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THE GOOD HARD
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. 2 TIMOTHY 4:7
Grace is opposed to merit, but it is not opposed to effort. BRADLEY NASSIF
The seeds for this book were planted when I was five years old.
There was a bully in my neighborhood, a really big kid, maybe seven or eight years old, who could ride a two-wheel bicycle. None of my friends or I could do this, so we held him in awe, and he knew it. Whenever my buddies and I would play a game on the sidewalk, he'd get on his two-wheeler bicycle and ride as fast as he could, right down the middle of the sidewalk in our direction, screaming for us to move! He was terrifying on that big two-wheeler, and we scrambled frantically to get out of his way.
But with each humiliation my resentment grew. I didn't know what the word injustice meant, but I was learning what it felt like. It wasn't right that he had his fun by bullying us. So one day I decided not to move when he bore down on us at top speed. I stood up, planted my feet, and faced him, tall and righteous and proud. He ran over me. Two things stand out in my memory of the collision. One was the surprise I felt at how much it hurt to get run over. The other was that he got hurt too, even more than I did. The impact had also sent him crashing to the pavement. I remember lying on the sidewalk, my breath knocked out of me, gasping for air, unable even to cry. That was bad; it was the most pain I had ever experienced in my young life. But I heard him wailing in pain and rage! And when I looked, I saw him lying a few feet away, his knees skinned up and his forehead bleeding. That was good! And it got even better when I saw his mother, who had witnessed the whole incident, run over and scold him for what he had done.
LIFE IS TOUGHER IF YOU'RE STUPID
I limped home in triumph, with the germ of an idea in my mind that I've reflected on ever since. What I did was hard to do, so hard that I'd think twice before I did it again. But what I had been suffering at the hands of that little terrorist was hard too, harder actually. The choice had not been whether to do a hard thing, but which hard thing—the good hard or the bad hard. That brings to mind an old World War II movie in which a Marine Corps drill instructor tells a lazy recruit, "Life is tough, son. But it's a lot tougher if you're stupid." Better to sweat and strain in basic training than to end up dead in combat.
Life is hard. The question is not whether it will be hard but in what way. My friend has a poster of Dan Gable——perhaps the greatest Olympic wrestler of all time—in his basement. The poster shows him straining and sweating as he lifts weights. His face is etched with pain; the veins on his neck and arms are bulging. The caption reads, "There are two kinds of pain: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret." There is good hardness and bad hardness, the pain of living wisely and the greater pain of living foolishly. We can choose which one it will be. Good hard is often hard at the beginning but easier in the end. Bad hard usually begins easy but is hard in the end—sometimes hellish, literally hellish.
For this reason Jesus urged people to choose good hardness. He was once asked, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" (Luke 13:23).
He answered the question the way he answered most questions—by not answering it. Apparently Jesus didn't think much of the questions people asked. He knew the power of questions to determine answers (like the old comic line, "When are you going to stop beating your wife?"). The question was a bad question because it begged the real question, which was not "How many will be saved?" but rather "How does anyone get saved?" It probably also revealed a smug complacency in the person who asked it, an attitude that was really asking, "How many do you think will be with me in heaven?"
So Jesus redefined the terms of the discussion and answered, "Work hard to enter the narrow door to God's Kingdom, for many will try to enter but will fail" (Luke 13:24).
The Greek verb translated "work hard" is a dynamically forceful and demanding word. Other translations render it "strive" (ESV, NASB) or "make every effort" (NIV). Actually, the root of the verb is a noun, agon, which first referred to "a place of assembly" and then morphed into "a place of conflict," as in the stadium where athletic contests took place, especially contact sports like boxing and wrestling. But over time, the place where people went to see the fights, the agon, became the name for the fighting that went on there.
Agon is the word for the gritty, sweaty struggle athletes throw themselves into when they square off and fight; it embodies the grunts and fierce earnestness they bring to the boxing ring, the wrestling mat, the football field. Agon is a word one can almost hear and smell. It is a word for the good hard, the good fight of combat on the athletic field or battlefield, and it is a metaphor Jesus used to describe what is required for entry into his Kingdom.
Is salvation a free gift, or is it hard work? Sometimes the Bible seems to contradict itself. Depending upon how one thinks about these things, the writers of the Bible—in this case, Paul and Jesus—seem to disagree. How does each answer the critical, all-important question: Is salvation a gift or an achievement, an award for merit or an act of mercy? Does God give us eternal life because of the good things we have done or in spite of the bad things we have done? Depending on where one reads in the New Testament, it can seem to be either one or the other. For instance, in one place, Paul wrote, "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The apostle Paul's answer is easy to like. What's not to like about salvation being a gift? The Lord's answer is something else; it seems to cast the whole question of salvation by grace in grave doubt. How are we to reconcile Paul's assertion that salvation is a gift with Jesus' words? "Work hard to enter the narrow door to God's Kingdom, for many will try to enter but will fail." In another place Jesus said, "You can enter God's Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
GOD'S GOOD HARD WORK, HARD AT WORK
Who can do this? Who can walk the hard and narrow way and fight the good fight? I can't. I've failed too many times to think I can. Is Paul saying one thing and Jesus another? No, taken together, both are saying the same thing: that we are not saved by our hard work, but by God's hard work, hard at work within us. For although grace rules out human merit, it stimulates great, even heroic human effort. In fact, Paul himself provides the Bible's most succinct and epigrammatic statement of this principle in his letter to the Philippians, where he tells us to work out what God works into us:
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV)
What does God work in us? First he works our salvation: Christ died for our sins. When we were powerless to help ourselves, Christ died for the ungodly, the just for the unjust. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us (see Romans 5:6-8; 2 Corinthians 5:19). All of this was done entirely on his initiative. But it didn't stop there; he not only worked to save us, he works in us, by his Spirit, to make us want to be saved. That's how bad off we are without his illuminating and enlivening Spirit—we are dead in sins and trespasses. The dead don't know anything because part of what it means to be dead is not to know you are dead! We would not even want him, who is our life, if he didn't stir us in our spiritual graves (see Ephesians 2:1-10).
And as if all that were not enough, he continues to work in us to bring our salvation to completion: "God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns" (Philippians 1:6). Our salvation has a past, present, and future, and in every tense it is the gift of the God "who always was, who is, and who is still to come" (Revelation 4:8).
ONLY TWO RELIGIONS
When Dr. Harry Ironside finished preaching the gospel to a university audience in California, he was approached by a student who asked, "Dr. Ironside, there are literally thousands of religions in the world. How can we know which one of these is true?" Ironside replied:
Well, before we can get into the question of which one is true, we need to clarify something. There are not thousands of religions. There are not even hundreds of religions. There are only two: one which tells you that salvation comes as a reward for what you have done, and one which tells you that salvation comes by what somebody else does for you. That's Christianity. All the rest fit under the other. And if you think you can get your salvation by your own efforts, then Christianity has nothing to say to you. But if you know you need to be saved, then you are a candidate.
There has never been anything we can do to be saved, we can do to be saved, or we can do to be saved. Salvation comes only by God's grace through faith in Christ. Yet the apostle Paul, Mr. Grace himself, says to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (NIV). The Greek word for "work out" carries the idea of bringing to completion, or as the New Living Translation renders the meaning of this line, we are to "work hard to show the results of [our] salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in [us], giving [us] the desire and the power to do what pleases him" (Philippians 2:12-13, italics mine).
Paul says to work hard because God is giving us both the desire to work hard and the power to do so. By implication, not to work hard would be to work against the very grace that saves us. Our salvation is both a gift from God, a completed act—and a process in which we are strenuously involved. Sometimes Paul's strenuous involvement, his agon, was so consuming that his words almost trip over each other when he tries to explain it: "But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results. For I have worked harder than any of the other apostles; yet it was not I but God who was working through me by his grace" (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Paul worked hard because God had worked hard on him. He didn't obey in order to be saved; he obeyed because he was saved. Obedience is the purpose and the goal of salvation. Or as Paul puts it in his classic text on salvation by grace alone through faith alone, "Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago" (Ephesians 2:9-10, italics mine).
God has "created us anew"—given us new birth "so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago." Again, we don't do good things in order to be saved; we do good things because we are saved. We are not born again by good works; we are born again for good works. Paul says the intent of all this grace is to make us "God's masterpiece." Since we are God's masterpiece, we not only should act like a masterpiece, we now may act in the power of the God who is making us so.
The great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci was hard at work on a canvas he had been toiling over for weeks. The painting was nearly finished and looked magnificent. The subject had been carefully chosen, and it had da Vinci's unique perspective and distinctive choice of colors. Suddenly he stopped, called a student over, handed him the paintbrush, and said, "Here, you finish it." The student protested that he was not worthy or able to complete so beautiful a painting.
Said da Vinci, "Will not what I have done inspire you to do your best?"
That is a little bit like the thing God's grace does in us, except God does much more than give us an inspiring model; he gives us his Spirit to live in us, as he promised through the prophet Ezekiel: "And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations" (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
The gospel of God's grace implacably opposes any notion of human merit for salvation, but it embraces and commands vigorous effort, good hard work for the saved. We are to strenuously work out what God has graciously worked in. This is why Christ came. When St. Athanasius wrote, "God became human that humans might become divine," he was echoing the apostle John, who wrote, "Dear friends, we are already God's children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is" (1 John 3:2). And so St. Augustine prayed, "My God, set me on fire! ... Give what you command, and then command whatever you will."
I have an athletic fantasy that I occasionally roll over in my mind during football season. In it, I am the last player in the NFL to go "both ways," to play defense and offense. On defense I am a middle linebacker, a perennial all-pro who averages fifteen unassisted tackles a game. On offense I am a tailback, also a perennial all-pro at that position, averaging 150 yards rushing a game. That's it; that's the fantasy. Don't judge me—just think of whatever silly, delusional fantasies you entertain. Of course I was nothing like that as a player. The joke was, "Ben isn't very big, but he's slow." I had the heart of a great athlete, in desire, dedication, and discipline; but I had the body of a pretty average athlete. I was an overachiever; my passion for the sport could take me right up to what my genetic endowment, my DNA, would allow, but no further.
But what if I was given a new DNA, new and extraordinary capacities by God? What if I experienced a kind of second birth athletically and was made fully capable of becoming all I have fantasized? Would that miracle make me lazy? Would knowing what I had the ability to become make me complacent? Of course not—I would strive with everything in me to work out what God had worked in. It would still be hard to be a champion, but it would be a good hard.
The Bible says God has given us everything we need to live a godly life, including such "great and precious promises" that we may actually "share his divine nature." The strenuous life of good works, in fact, is part of our new spiritual DNA. How then should we live? "In view of all this," we should "make every effort to respond to God's promises" (2 Peter 1:3-5, italics mine). It is the glory and joy of all believers to "travail" as in the pains of childbirth until Christ is fully developed in their lives.
And O, that He fulfilled may see
The travail of His soul in me,
And with His work contented be,
As I with my dear Savior!
"I AM NOT SKILLED TO UNDERSTAND" BY
DORA GREENWELL (1821–1882)
Excerpted from MUSCULAR FAITH by BEN PATTERSON Copyright © 2011 by Ben Patterson. Excerpted by permission of TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted February 18, 2012
Although Ben Patterson is a good acquaintance and a friend, objectivity is still possible. In many ways, "Muscular Faith" is a personal biography of Ben. Some have said that he is a modern day C.S. Lewis. The title says it - if one has faith in Jesus Christ, to live the life that Jesus would desire of us requires us to be actively working and living to do His work. No sitting on the sidelines, but to be a player on the field. We are encouraged to quit being out-of-shape Believers because of inactivity, but to be muscular in our faith by being actively engaged in knowing Jesus and courageously engaged in the world daily. Ben writes with clarity and passion and makes us put aside our TV remote controls, get up off the couch, put on our "faith" work clothes, and get about Kingdom work. This may not be safe, but then, Ben was never about being safe. But neither was Jesus.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 24, 2011
There is a plethora of advice for readers in this slim book. From trusting God to praying to reading Scripture to generally drawing close to God, this book has it all. Bible verses are quoted, and the commentary given by the author is indeed insightful. Personal stories are not the highlight of the book, but some ones are included for your leisure. While one could argue the point that faith is a spiritual gift and thus can't be "worked on," I'm sure everyone can agree that we must acknowledge God and that it is our job to love Him, which goes back to Him anyway with 1 john 4:19. Either way, this book is a great resource for those that want "faith" verses and examples from the Bible. It would also make a nice gift.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 20, 2011
The concept of faith is a difficult one for many to grab hold of today. The practice of actually living by faith is even harder to understand. In his latest book, "Muscular Faith, How to Strengthen Your Heart, Soul, and Mind for the Only Challenge That Matters", Ben Patterson builds the case that it is a strong, active, and vigorous faith in Jesus Christ that pleases the Father and enables the believer to fulfill what the Hebrews writer declared by saying, "without faith it is impossible to please Him". Patterson submits that our faith is not be passive for we serve a Go who is not passive or inactive. On the contrary, our God is a "warrior" as Patterson describes. He consistently calls for us to battle the forces that would derail our spiritual walk. God's Word itself call the believer to "fight the good fight of faith." "Muscular Faith" has an easy-to-follow and common sense flow to it. Patterson begins by showing the reader that we have been called to live a life of faith and how important and active that faith should be. He then takes the reader down the road of what is at stake in our pursuit of an active and vigorous faith. I enjoyed the part of this book where Patterson describes the obstacles (such as nominal Christianity and refusing to give God permission to change us) that get in the way of a muscular faith. He concludes with tools and disciplines that help to overcome obstacles and helps to pursue a God-honoring and life-changing faith. "Muscular Faith" is a good work. Patterson does a great job of combining scripture, quotes, and personal experiences to make his point. I found nothing in this book to the earth-shaking. Everything I read I had read before in some manner or another. All in all, a good work. I believe this book would be a good first read for new believers as they start their faith journey. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale House in exchange for my honest review.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 10, 2011
Tyndale Publishers provided me a free copy of Muscular Faith by Ben Patterson in exchange for an honest review. What does it look like to run the race that Paul envisions for the faithful Christian? What should our faith look like and how are we equipped to do that? Patterson explores those questions in this uplifting volume as he includes personal life excerpts and biblical examples. As the Apostle Paul would encourage us to persevere through the thick and thin of life knowing our hope is in Christ alone, so does Ben Patterson.
As an athlete doesn't dive into his sport as a professional, so should the Christian look at his life. An athlete trains strenuously before competing with an ultimate goal in mind. Likewise, believers are to keep their eyes focused on the prize of an eternal reward that is worth putting our all into to claim as our own. We will be stetched and endure pain. Just as Christ knew of the Cross, our labors will lead to sweet fruit later
I was engaged with Muscular Faith from page one. Patterson's easy-going style made it a pleasure to sit down to peruse his thoughts on a strong Christian life. As most can see this life isn't filled with lackadaisical pleasures, but often deals us painful, time-consuming experiences that can either make or break us. The only way they will have eternal value is if we allow the Spirit to strengthen us as we endure these trials for the sake of the Cross.
Muscular Faith would be a great library addition for most Christians wanting to further their understanding of their personal walk with their Savior. Patterson's masculine analogies of camping, marathon running and wrestling would be well-suited for the athlete or man in particular. I being a thirty-year-old woman still enjoyed his use of analogies, despite not be athletically-inclined. In a bit over 250 pages Muscular Faith can certainly strengthen your own life in Christ.