Stay the Course
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
In my junior year at LSU, my father and older brother, Tony, flew a small plane to Baton Rouge to see me. We had a great time touring the campus and seeing the sights. The next day they took off to go home, but the weather got bad, and they had to turn back. They took my car and left the airplane for me to fly home over the weekend. No problem. I had a private license.
I took off early Saturday morning and headed north. I had a full tank of gas and a sectional chart in my lap. That’s like a roadmap for a pilot – it gives you landmarks on the ground to chart your progress – highways, railroads, power lines, etc. What I didn’t take into account is that there aren’t a lot of landmarks north of Baton Rouge, as the crow flies. Instead, there’s an ocean of swamp land and trees. Plus, I was flying low, and the visibility wasn’t all that great.
I stayed on my compass heading for about an hour or so, then I began to have doubts: Am I on course, or not? I saw something over to the right that looked like a water tower. I headed in that direction, only to find out it was a barn. Whoops. I headed back to the left and chased another possible landmark. Before I knew it, I was flying all over the place, lost as a goose. It’s at times like these when you learn to pray.
Somehow, I flew over Montgomery, Louisiana. How I got there, I’ll never know. I circled the water tank and read the name. Then I found the airport and landed. I kissed the ground and thanked the Lord. The airport manager came out to see if I needed gas. I lied and said, “No thanks; I just stopped by to get a Coke.” I hung around a few minutes, then took off and followed the Red River to Shreveport, and, from there, I knew my way back to Hope.
That experience taught me a valuable lesson: When in doubt stay the course. Don’t give in to fear or false promises. Stick with what you know and trust the Lord to lead the way. This is at the heart of what Paul told the Colossians when he said,
“As therefore you received Christ Jesus, the Lord,
walk in him, rooted and built up in him,
and established in the faith,
even as you were taught, abounding in it in thanksgiving.”
The Colossians were a mostly Gentile congregation, not Jewish. They weren’t steeped in the Torah and Jewish way of life. All they knew was Jesus Christ and what they’d been taught of his teachings and example.
Bear in mind this was before the day of creeds and doctrines. The Colossians didn’t have a Book of Order, a Book of Confessions, or a Manual of Operations. So, Paul admonished them simply to live by faith in Jesus Christ: “… continue in him.” The problem is that leaves a lot of wiggle room for interpretation, and that’s where the trouble usually begins.
Kathy heard the doorbell ring at the manse Monday morning. A young woman in a jogging suit was standing at the door. Said she’d passed the house a number of times and just wanted to stop by and say hello. Hmmm. Kathy figured there was more. There was. The woman chatted briskly, then segued into the real purpose of her visit – to proselyte for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Big mistake. Little did she know, she had met her match. Kathy debated her, point for point. For example, the young woman asked, “How could Jesus be the Son of God when in John 17 he prayed to the Father?” Kathy responded, “How can he not be the Son of God, when he clearly said in chapter 10 that, “I and the Father are one?” (John 10:30)
This went on for several minutes when, all of a sudden, the woman looked at her watch and said, “Oops, I’ve got to run … I’m going to be late for work … It was certainly nice talking with you,” and took off down the street.
When I was growing up, there were about six major denominations to choose from. Now there’s practically a church on every corner espousing its own brand of religion, not to mention all the religious programming on TV. Who are you going to believe?
Paul would have us stay the course. The Reformed Faith has served us well since the 16th Century. It’s rooted in scripture and focused clearly on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Stick with what you know and trust the Lord to lead the way. Paul goes on to say:
“Be careful that you don’t let anyone rob you
through his philosophy and vain deceit,
after the tradition of men, after the elements of the world,
and not after Christ.”
The big issue in Colossae was a heresy known as Gnostism. It comes from the word, Gnosis, which means knowledge. You can Google it, if you like. I won’t get into it here, except to say that Gnostism was a complex system of belief based on secret knowledge, available only to a few. Think of it as a 1st Century Da Vinci Code – a conspiracy theory in reverse – where only those in the know are able to connect the dots and know the truth.
But let’s not get carried away. Gnostism was only one of many false teachings the Colossians were subjected to. Some were religious; others were secular. They all had one thing in common – to influence the Colossians to follow a different course than that of Jesus Christ.
One of the greatest heresies of our day is Secular Humanism. Humanists believe that we have within us all that we need to be happy and complete, that it’s just a matter of thinking positively and developing your own God-given potential.
The roots of Humanism go back to the Renaissance and the rediscovery of Greek and Roman literature, art and culture. Coming out of the Dark Ages, Humanism was like a breath of fresh air, awakening the human spirit.
Humanism in our day goes much farther. It suggests that we have within us such innate goodness and potential that we need not rely on any power greater than ourselves.
Ironically, today’s Humanists start with the Bible. They point out how God created us in his image, looked at what he had created and said, “…behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
What Humanists fail to mention is that Genesis goes on to describe our sinful nature and how we are often rebellious and defiant and unwilling to submit to the authority of God. (Genesis 3)
Humanists are idealists. They believe that, given a choice, we’ll choose what is right and fair and just and in the best interests of all concerned. History paints a different picture. Throughout history, people like us have proven to be selfish and greedy, conniving and downright mean, taking advantage of others every chance they get.
Thanks to the influence of Humanism, we’re now living in a day of moral relativism:
• “If it feels good, do it.”
• If you want something bad enough, go for it. “You deserve a break today.”
• Never mind what God would have you do, do your own thing. “Be all that you can be.” “Have it your own way.”
Humanism is a half truth – and those are the worst kind: Yes, we’re created in the image of God and have the potential for good; at the same time, we’re also sinful and have the potential for evil. No one knew this better than Paul, who told the Romans,
“… I don’t know what I am doing.
For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate …
For the good which I desire, I don’t do;
but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. …
For I delight in God’s law after the inward man,
but I see a different law in my members,
warring against the law of my mind …
What a wretched man I am!
Who will deliver me out of the body of this death?
I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” (Romans 7:14-25)
An old Cherokee once told his grandson about a fight that was going on inside of him. He said it was between two wolves. One was evil: Anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, gossip, resentment, and false pride. The other was good: Joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The grandson thought about it for a moment and then asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf do you think will win?’ The old Cherokee replied, ‘The one I feed.'” (Two Wolves, Anonymous)
Paul would have us feast on the riches of Christ and his kingdom. He reminds the Colossians that the fullness of God can only be found through faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing else comes close. He writes,
“For in him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily,
and in him you are made full,
who is the head of all principality and power.”
He ends this portion of the letter by talking about circumcision and baptism. Here’s the gist of it all: Circumcision was the sign and seal of the covenant for the Jews. It meant you belonged to the people of God and that God was on your side. Baptism became the sign and seal of the new covenant established by Jesus Christ. Baptism is for us what circumcision was for the Jews.
Except that it’s more than a sign; it’s a way of life. Paul writes,
“… don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death,
that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father,
so we also might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)
Baptism is a living sacrament – not simply getting sprinkled or immersed at some point in your life, but dying and rising with Christ each day – getting yourself out of the center of the circle and putting Christ first, serving the needs of others, to the glory of God.
Baptism is a living symbol of the Atonement – that Christ died for the forgiveness of your sins in order that you might be free to follow him in faithful obedience.
Here’s a closing thought I’d like for you to take home with you: When it comes to the big decisions of life, it’s seldom easy to know whether to stay the course or to cut bait:
• I’ve stood with families as they agonized over the decision, whether or not to keep their loved one on life support.
• I’ve watched a friend do everything possible to keep his business afloat, only to see his life savings dwindle away, month by month.
• I’ve known couples who’ve struggled to make their marriage work, yet who drifted farther and farther apart.
• I’ve listened carefully as a parishioner weighed the pros and cons of filing bankruptcy.
• I’m presently walking with you through this grueling process of leaving the denomination.
The big decisions of life are seldom clear-cut. As Lucy told Charlie Brown, “In the Book of Life, the answers are not in the back of the book.”
When is it best to stay the course? When is it time to cut your losses and chart a new course?
It’s a judgment call. Given that, here are three words to the wise:
1. First, seek God’s will, then act boldly. Indecision, waffling, straddling the fence will only exacerbate the problem. Let Paul’s words to Timothy inspire you: “For God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7) Seek God’s will, then act boldly.
2. Once you make the decision, don’t look back. Second-guessing is a form of self-punishment: “If only I had given it more time … if only I had it to do over again.” In the game of life, you seldom get do-overs. So, don’t look back; instead, resolve to move forward. Remember what Jesus said, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for God’s Kingdom.” (Luke 9:62)
3. Act boldly, don’t look back, then stay the course. Whether you set a new compass heading or stick with the one you’ve got, stay on that course long enough for God to lead you where he would have you to go. Expect to encounter a certain amount of turbulence, whatever direction you take. As every pilot knows, “The sky is always bluer on the other side of the fence,” (or something to that effect). Remember what Jesus told his disciples about the coming days of trials and tribulations: “But he who endures to the end, the same will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13)
I trust you’ve seen the movie, Chariots of Fire, and know the story of Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner, who so distinguished himself in the 1924 Olympics. What you may not know is that he went on to become a missionary to China. When the Japanese invaded his province in World War II, he was taken prisoner; yet, he never lost his faith. He looked to God for hope and salvation and encouraged the other prisoners to do the same. He taught them the scriptures. He taught them to pray. He taught them to sing, and this was one of his favorite hymns:
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.