July 21, 2014

Heart and Soul: Theology

Ann suffers from osteoporosis. It began with a lifting accident at the age of 47 that caused two sets of bones in her lower spine to collapse. Five years later they diagnosed her osteoporosis, and for 20 years she has continued to suffer the pain and disability of fragile and easily breaking bones.

Robert’s Run

Son Robert wanted to help his mom. He could not personally treat her condition, but the National Osteoporosis Society runs a charity in his country, the only one in all the United Kingdom dedicated to ending the pain and suffering caused by osteoporosis. Rob would run the London Marathon to raise money for the National Osteoporosis Society.

Robert was not in the best of health in the final days before he ran. Two weeks before the race he used his inhaler three times during the week, whereas he would not normally need it more than thrice in an entire year. But he remained undaunted before this disconcerting circumstance. Someone suggested that his condition was not an illness or allergy of his own, but the effect of pollution and dust from the Sahara. Rob welcomed the suggestion, because he didn’t want to run sick. He could not imagine that his race for his mom would cost him his life.

The day after the race organizer Virgin Money released a statement: “It is with regret that we can now confirm that Mr. Robert Berry, aged 42, collapsed at the finish of the London Marathon. He was immediately taken to one of our medical facilities, where he was treated by four consultants, including one in emergency medicine. He was transferred to St Mary’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.”1

Donations poured in to Ron’s cause as news of his death spread, reaching £50,000 (US$83,500) by 4:00 p.m. next day. One sympathetic contributor said, “I didn’t know you, but am so sad you gave your life doing such a wonderful thing. God bless you.”2

Rob gave his life for his mom.

Moritz’ Marathon

Moritz Erhardt gave his for the hope of a Bank of America Merrill Lynch £45,000 (more than US$75,000)-a-year job offer: He was a week away from earning it when he collapsed after working for a marathon stretch of 72 straight hours. An inquest determined that the epileptic fit that led to his death may have been triggered by the exhaustion of such exceptional hours of work.

Juergen Schroeder, his Merrill Lynch development officer, explained that Erhardt was not just the victim of a challenging workload. It was also a function of the “peer pressure and competition between ambitious employees to work longer hours than each other.”3 Workers strove to outdo one another in putting in long hours. Their striving contributed to Moritz Erhardt’s demise.

Saul’s Story

The testimony of an ancient Jew born Saul of Tarsus presents a stark contrast with these narratives of total but tragic focus. And beyond the starkness of his differentness is the utter astonishment of it. For Ann’s conscientious son, facing death was never part of his preparation for the race that would cost him his life; and driven 21-year-old Moritz Erhardt was too caught up with thoughts on the thrills of life in London at $75,000 a year to think of death. But while they could not have conceived of death, it was the unavoidable focus of the thinking of the man from Tarsus.

While Ron ran for life and Moritz competed with the fantasies of every other ambitious intern, Saul, now Paul, knew that he was running with death “in his face.” “I am already being poured out as a drink offering,” he wrote (2 Tim. 4:6).4 His captors were already thinking of him as a libation. They were pouring him out already, draining the cup of his life, his blood. The time of his departure had arrived. He was already at the place of the three fountains near the stone pine tree. Legend holds that the three fountains sprang where his severed head bounced and hit the ground in three places. They still flow, as they did before the legend sprang, and as they did when, as best we know, Paul lost his head.

Paul is already at the fated spot. He’s already there in his head and in his captors’ thinking. It is the end of his race. He is on the final lap, and this is how it will end: He will not collapse like Robert. No, they will sever his head. The blade will slice through his neck and hack away at his cervical column; blood will spurt, and his head will fall, and bounce, and roll away. What a way to end a race!

Imperishable Prize

And yet, thoroughly unlike our very reasonable expectations, Paul is neither remorseful nor otherwise undone at the prospect of a race with so apparently tragic a finale. He is eager. He is indeed one of human history’s most focused competitors. For he can see beyond what others think is the end. He can run hard with a reward in view that he will seize beyond the executioner’s block. His focus is on an imperishable prize. His head is dispensable. He can afford to lose it now, because he has run his race just right, and though his head may roll, he will recover it in time for his personal coronation. He is categorical about that.

Five hundred years ago scholars, linguists, and literary genius servants of an English king muted the dogmatic assertion of Paul’s testimony in the face of death when they translated 2 Timothy 4. Notwithstanding, their work still conveys much of the power of Paul’s pen: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (verse 7, KJV).

No doubt they had good reason for stating his conviction as they did. But Paul’s conviction does not speak indefinitely of “a good fight” that might be contrasted with some other, or “my course” that might be compared with someone else’s.

What Paul wrote was three verbs in the perfect tense and three nouns introduced by definite articles, because there is hardly any more utterly total way to celebrate the absolute triumph his crowning will signify—death notwithstanding—than this sequence of three iterations of the tense of finality united to three iterations of the article of definition. He was ready to die, and ready for triumph, coronation, and victory.

Systematic Struggle

Dying, for Paul, losing his head on the way to eternity, was only the next move of a thoroughgoing program of struggle. Living for God on earth and in the flesh was a reality of constant struggle. His verb of fighting,agonizomai, is a feature of his writing and a graphic characterization of his living.

Speaking to the Corinthian saints about competition (c. A.D. 55), Paul compares the transience of secular athletic effort to the permanence of the Christian’s victory: “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath” (1 Cor. 9:25). That wreath of victory fades, and their focus passes to some other endeavor, whether it be yet another challenge or their retirement to a life of ease.

Not so with the saints. For them struggle is both pervasive and never ceasing until the breath is gone from their lungs and, in Paul’s case, their head severed from their body.

Admirably and ironically, their struggle does not involve any foreign enemies. Paul’s word agonizomai, occurs in what Greek grammar calls the middle voice. In the active voice, “I fight.” In the passive, “I am fought.” In the middle voice “I” can be both subject and object, so that “I fight myself.” It is my way of life: “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (verse 27).

Evidently, for Paul, fighting carries none of the stigma that lawless graciousness attaches to it today. As Jude knew, the principles of truth were something worth contending for (Jude 3). The Christian charity of these apostles afforded no hosp
itality to the theological garbage seeking accommodation on the airwaves today: Jesus paid it all, and grace is everything. So everything has grace become that there is nothing left for grace to be. The law that exposes its role has been consigned to oblivion along with the sin that makes grace absolutely necessary. And since there is no law, there is neither basis for striving for any mastery, nor particular sense of temperance in all things.

Paul, on the other hand, believed in striving for the mastery because he knew for himself the perversity of the human soul, knew that no good thing dwells in human flesh even when the mind has been introduced to the story of Jesus (Rom. 7); he knew that it is not “in a man who walks to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23). And he also knew the power of grace, knew that he could do everything through the grace of Christ that gave him strength.

So Paul fought, crucified with Christ, yet living; living a miraculous new life in the flesh by faith in the self-sacrificing Son of God! If Jesus dying for him on a cross was gospel, for Paul struggle for personal spiritual mastery was gospel too. For the celebration of the cross is the celebration of victory in that struggle, resisting unto blood in the grace that Christ provides (Heb. 12:4).

Scintillating Victory

The reverberating triumph of 2 Timothy 4:7 is decidedly more than our popular understanding of that verse. For Paul does not find it sufficient to claim that he has fought a good fight, one struggle among many. His struggle for the incorruptible crown is the only fight there is. Everything else in existence is incidental or subservient to it. It has been the fight of his life. And he has fought that fight and got it right, and won: “I have fought the good fight.” There is no other. It is life’s only consequential fight. Every other may be lost if this one is won.

Again, for Paul the course he has run is the only course that matters. There is no other worth accommodating in his rhetoric. He announces, “I have finished the course.”

And he has kept the faith. For there is only one worth the name. He had earlier espoused another. He had believed with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, persecuting and brutalizing people for it. Until he met Jesus face to face. After that one-on-one encounter it didn’t matter what anybody did to him. He could take it for Jesus. It didn’t matter any more what he thought he had. He counted it all as rubbish to have Jesus instead (Phil. 3:8). One faith, says Paul. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). And he knew he had found and lived it. So he could truly say, “I have kept the faith.”

Whereupon, he knew and could aver above all question that “there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).

Contending for the mastery, the battle for disciplined, Spirit-controlled living is not a thing apart from the good news of saving grace through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is part and parcel of that good news. Its victories are nothing less than a continuing declaration to the world, the flesh, and the devil, of the open secret of what God can do. Struggle is gospel too.

  1. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2604495/Fun-runner-42-collapsed-finish-line-London-Marathon-died-hospital-raising-funds-help-charity-supporting-mother.html.
  2. Ibid.
  3. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2511911/Moritz-Erhardt-exhausted-Merrill-Lynch-intern-died-epileptic-fit.html#ixzz332zMQr4u.
  4. Except otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.