What’s Holding You Back?

For those who are not familiar with the Texas Motorplex, it’s an NHRA sanctioned 1/4 mile race track in Ennis, Texas, which is a few miles south of Dallas. In the world of professional drag racing, there are two classes of dragsters that can reach speeds close to 300 miles per hour, the Top Fuel dragsters and the Funny Cars, and another, the Pro Stockers, that consistently hit speeds well over 200 miles per hour. You have to be able to bring these cars to a stop in hurry so they don’t run off the end of the track and to do that, they deploy parachutes that are attached to the rear of the cars.

So I was at the Motorplex a few years ago watching the races when during one particular race, one of the cars in the Funny Car class suffered a parachute malfunction right off the starting line. He was probably no more than ten feet off the starting line when before his parachute accidentally dropped out and deployed. Needless to say, he lost the race. It’s kind of hard to win a drag race with your parachute holding you back.

Of course in the Apostle Paul’s day, there were no top fuel dragsters or race cars but Paul often compared our Christian walk to running a foot race. He used that analogy in several of his letters as a way to illustrate his own personal growth as a Christian. In 1 Corinthians chapter 9 for instance, Paul wrote: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

Paul used that same analogy again his when Judaizers tried to convince the Christians at the Galatian church that they were required to keep the Old Covenant Law in addition to their faith in Christ. He asked in his letter to that church, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” They were being hindered in their growth – held back if you will – by false teaching.

It happens to us as well in our own time. There are things we do and things we fail to do that hinder our growth as Christians. There are things that hold us back from being the kind of Christians that God has called us to be. This has been true in my own walk and I know I’m not alone. No one is immune to it.

So just what are some of things that hold us back? The first and most obvious answer is sin. The Bible makes it very clear that sin hinders our fellowship with God and this is is expressed very clearly in the first Epistle of John:

1 John 1

If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

Regardless of whether it’s an unconfessed sin, something that we’d prefer not to think of as sin, or something that we’re trying to keep concealed, sin hinders our growth as Christians by breaking our fellowship with God. And it will hold us back until it’s been acknowledged, confessed, and dealt with in accordance with Biblical teaching.

There are some things that are not as obvious. And there’s one thing in particular. Again, we can look to the first letter of John:

1 John 4

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

Jesus said that we’re to “love the Lord with all our heart, all our souls, and all our minds.” And He also said “we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves.” All too often, we fail to do that. The failure to love as we’re commanded holds us back in our growth as Christians. Yet, love is at the top of the list of attributes that identify a genuine Christian in Galatians chapter 5, what Paul referred to as the “Fruit of the Spirit”. It’s quite possible that a person who professes Jesus Christ as his or her Savior but whose faith is not yielding the kind of love highlighted in scripture might not be saved UNLESS…….it’s something that God is working on in that person’s heart through the conviction of the Holy Spirit. But that’s another matter for another time.

Do we display that type of love all the time? I know I don’t. Sometimes we’re just trying grind our way through a tough day or difficult week, and we all go through seasons when it’s hard to be the loving people of God we’re called to be. We all go through dry spells. What we need to look for in ourselves is the desire to love God and love others as we’re commanded to do in scripture. The Bible says we are to work out our 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). 

We’re also commanded to examine ourselves to see whether we’re in the faith. And Paul explained the reason for self examination with this question, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13) So when we examine ourselves, when we’re working out our salvation with fear and trembling, we must ask ourselves, “Is my faith yielding the love that God desires? Or is the lack of Christ-like love holding me back?” And we must ask God to reveal that to us as well. 

It’s not easy. I struggle with this. We all do. After all, how can you love someone who doesn’t have any use for you? How can you love someone who despises you? How can you love someone who treats you as though you don’t exist? How can you love someone who only says they love you but only if you give something in return?

Let me ask those questions another way. How can you love someone who would take a thorny vine and wrap it around your head and grind it into your forehead? How could you love someone who spits on you and beats on you and whips you like an animal? How could you love someone who would nail your hands to a hunk of wood and then taunt you during the final moments of your life? Yet, Jesus did. He even loved those who crucified Him. “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

He could have stopped it at any time but he didn’t. He loved us too much to put a stop to it. Because we so often fail to love others as perfectly as He loves us, He had to become our sacrifice. He had to bear our sins and our failures and our flaws because they hold us back. But at the cross, nothing could hold Jesus back and in turn, He held nothing back from us. He gave His own life for our lives and by doing so, He was the model of perfect love.

From Luke 23

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”

The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

That passage from Luke is one of my favorite because it speaks to the immeasurable love of Jesus Christ, that even in the midst of His own pain and suffering, as He was dying on the cross, He answered the one who called on His name and saved him from eternal condemnation.

I’m sure many sermons have been preached about the criminal who Jesus saved that day. But so there’s no confusion, this isn’t about him. This is about the criminal who was not saved, the one who said to Jesus, “You’re the Messiah? Then get us down off these crosses!”  He’s the one I’m referring to here as the “other criminal.” 

Very little is known about the other criminal and in fact, we don’t very much about either of them. We don’t know either of their names. We only that both men were under a sentence of death. They were getting what their deeds deserved. The one who said, “Jesus, remember me.” said so. One day we will know his name. We will meet him in Heaven. He is with Jesus at this very moment. He was very close to being eternally separated from God but in the final hours of his life, he discovered grace. He knows the saving power of Jesus first hand.

But what about the other criminal? We tend to dismiss him and focus more on the one who cried out to Jesus for salvation. But have you ever wondered about that other criminal? Have you ever wondered who he was?  I have. And I’ve discovered who he was. He was me. Just like his partner in crime, the other criminal cried out to Jesus too, but for different reasons. All he wanted was for Jesus to get them out of the jam they were in. He just wanted to save his own skin. I’ve done the exact same thing. I’ve cried out to God on more than one occasion to get me out of some mess I had gotten myself into. For years I only prayed when I wanted something. I was just like the other criminal. And according to the Bible, we’re all just like the other criminal. In Romans 3, God’s word says:

There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.

And just a little further down, in verse 23, Paul wrote, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Now we’re all very familiar with Romans 3:23. But if you read that one single verse and stop right there, it almost paints a portrait of hopelessness. It very aptly describes who the other criminal was, and it also describes who we are. We are fallen sinners who can never be right in the eyes God, not on our own. You can’t read Romans 3:23 and stop there though. You have to read on, because in the following verse is found the message of hope. Verse 24: “And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

It’s almost tempting to say that on one side of Jesus hung the criminal represented by Romans 3:23, and on the other side hung the criminal represented by Romans 3:24. But the truth is, verse 23 is an accurate depiction of both criminals. Just like all of us, both men sinned and fell short of the glory of God. Both were condemned to death, not just by the Roman authorities, but also by God. They both cried out to Jesus and asked to be spared. But that’s where the similarities end. One cried out to be spared from the cross, the other cried out to be spared from eternal condemnation. One cried out because he wanted  a little more time in this world. The other cried out for eternal life. And He was the one who was justified, who was made right, by grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

On one side of Jesus then, we see redemption. On the other side, rejection. On one side of Jesus we see eternal salvation. On the other, eternal condemnation. Like those two criminals, everyone has a choice to make. To paraphrase the word of God spoken through Moses to the people of Israel: Set before us is life and death, blessings and curses. Choose Life!