Well, Competitive Dad came through for me on Sunday in the City to Surf Half Marathon. You should have seen me as I…(Yaaaawn! – Ed).
Anyway, at the start line two emotional responses oscillated. Would I be driven by the fear of failure or the joy of winning (by winning you mean a PB, actual winning was NEVER on the cards right? – Ed)? As a glass half-empty kinda guy it was probably the fear of failure that spurred me on at the start line. I didn’t want to end up with DNF against my name. My troublesome achilles could hang off in shreds for all I cared, I was going to cross that finish line!
When it comes to the gospel and finishing the race well the New Testament seemingly oscillates too. Warnings against failure to keep going are plentiful, but these are offset by the spur of the joy of reward for victory. The book of Hebrews is a clear example of both of these in tension with each other. “The Israelites fell in the desert!” warns the writer “Make sure you don’t fall through the same unbelief.” Then later: “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus…who for the joy that was set before him…” For each “fear of failure” someone throw at you, you could throw a “joy of winning” right back at them.
So which is it to be? Fear of failure or joy of winning? Both. The trick is to know when to apply which one to either yourself or in a pastoral setting. Get it wrong and you end up either crushing someone or yourself, or excusing someone (or yourself – Ed). Both are dangers.
So is there a rule of thumb? Well, if it’s complacency you are dealing with, a lazy inattentiveness to sin or habitually unhealthy, ungodly practices, then highlight passages that warn about the consequences of “neglect[ing] such a great salvation.” (Hebrews 2:1-4). I know it seems almost arcane in our culture to do that, but resist the temptation to avoid it. It has never been culturally appropriate to warn against sin and get rapturous applause – just ask the Old Testament Prophets.
Now that I mentioned them a word for you “Old Testament Prophet” blokes (yes, they are usually beardy blokes in bad clothes who are a bit intense and haven’t had kids yet – Ed) who like to slay ’em in the aisles. Your personality type is such that you just LOVE talking up the fear of failure. If so, then perhaps you need to do the opposite, and spur people on with encouragement and the joy of winning. Yes there is a lot of sin “out there”, but there’s a lot of sin “in here” too, and a particularly troublesome one is self-righteousness. The motivation of joy and reward runs throughout Scripture. John Piper often warns us about being more pious than Jesus! By that he means that Jesus holds out reward as a reason for sticking with him. The reward just happens to be Jesus himself, so make sure your people get a glimpse of the Celestial City when you are calling them to repent!
On Sunday the joy I felt at crossing the line was but a sliver of the joy I will feel on that Day, when I receive not simply a commemorative medal for finishing, but a whole bunch of stuff for conquering! And it includes some stuff I can’t even get my head around: “the right to eat of the tree of life” (Rev 2:7), “hidden manna and a white stone with a new name on it” (Rev 2:17), “authority over the nations” (Rev 2:26), “sitting with Jesus on his throne” (Rev 3:21). The possibility of failure will then be a thing of the past.