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Christian Biblical Studies
Jo Fullerton at the Women’s Fellowship
All Bible references are to the Anglicised New International Version (NIV-UK)
A DOG IS ONE of the few remaining reasons why some people can be persuaded to go for a walk ― so said Canadian-American chemist and author, O.A. Battista. Have you ever noticed that half the folks strolling through the woods or along the canal have a dog or two in tow? So the towpath can still be regarded as being appropriately named!
Some of you will be dog owners, but I confess to a lifelong caution where dogs are concerned. We once had a yappy Jack Russell called Jip, and I was rather afraid of him. Silly, isn’t it? I do like cats, and they like me, but I’m resisting acquiring a cat until I am too old to walk far, when I shall spend my days knitting in my favourite armchair with my tabby on my knee. That is of course a distant prospect!
I hear you asking, ‘Now what’s all this nonsense?’ Well I do go walking and when greeting other hikers pass the time of day, and am polite to their doggy companions who sometimes seem to weigh me up speculatively. It’s reassuring when the dog is attached to a lead, but I was surprised one day to see dog and owner at opposite ends of a flexible and retractable lead over twenty feet long. Buster vanished into the undergrowth doing his own thing, too impatient to stand still while we women chatted, and the episode set me thinking whimsically, if not irreverently, that the Lord might well have me also on a sort of extending flexi-lead.
You may have heard Christian evangelists challenging the flock, asking ‘Are you walking the walk as well as talking the talk?’ Doubtless they ask themselves the same question, and they are only echoing the words of the Apostle in 1 John 2: 6: ‘Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.’ Walking is said to be the best exercise to keep the human body fit and active, and walking the Christian walk must logically be the finest way to cultivate good spiritual health. But how readily we allow ourselves to be side-tracked! And how few of us can wear the jewel of consistency in our daily walk and conversation!
Ouch! Did you feel that tug? It’s the Lord at the other end of the flexi-lead, reining you in before you’ve strayed too far. It’s done lovingly and with a Father’s concern for His children. You don’t like the idea of being constrained? The freedom of the individual is much preached these days, even youngsters having in some respects more liberty than they can cope with. You don’t even see many toddlers wearing reins when out walking with parents, which means they could be in great danger. As an infant freed one day from my reins I strayed too far from Mother and I still remember my sudden dreadful panic when I looked about and she wasn’t there. But she was watching from a distance and laughed at my alarm. It was a salutary lesson for me, and ― alas! ― I find I am still prone to wander from the straight and narrow.
The earliest believers were known as brethren of the Way (Acts 9: 1, 2; 19: 23; 24: 22). It was a new way of life they had adopted, a pathway leading ultimately to the Kingdom of Christ and the fulfilment of the Divine promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was a difficult, narrow way, yet it was broader in its liberty than the bondage of Judaism which they had left. Israel’s Messiah had come, and declared ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14: 6).
Their description as ‘People of the Way’ eventually died out, and Acts 11: 26 mentions that ‘the disciples were called Christians first at Antioch’ ― an honourable designation that we are still privileged to claim, as travellers on the same narrow way.
The keynote is perseverance. Having graphically drawn attention to the faithful course of God’s Old Testament witnesses, the Apostle encourages the faithful of a later dispensation, even to our own day, saying (Hebrews 12: 1, 2):
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
So it’s a race? Yes ― but a marathon rather than a sprint. We’ve all seen the occasional sprinters, the folks who strike twelve all at once ― join our fellowship in a great burst of enthusiasm, only to wind down just as quickly and opt out of the race. On the other hand there are the plodders ― yes, I’m guilty! Our speed is variable, our progress average or below, we are the ‘could do better’ among the entrants in the race set before us. So how can we get up to speed? How can we run with diligence the race set before us, and what weights are we trundling along that impede our progress?
Prone to Wander
Brethren of the Way did not follow the way of the world, and they would have found it challenging to witness to the unwilling, noting the cautious avoidance by strangers, and sometimes even by friends and family. I see that is your experience too, so we are in good company. Yet there are times when our natural pleasure in the friendship of some whose interests and habits we may not thoroughly approve, seems very desirable, and we give in to the temptation to compromise. Of course, the worldly pursuits of unbelievers are not necessarily evil, and the enjoyment of this life’s good and honest blessings cannot be displeasing to the Creator. But the searching words of the hymn writer come to mind:
O to grace
how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for Thy courts above
Does it seem that by default we are drawn aside from the straight and narrow, tempted by all manner of pursuits, of worthwhile or of dubious value, which craftily steal our waking hours? Do we absent ourselves all too often from intimate contact with our Lord ― straining at the leash, so to speak? Prone to wander, Lord ― I feel it!
Viewing temptation as a clever device of the Adversary to disturb our relationship with God ― to steal us away from Jesus ― we realise how often it happens. It becomes a practical necessity to ‘take stock’ of our situation, to examine our status with our Lord and ask, ‘Am I still on the narrow way that leads to life?’ How we spend our time, how we spend our money, who we choose to be with, may be dictated to a great extent by family obligations, which the Lord rightly regards as a mortgage on our time and attention, but our habit of thought ― like the needle to the pole ― should unfailingly draw us back to Him we have chosen to follow.
The Unbroken Link
Sometimes our Master lets us run ahead, doing our own thing, and we may even forget for a while the bond that holds us securely in His grace ― not a fetter ― but rather a loving, protective link between Father and child. He doesn’t take away our free-will, but wisely lets us learn by our mistakes, feeling the chastisement of a guilty conscience each time we stray too far from the appointed path. Like Buster in the undergrowth, we can so easily get entangled and find it difficult to retrace our steps back to our Master’s side.
But God does not expect us to be perfect. History and experience show us that we are in good company with unnumbered believers who faltered by the wayside, but recovered. Think of Peter, who once denied the Lord, and Paul, who despaired of his own besetting sins. Like them, we know that ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1: 9). It is the heart intention that matters, and as the putting of one foot before the other achieves often surprising results, so in our Christian walk we may reach vistas undreamed of in the days when we loitered with the worldly. As the Apostle Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 2: 9):
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