By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2 NRSV)
I have a friend who plays violin for a local orchestra. She is amazing. Even though she is not a professional musician, you couldn’t tell it from listening to her play. She can pick up her violin, draw the bow across the strings, and out comes lovely, beautiful, soul-inspiring music. To earn money to live on, she works full-time as a copy-editor for a publishing house; but, to express her soul she plays her violin. I know she’s a good editor, but she’s an even better violinist; the way she plays makes the entire enterprise look effortless, and yet I know that is simply not the case.
As is true for nearly everything in life, the key to success in playing any musical instrument is tenacious, unending, never failing practice. Skill is important, and so is interest, but without a devotion which calls forth a self-giving persistence in practice, no musician can ever be anything more than mediocre. When it comes to music, that’s me. I love to listen to classical music, and I enjoy fiddling with my violin, but I am cursed with only marginal talent and, I’m sorry to say, a total lack of devotion to the discipline of practice when it comes to actually learning and playing the violin. Oh, I can lay hold of the bow, draw it across the strings, and make a pleasant note sing forth … but the practice needed to put that note together with hundreds more and generate a pleasing melody is, I fear, no longer within my grasp. And, sadly, that’s entirely because I lack the time and the will to devote hours upon hours to the hard work of practice. For me to ever be able to stand and play anything more complex than “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” I would have to make time, and be consistent and persistent, in practice. And, sadly, I simply don’t have the will to do this. It may just be that I’m lazy, or that I have too many other distractions in life – and both possibilities are true – but, no matter how one cuts it, the simple fact is that I don’t practice because I don’t want to.
The same is true with the Christian life. When we find ourselves complaining about the poor quality of our spiritual lives, or about our poor understanding of the Faith or of the Holy Scriptures, in truth we really have only one person to blame: ourselves. Excellence in anything, from playing the violin to learning a foreign language to comprehension of the deep theological topics of the Christian life, comes only through hard, determined, persistent study. When we fail to practice our faith, to devote ourselves – our time, our talents, our gifts, and our service – to our relationship with Jesus, is it any wonder that we find our spiritual lives floundering in the metaphorical toilet. And, when our spiritual lives go to pot, so does everything else around us – from our physical to our mental and emotional lives, every aspect of our being is impacted by the quality of our Christian walk. If we’re not walking with Jesus, if we’re not studying Scripture, gathering together for worship and prayer, and partaking of the Means of Grace, we only have ourselves to blame.
As it says in the book of Hebrews:
In truth, it’s all a matter of perseverance. Are we going to be persistent in faith, in attending to the spiritual disciplines, or are we going to stumble and fail to be the kind of people that Jesus wants us to be?
…. let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…. (ibid)
Persistence in the faith, perseverance in the face of trial and tribulation, devotion to practicing what we preach – none of this should be difficult for us as Christians. If we truly are Christians, if we truly have faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and if we truly have the Holy Spirit of God residing within us, then it truly is not we who do any of these things, but God working within us. We are called to cooperate with God’s Grace, apply it in our Christian living, and remain open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. We are called to be ready and willing to act when and as God directs, and to be active in our faith each and every day. But, for some reason, we often find ourselves failing to be attentive to the Spiritual Life that Jesus wants us to live. We become weary in our study of the Scripture, in our prayers, in our giving, in our service, and in our attendance at divine worship. We slack off in partaking of the Means of Grace and thus compound our problem by starving our souls of the spiritual food which we need to act in faith. In other words, due to a whole host of conflicting priorities, but most especially due to the power of sin in our lives, we fall to the temptation to be lazy and unwilling to devote the time and cooperative effort which the Christian life requires. We coast along, living a life of spiritual mediocrity, depending upon past professions of faith and not realizing that a faith which is not active is faith which is dead.
Perseverance in the faith involves being present in worship, partaking of the Sacraments, study of Scripture, prayer and fasting, Christian fellowship, service to God and others, and giving. These Disciplines – these “methods” – are central to the Methodist interpretation of the Christian life. Being persistent in these disciplines – being diligent in one’s practice of one’s faith – is the only way in which we can persevere in our Faith and in our life with Christ.
© 2005 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.