistence in the face of obstacles. Our faith is demonstrated by action, and this blind beggar demonstrated his by strong, persistent action against obstacles. He pressed in.
THE WOMAN WITH THE ISSUE OF BLOOD —On another occasion, as Jesus was walking, “A great multitude followed Him and thronged him.” They crowded around him. A woman, who had “had a flow of blood for twelve years,” pressed in, touched his cloak, and was healed. Jesus asked who had touched him, and she fell at his feet, “fearing and trembling.” Then Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:25, 33, 34). (Again, the verb is sozo, to save.) This woman persisted in the face of a number of obstacles:
Her urgent need motivated her to overcome all these obstacles and receive the healing she desired. Again I believe that it was because she pressed in, in spite of heavy obstacles, that Jesus praised her faith.
THE CANAANITE WOMAN —When Jesus was in the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite woman came “and cried out to Him, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.’ But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she cries out after us.’ But He answered and said, ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’ But He answered and said, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.’ And she said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered and said to her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed from that very hour.” (Matthew 15:22-28).
Again, we can see great persistence in spite of seeming rejection. And again, Jesus saw her persistence, her pressing in, as evidence of “great faith.”
THE PARALYTIC— Once there was a great crowd in the house where Jesus was. Some men came bringing a paralytic on a mat or bed. They could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd; so they made an opening in the roof and lowered the paralyzed man on his mat down to Jesus. “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven you.’” Then “He said to the paralytic, ‘Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.’ Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all” (Mark 2:5, 11-12).
The paralytic’s friends pressed in. It seemed impossible to get their friend to Jesus, but they found a way. They had to lift him up onto the roof (while on his mat), make a hole in the roof, and then lower him down into the dense crowd—an operation which must have involved both difficulty and danger. They must have risked the anger of the owner of the house at this damage to his dwelling. Jesus was impressed with their persistence in the face of seemingly insuperable obstacles. “When he saw their faith” he healed their friend.
THE LEPER —A leper came to Jesus and knelt before him, saying, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” He must have come quite close, because Jesus “put out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed’” (Mark 1:40-41). He was healed immediately. Luke says that the man was “full of leprosy” (Luke 5:12). He was doubtless grotesque and repulsive in appearance. Lepers in those days were not allowed to get within 6 feet of anyone. They were not supposed to speak to anyone. The Jewish teaching was that leprosy was a punishment for sin. Pharisees and others would have nothing to do with them. So the leper would appear to have violated several rules, and taken a great risk of rejection or punishment. Because his need was so great, he pressed in, in spite of the obstacles, and Jesus healed him.
“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1 NIV). The parable was that of the widow who kept insisting that an unjust judge give her justice. Jesus ended, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?…” (Luke 18:7 NIV).
Earlier he had told another parable about a man who needed bread to give a visitor. He knocked at his neighbor’s door at midnight to try to borrow bread. The neighbor at first refused, saying he was in bed, but eventually yielded. Jesus said, “Because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs” (Luke 11:8). (KJV has “importunity.” The word can mean recklessness or shamelessness.)
Then Jesus went on, “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10). The Greek verbs mean, “continue to ask,” “continue to seek,” “continue to knock.” It seems clear in context that Jesus is saying that if we keep on asking, seeking, and knocking with the same persistence as was shown by the man in the parable, we will receive.
It is those who seek God “with all your heart” who will surely find him (Jeremiah 29:13). God rewards “those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). It is the “fervent” prayer of a righteous man that accomplishes much (James 5:16). Paul says that “the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). Jesus says that it is right, and sometimes necessary, to “cry out” to God, day and night. All of these passages say that there needs to be an intensity and fervency in our prayers. There needs to be passion, and also persistence.
When Jesus was having dinner at the home of a Pharisee, a woman who had led a sinful life came in, wet his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, kissed them, and poured perfume on them. The Pharisee said to himself, “This man, if he were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.” But Jesus received her worship and told her, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:39, 48).
Not only did this woman come into the house uninvited, but she must have sensed the scorn and rejection in the face of the Pharisee and probably many of his guests. Pharisees would have nothing to do with “sinners,” particularly with immoral women. Yet she persisted in her act of worship and service, and received a great blessing.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). “Hunger” and “thirst” are words of desiring. They can mean a very intense desire. Strong’s Dictionary of the Greek Bible says that the Greek word for “hunger” means “famish,” from a related word meaning “starving.” The form, in the Greek, is “the hungering ones,” that is, those who keep hungering. “Thirst,” in the arid Near East, can often be an intense thirst. I believe this Beatitude speaks of an intense, continuing desire for God’s righteousness that may be filled at one level only to break out again at another level, and is completely satisfied only in heaven.
We see the same image in one of the Psalms. “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1-2). The image is that of a deer who desperately needs water for survival. Men and animals need water. They will die if they do not get water.
Jacob wrestled with God all night. (The passage speaks of wrestling with a man but later says he saw God face to face.) God lamed his hip but Jacob would not let go. Jacob said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me” (Genesis 32:24-30). Jacob persisted until he got his blessing.
We usually think of salvation as a free gift from God. All we have to do is to be willing to accept it. That is the way many of the Scriptures relating to salvation speak. But there is another thread in Scripture, which is often not noticed, and which seems to call for a vigorous effort on our part. We need to follow the whole counsel of Scripture. We cannot win salvation, or earn it, by our effort, but there are Scriptures that suggest that sometimes we receive it only after a good deal of effort. We may have to press in to receive it. The devil resists our being saved.
I believe Matthew 11:12 is talking about salvation. What does laying hold of the kingdom of God mean, if it does not include laying hold of the promise of salvation—a victorious life here on earth and eternal life in heaven? And Jesus says that it is forceful (or violent) men who lay hold of this salvation. But there is more.
ENTER THE NARROW DOOR —“Someone asked him, ‘Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to’” (Luke 13:23-24 NIV). (We know from Matthew 7:13-14 that the narrow gate or door leads to eternal life and the wide gate leads to destruction.) The verb “make every effort” (KJV “strive”) is agonizomai, closely related to our word “agony.” It means to struggle, to compete, to contend with an adversary, to contend for victory. It is in a continuing tense, “keep on striving.” It speaks of an intense struggle.
WORK OUT YOUR SALVATION —“…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12 NIV). The word “salvation” is soteria, the usual word for spiritual salvation. The verb “work out,” katergazomai, is from ergazomai, to toil, labor, work (the root of our words “energy” and “erg”—a measure of work) and the prefix kata which, according to Strong’s Dictionary of the Greek Bible, “frequently denotes opposition… or intensity.” The verb form involves continuous or repeated action. So we must continue to toil or labor against opposition to complete our salvation. It is an intense effort. We do it “with fear and trembling.”
THE PEARL OF GREAT PRICE —A different kind of intensity is expressed in one of Jesus’ kingdom parables. “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went away and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46). The picture is of a man who has devoted his life to an intense search. When he finally finds what he is seeking, he sacrifices everything he has in order to get it. He is happy to make the sacrifice for his joy in what he is to receive, but it is still a sacrifice. (Compare this with verse 44.) We see this in Paul’s life. Paul, who was a “comer” with a very promising future before him as a Pharisee, gave it all up “for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Philippians 3:8 KJV).
Scripture talks a good deal about the cost of following Jesus. Most of the early disciples faced persecution and many were martyred. Many Christians today, in Muslim and Communist countries, face severe persecution, economic hardship, and intense rejection by their families and friends. Some face martyrdom. Why are they willing to do so? Because they have such an intense desire for the kingdom of God!
Once we are saved, we start the process of growing to Christian maturity. This process has a number of aspects. Each of them, at times, calls for us to put forth significant effort.
BE HOLY —“As He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15). “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 NIV).
Being holy, or sanctification, is a necessary part of our Christian growth. Many Scriptures speak of this as something God does. (See, for example, John 17:17; 1 Peter 1:2.) But these verses speak of it as something we must decide to do and then do. “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 NIV). Even though God does it, we also must “make every effort” to be holy.
LIVE BY THE SPIRIT —The way to become holy is to live by the Holy Spirit, to live a life controlled by the Holy Spirit. Scripture makes it clear that this is a choice we must make, and that it requires constant application on our part. There is continuous conflict, warfare, between our sinful nature and the Holy Spirit within us. (See Chapter 15.)
We may have to take very strenuous measures to achieve victory in this warfare between the sinful nature and the Holy Spirit. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5-6 NIV). (Also see 1 Corinthians 15:31; Galatians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:24.)
Jesus put it vividly. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire—where ‘Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:43-48). Jesus is using vivid imagery, but the point is clear. Whatever you have to do to get rid of the sinful nature, do it. For example, this could involve breaking off a relationship which has been very important to you but is not godly.
BE TRANSFORMED — Scripture tells us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God, and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-3). (See Chapters 16 and 14.) Offering our bodies as living sacrifices requires decision and vigorous action on our part. So, at times, does the transformation—the metamorphosis—called for by this passage.
How do we achieve this transformation? In part it is by deliberately feeding our inner man with scripture, worship music, prayer, and sound teaching and preaching. By becoming filled with God’s word and allowing it to work in us (1 Thessalonians 2:13). By allowing the word of God to be “engrafted” in us (James 1:21 KJV). This takes a conscious decision and constant application.
In part it is by recognizing every false belief, attitude, and action, and by confronting it with the truth of God’s word, and deciding to live by God’s truth. This is part of the daily, even hourly or minute-by-minute, process of “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). It is part of the process of throwing off everything that hinders us (Hebrews 12:1). It takes watchfulness, determination and effort on our part.
PUT ON THE NEW SELF —Scripture refers to this transformation as putting off the old self and putting on the new self, which is “…created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24 NIV). (Also see Colossians 3:9-10.) This is a gradual process. It requires repeated decisions. “Which self am I being in this matter? Which self do I want to be?” It requires action.
HOLD FIRMLY TO THE WORD —“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:2 NIV). We are reconciled to God by Christ’s death “if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel…” (Colossians 1:23 NIV). (Also see Colossians 2:6.) “…stand firm andhold to the teachings we passed on to you…” (2 Thessalonians 2:15 NIV). “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you…” (2 Timothy 1:14 NIV). “…be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position” (2 Peter 3:17 NIV). (Also see 2 John 8.) These call for vigilance, diligence and determination.
Jesus warned against deception (Matthew 24:4), false teaching (Matthew 16:12) and false prophets (Matthew 7:15). Paul warned that in later times “some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). He warned against being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (Ephesians 4:14). He speaks of those who have “…wandered from the faith…” (1 Timothy 6:21 NIV). (Also see 2 Timothy 2:18.) Peter warns against “false teachers” who will “secretly bring in destructive heresies” and whom many will follow (2 Peter 2:1). John wrote, “…do not let anyone lead you astray…” (1 John 3:7 NIV). Jude warns of false teachers and then tells us to be “building yourselves up in your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20).
Hebrews is full of warnings about falling away from true faith. “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1 NIV). “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12 NIV). “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Hebrews 6:11-12 NIV). “…let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess…” (Hebrews 10:23 NIV). “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere, so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (Hebrews 10:35-36 NIV). Do not “…grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3 NIV). “Therefore strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” (Hebrews 12:12 NIV). “See to it that no one misses the grace of God…” (Hebrews 12:15 NIV). “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks…” (Hebrews 12:25 NIV). “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings…” (Hebrews 13:9 NIV).
Our protection from falling away or being carried away lies in three things, all of which take continuing effort.
WE MUST BE ALERT — “…watch out…” (Romans 16:17 NIV). “…pay more careful attention…” (Hebrews 2:1 NIV). “Be on your guard…” (1 Corinthians 16:13 NIV). “Beware” (Colossians 2:8).
WE MUST CONSCIOUSLY FILL OURSELVES WITH TRUE TEACHING — “building yourselves up on your most holy faith” (Jude 20).
WE MUST HOLD TO THE TRUTH — “…hold firmly…” (1 Corinthians 15:2 NIV; Titus 1:9 NIV). “…hold unswervingly…” (Hebrews 10:23 NIV). “…continue in the faith” (Colossians 1:23). The image is that of someone who holds on with all his strength to something that others are trying to take away from him.
Throwing Off the Things That Hinder
In order to become mature Christians, we must make a determined effort to get rid of those things that hinder our growth to maturity. Scripture tells us, “…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles…” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV). This passage lists two things—things that hinder, and sin. We need to get rid of sin, because it gives the devil a foothold. But there may be things that hinder us which are not sins. If they hinder us, we need to get rid of them. Note also the energy of the verb. We don’t just discard these things, or let them drop. We throw them off. We hurl them as far away as we can. We make a conscious and vigorous effort to get rid of them. This may take a strenuous effort. My experience is that we have to keep fighting these hindrances. Part of this is because we have a spiritual enemy (the devil) who wants to use them to keep us from being effective and fruitful.
God has given us spiritual weapons with divine power to demolish strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:5). He has given us everything we need for the life he wants us to lead (2 Peter 1:3). It is up to us to use what he has given us and to throw off every hindrance. This takes decision, determination and persistence on our part. It is a necessary part of growing to maturity.
A hindrance is anything that gets in the way. It may be an addiction, a habit, an ingrained pattern of behavior, a built-in mindset, a preconception, a blind spot, or anything else that gets in the way of our growth. My sense is that each person has his own set of hindrances, and that part of our job is to find out what they are. But I think there are some kinds of hindrances that tend to be major problems for almost everybody. I want to identify some of these in what follows. But first, here is another poem by my wife.
UNFORGIVENESS— Jesus told us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He went on to say, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV).
In Matthew, chapter 18, Jesus returned to this theme. He told Peter that we need to keep forgiving over and over (Matthew 18:21-22). Then he told a parable of a servant whose master forgave him a tremendous debt, so large that it was impossible to pay off. The servant then refused to forgive a small debt owed him by a fellow servant. The master “…turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed” (Matthew 18:34 NIV). Since his debt was so large that it was impossible for him to pay it, this means eternal torment. Jesus added, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35 NIV).
The application is clear. God has forgiven each of us a tremendous debt, a debt we could never pay off, when he brought us to salvation and forgave our sins. But if we do not forgive the relatively small things that other people owe us or have done to us, God will turn us over to eternal torment.
Unforgiveness is a very serious matter. Consider this. We can enter into eternal life in heaven because God has forgiven our sins. They are forgiven and he no longer sees them. Otherwise we could not enter heaven, because no sin can be permitted in heaven. But if we do not forgive our fellow men, then our sins are not forgiven. How can we then enter eternal life in heaven? I say this, not to raise a theological issue, but simply to emphasize the extreme seriousness of unforgiveness.
At times, to forgive may be very difficult. It requires decision. It requires “going against the grain.” It may come only after a struggle. It may take pressing in.
BITTERNESS— “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15 NIV). Bitterness causes trouble and defiles many. Bitterness eats up the one who is bitter. It makes it almost impossible for that person to give thanks to God, or even to recognize the ways in which God has been blessing him. It makes it almost impossible for him to find the peace or the joy that God has for him. Bitterness towards others can lead to bitterness towards God. Bitterness is very destructive. It does far more damage to the bitter person than it does to the one he is bitter against. Whenever we find it in ourselves, we must decide to get rid of it, and then do whatever we must to get rid of it. This is often difficult and takes effort, but it is necessary.
VICTIM MENTALITY— One of satan’s deadliest devices is what we may call a victim mentality. One who has a victim mentality sees himself as constantly acted on by forces beyond his control. He sees himself as helpless and defeated. He sees himself as unjustly treated. He sees himself as doomed to constant failure. Such a person has lost sight of the fact that God is in charge, and God is greater than any circumstances or problems he may face.
The person with a victim mentality is at the mercy of the circumstances around him. God does not want us to be at the mercy of the circumstances. He wants us to rise above the circumstances, and to say, “Whatever the circumstances, I can, in God’s power, overcome the circumstances. I am not a victim. I am an overcomer.” There is a story about a pastor who asked a man how he was doing. “Pretty well, under the circumstances,” was the reply. “I am sorry to hear it,” said the pastor. “We should never be under the circumstances.”
FEAR— God does not want us to live in fear. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1-2 KJV).
Fear is the opposite of faith. When the disciples were afraid because of the storm on Lake Galilee, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Matthew 8:26 NIV). When Jairus learned that his daughter had died, Jesus said to him, “Do not be afraid; only believe” (Mark 5:36). We fear because our faith is weak, our trust in God is weak.
I am not talking about occasional moments of fear. Many of us have those, and sometimes they are what lead us to call on the Lord for help. Many soldiers go into battle in spite of being afraid. But those who are fearful much of the time, or who have long stretches of fear, need to recognize the problem and deal with it. This kind of fear can shut you down and make you ineffective. All of us have to deal with fear from time to time. We need to catch it whenever it begins to appear, and make a conscious decision to replace it with faith.
DOUBT— Closely related to fear is doubt. Doubt also is the opposite of faith. When Peter, after walking on the water for a while, began to sink, Jesus said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). Doubt, like fear, can shut us down. James says that, when a person prays to God for something, “…he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (James 1:6-8 NIV).
What I find often happens is that I believe one thing in my mind, but in my heart I do not yet believe it. I think I believe something, and then I find myself thinking or saying things contrary to that belief. I need to make a conscious effort to stop saying or thinking things contrary to what Scripture says, and to make a conscious decision that I will follow the words of Scripture. This is part of taking thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
DISCOURAGEMENT —One of the devil’s greatest attacks on us is discouragement. If he can take away our hope and our courage, if he can get us to feel that nothing is working out right, that we have no prospects and no future, he will have done a lot to keep us from functioning effectively. We need constantly to fight against discouragement. We need to keep reminding ourselves of our position in Christ, and the incomparably great power which God has made available to us. We need to remind ourselves that we can do all things through Christ’s strength (Philippians 4:13), and that God works out all things for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28). We must make a conscious effort not to give in to discouragement.
We also need to encourage others. (See, for example, 1 Thessalonians 5:11.) As we sow encouragement, we shall reap encouragement.
WHY DO WE NEED TO STRIVE?
Why do we need to strive, to be forceful? Let me suggest a few reasons:
Are We Serious About God?
Sometimes God wants to be sure that we are serious, that we mean business with him. Jesus had many followers. Only a few of them became disciples, and it was to the disciples that he devoted most of his training effort. Do we seek salvation just as an insurance policy against eternal damnation, or do we genuinely seek to accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ and serve him?
God is primarily interested in developing our character. Often the best way to develop character is to have to struggle against obstacles. (See Chapter 19.)
The Flesh Fights Against the Spirit
When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and allow the Holy Spirit to enter into us, there inevitably begins a struggle, a warfare, between the old self and the new self, between the desires of the flesh and the Holy Spirit. That struggle is not resolved until the Holy Spirit has won complete control over our soul and body. (See Chapter 15.)
The Devil’s Opposition
The devil seeks to kill, steal and destroy. If he cannot prevent us from being saved, he will seek to lead us into falsehood so that we will do his work. If he cannot do that, he will seek to shut us down and make us ineffective. We need constantly to struggle against the devil. (See Chapter 12.)
God does not want lukewarm Christians (Revelation 3:16). He wants men and women who will love him “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). It is those who seek him “with all your heart” who find him (Jeremiah 29:13). He wants total commitment.
We cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). We must not be “double minded” (literally, “two-souled”) (James 1:8). We cannot conform to the pattern of this world, and at the same time expect to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). There are things in us that we have to put to death if we would live by the Spirit.
In these difficult days, I believe God wants to raise up Christians to a new level of intensity. In order for this to occur, we may have to cry out for it, seek it with everything in us, hunger and thirst for it.
But we need to remember that in our striving we strive with his mighty power, not our power. “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Ephesians 6:10). We need to know “the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:19). When we rely on his mighty power, we can, indeed, be “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37). We can overcome every adversity through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:12-13).