Finding Yourself: Finishing Strong

2 Timothy 4:7

 

We’re bringing our series on Finding Yourself to a conclusion this morning. I hope it’s prompted you to do some searching of your own. I came across Eugene Peterson’s translation of Ephesians 1:11 the other day and it really defines that search: “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.” And that has been the center of our search. Only in Christ will we find ourselves. But that search really doesn’t end when we discover ourselves. It is an ongoing, life-long pursuit, and rather than get us to a place where we can coast, we need to commit ourselves to finishing strong.

 

Carl McCahn moved from Texas to Alaska in the late 1970’s. He took a trucking job on the Trans-Alaska pipeline. He fell in love with the land and he concocted an amazing adventure – a five month photography expedition in the wild. He devoted a year to planning the trip, soliciting advice, checking details and purchasing supplies. Then in March 1981 he hired a bush pilot to fly him in and drop him off at a remote lake near the Coleen River, 70 miles northeast of Ft. Yukon. He took 2 rifles, a shotgun, 1400 pounds of provisions and 500 rolls of film. He set up his tent and set about his season of isolation, photographing the beauty of nature and wildlife around him, blissfully unaware of the one detail he had overlooked in all of his preparation. It didn’t dawn on him until August that he had forgotten to arrange for someone to come and pick him up. As the days shortened and the temperature dropped, snow began to blanket his camp sight and make it impossible to exit by land. By November his food and supplies had run out. When the state troopers discovered his body the following February they found a hundred page loose-leaf diary by his bedside. McCahn had written, “I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure.”

 

You may remember a book written several years ago by Stephen Covey, entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. And the second habit was: “begin with the end in mind.” And what that means is that you begin with a clear understanding of your intended destination so that the steps you take are always in the right direction. And that chapter of the book invites you to visualize yourself at a funeral – your own, and there are four speakers at your funeral: one from your family, one of your friends, one from your work, and a fourth from your church. And he asks you to think about what you would want each of them to say about you in each of those areas of your life. How did your life look in retrospect? Did you accomplish the things you wanted to accomplish? Did you invest your life in the things you considered priorities? Did you value the things that really are valuable?

 

Max Lucado, in his book The Cure for the Common Life, phrases the same thought this way: “read your life backward.” Steve Farrar wrote a great book for men entitled Finishing Strong. Each of these book highlights a dimension of our search to find ourselves that we sorely neglect. We focus our search on the present; we want to know who we are. And while there is value in the now – having a good grasp of who you are with all your strengths and weaknesses transparent before you – there is even more value in having a solid picture of who you want to be.

 

We have a tendency to go where life takes us, riding the flow of the river. We take life as it comes and don’t think about the destination ahead. We certainly don’t like to think about death or funerals. And so when it comes to our search for self we don’t give much thought to where it is leading us. As one bumper sticker puts it: If I die penniless I will have planned it perfectly. We don’t consider our exit strategy.

 

Now, I’m not trying to wax philosophical here. I’m just saying that a part of our search for self needs to take into account the long haul and the destination at the end.

 

Will you finish your life strong? We all assume we will. We don’t plan on having a mid-life crisis in our forties; we don’t count on throwing away our marriage in our fifties; we don’t plan to abandon our spiritual life in our sixties. But it’s mind-boggling how many people actually do exactly that.

 

When the apostle Paul writes to his young son in the faith, Timothy, he warns him of certain dangers ahead: “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith.” (1 Tim 1:18-19) And that’s an appropriate figure of speech, because so many young people ride along on smooth seas and think life’s pretty easy and success comes with little effort and they don’t give much thought to the future.  And then the storm hits and suddenly their life is turned upside down and their marriage is threatened or their job evaporates or their faith is rocked and they feel shipwrecked and set adrift on a sea of uncertainty.

 

Paul tells Timothy to “fight the good fight.” Near the end of his own life, Paul writes to Timothy again and says “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7) Paul is talking about finishing strong and making sure that the destination you end at is the one you intended.

 

In order to finish strong you have to do three things:

 

1)         Know where you’re going

2)         Have a plan to get there

3)         Work your plan

 

I know you’re disappointed. You wanted some brilliant master plan, but it’s not that hard.

 

I remember hearing about Will Rogers giving a speech sometime during WWII. The German U-boats were really giving the navy difficulty finding them and sinking them. Rogers said he had given President Roosevelt this advice: “Just heat up the oceans until the u-boats rise to the surface and then torpedo them. I’ll leave the details up to the experts.”

 

So while it’s simple, it’s not easy. I hope that you have a pretty good handle on number one – know where you’re going. If you were to read your life backward, I would hope your intention is to find yourself with God in heaven for all eternity. If it is anything other than that, your dream will die with you at the grave. And it won’t matter how wonderful a career you had, how rich you became, how big a family you had. If your goal in life is anything else but to be with God in heaven none of that will matter.

 

Now, your plan to get there will involve multiple decisions along the way. But if your goal is heaven, everyone of those decisions will be predicated upon that one primary decision of where you want to go. Along that journey you’re going to make decisions about what you will do for a career, where you will go to school, whom you will marry, where you will live, what church you will be a part of, how you will use your gifts to serve God, etc. And you will chart out a course in accomplishing each of those, but if your end-game goal is to be with God in heaven, then that will affect every other one of those points along the path.

 

And then finally, work your plan. And that’s where the rub comes, because for all of our best laid plans, for all of our good intentions, life gets in the way.

 

As a young man, King David had such great intentions – God called him “a man after my own heart.” But David made some choices along the way that put his ultimate goal in serious jeopardy. His adultery with Bathsheba, his failures as a father, his betrayal of his friends, his vengeance on his enemies. Now, David had a heart for God, and when he sinned he followed up with sincere and genuine repentance – he always came back to God. But I’m sure there were times when even God shook his head and said, “David, what are you doing?”

 

David’s son Solomon began his reign as king with noble intentions to be a faithful leader of God’s people, but his unholy alliances with foreign nations, his obsession with attaining wives and concubines, many of whom led him astray from God, shipwrecked his kingdom and shortly after his death, Israel divided, never to be united again.

 

And I believe David’s story and Solomon’s story with all their failings and character flaws laid out for us to see are in the Bible to make that point. You may have great potential and wonderful intentions and godly goals, but be careful that you follow through, or Satan will shipwreck you on the rocks of life.

 

If you want to finish strong, you need to intentionally build into your life some guardrails to keep you from running off the road.

 

Guardrail #1

The first guardrail is to Satan-proof your faith.

 

What does it take to protect your faith from the dangers and pitfalls that threaten it? Paul talked about “guarding your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” and listen to the things he said are key to that: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such thing things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil 4:6-9)

 

The first thing Paul mentions is prayer. Prayer is our intimate connection with God. It is our lifeline of communication.

 

Suppose your husband or wife never checked in with you, never told you what was going on in their life, didn’t have anything to say to you before they left in the morning or anything to say when they came home in the evening. You went to bed without a word said or a glance exchanged. You went about your lives separately and disconnectedly. Then one day you overheard your husband or wife talking to a friend saying how much in love you are with each other and how committed they are to your marriage. What would you think? Would you wonder what they were talking about?

 

Suppose a Christian is always talking about how committed they are to God and how much they love the Lord and try to live for him. They go to church every Sunday and study the Bible every day. But the truth is they never pray – never say a word to God, never let him know what’s going on in their life or the struggles they are going through. How seriously would you take their commitment to God? How strong would you say their relationship with the Lord is?

 

There is a vital connection between prayer and our relationship with God. It is not just an obligation, it is a privilege. God seeks us and invites in to his life. He welcomes us into a relationship in which we can trust him with everything. But he wants us to talk to him, to let him know the joys and struggles, the victories and defeats; he wants to hear our requests and our concerns – he wants us to ask for those things we need. And he wants our praise and thanksgiving.

 

In our search for ourselves, prayer is one of our greatest resources. Prayer takes us before the throne of God and lays out our lives before him with such transparency and vulnerability. And that’s where we learn to trust God – depending on him to lead us and guide us and protect us and provide for us. And we learn that he is faithful and merciful and full of grace.

 

If you develop the habit of prayer and spend time everyday with the Father, you will find your life impenetrable by Satan’s weapons. And the reason so many fall to his attacks is that they are missing the power of prayer in their lives.

 

The other thing that Paul said will guard our hearts and our minds, is to immerse ourselves in the things that are true and noble and right and pure. When we fill our minds with the things of this world – consumed by the desires and the values and the filth of this world, we put ourselves at great risk. Instead, spend time everyday in his word – expose your heart and your mind to the things of God, fill your life with the things that are admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.

 

Alongside prayer, you need to make a daily habit of spending time reading from God’s Word. It will keep you rooted in God’s will for your life.

 

And if you spend time in prayer and in his Word, Paul promises “the peace of God will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

 

Guardrail #2

A second guardrail you need in order to stay on track and  finish strong is to divorce-proof your marriage.

 

Let me tell you that one of the greatest dangers married couples face is getting lazy. And what I mean is we start taking each other for granted, we quit treating each other with kindness and respect. All those things we did to woo and win our beloved when we were dating, somewhere along the way, we quit doing. We got lazy.

 

And you would be surprised at how many couples divorce after being married for 25 years or 35 years. In a recent article in the NY Times, it said that while the divorce rate overall is going down, the rate of divorce for those over 50 has doubled in the last twenty years. You would think by then, your marriage would be safe, but it’s at a greater risk than ever primarily because we quit working on our relationships.

 

And so, if you are married, I want to challenge you to never quit working on your marriage. You need to divorce-proof your marriage by doing these two simple things:

 

1) Don’t quit dating. The word that kept appearing in that article in the Times about divorce after 50 was “stagnant.” Those couples don’t hate each other, they’re bored with each other.

 

All those things that won his or her heart are the things that are going keep that romance alive. Treat each other as special and precious; remind each other often how much you love one another. Instead of spending less effort through the years, spend more effort making your loved one feel special. Always give your husband or your wife your best, not what’s leftover – give them the best of your time, your attention, your affection.

 

2)  Don’t quit going to church. In her book The Good News About Marriage, Shaunti Feldhahn tracked the divorce statistics inside and outside the church. She found that the actual overall divorce rate around the country is 31 percent. For those couples who share their faith and go to church regularly it is half that at 15 percent. Making God a part of your relationship and sharing your spiritual lives together makes a huge difference – not only in the longevity of your marriage, but the quality and strength of your relationship.

 

Guardrail #3

The last guardrail you need to finish strong is to eternity-proof your goals.

 

I’m not much for sports metaphors, but there is one that is true of almost every sport, whether you’re swinging a bat, a tennis racket, or a golf club; casting a lure, throwing a baseball, shooting a basket – if you don’t follow through, you’re going to fall short.

 

Most of us start strong. We have good intentions, admirable goals, noble aspirations, and we launched with great enthusiasm for life. We were going to change the world. At some point we realized we might not change the world, but we still hoped to make an impact in this hemisphere. Then came the reality check that we would be doing well just to manage our little corner of the world.

 

That doesn’t mean you settle for less than your best. It’s not excuse to give up on your goals. But life is all about priorities. What are the goals in my life that are worth pursuing to the end? What are the parts of my life that need to come ahead of all the others? What are those things that, if I pursue them, they will require me to sacrifice more important priorities?

 

So, in order to finish strong, you need to choose those things that are most important to you and focus your life on those. That brings us back to that one ultimate goal of spending eternity with God in heaven. In the book of Revelation, Jesus sends letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor that are experiencing tremendous persecution for their faith – many are dying for their faith. And there is a recurring refrain in those letters, encouraging them to see the ultimate goal and staying true to that: “Be faithful, even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

 

 

There is no other goal more important; there is no other pursuit in life that can take higher priority; there is no obstacle or setback in life that we can allow to deter us from that one ultimate goal – to spend eternity with God. Wherever you are in life at this moment, determine to finish strong.

 

Let me leave you with a poem by C.D. Studd entitled, Only One Life.

 

“Two little lines I heard one day, 
Traveling along life’s busy way; 
Bringing conviction to my heart, 
And from my mind would not depart; 
Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only one life, yes only one, 
Soon will its fleeting hours be done; 
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet, 
And stand before His Judgment seat; 
Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

 

Only one life, the still small voice, 
Gently pleads for a better choice 
Bidding me selfish aims to leave, 
And to God’s holy will to cleave; 
Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only one life, a few brief years, 
Each with its burdens, hopes, and fears; 
Each with its clays I must fulfill, 
living for self or in His will; 
Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

When this bright world would tempt me sore, 
When Satan would a victory score; 
When self would seek to have its way, 
Then help me Lord with joy to say; 
Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Give me Father, a purpose deep, 
In joy or sorrow Thy word to keep; 
Faithful and true what e’er the strife, 
Pleasing Thee in my daily life; 
Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

 

Oh let my love with fervor burn, 
And from the world now let me turn; 
Living for Thee, and Thee alone, 
Bringing Thee pleasure on Thy throne; 
Only one life, “twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.

 

Only one life, yes only one, 
Now let me say, ”Thy will be done”; 
And when at last I’ll hear the call, 
I know I’ll say “twas worth it all”; 
Only one life, ’twill soon be past, 
Only what’s done for Christ will last.”