When you think you’re doing well – watch out!

A short talk on Christian complacency, from 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

One day, a hare and a tortoise decide to have a race. The hare zooms off at a tremendous speed, and half-way round the course he is so confident of victory that he settles down under a tree for a rest. Before long he is fast asleep in the afternoon sun; and a few hours later he wakes up just in time to see the tortoise cross the finishing line ahead of him.

What was the hare’s problem? Complacency – he thought he’d be fine! And complacency is a killer in any kind of project, isn’t it – because starting well doesn’t necessarily guarantee finishing well.

And what about our Christian lives? What happens if, spiritually speaking, we feel things are going so well that we can just coast for a while, perhaps having a quiet spiritual snooze under a tree? The Christian life can very easily end up going nowhere at all.

For example, some years ago I knew a young singer in her twenties, newly married, a lovely girl. She didn’t just have a beautiful voice; she had a wonderful ability to move people as she sang the truths of the gospel. She helped lead a youth group at church, and as far as I could tell was filled with love for Jesus. But then, apparently out of the blue, she left the church, and she left her husband for another man; and, as far as I know, tragically she is now in a spiritual wasteland.

How does that happen, to someone who seemed to be doing so well? And, given that starting as a Christian and finishing as a Christian are not the same thing, how can we make sure we keep going?

That’s the question the apostle Paul takes up for the Corinthian church in our passage this morning in 1 Corinthians 10 (p168). So let’s read from chapter 10 verse 1:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.

He’s talking, of course, about the Israelites, God’s chosen people, and their miraculous escape from slavery in Egypt. He says, Look how well they started! They were under the cloud that signified God’s presence; they walked through the Red Sea as the waters parted; that was their ‘baptism’, if you like; and they didn’t just have physical food and water miraculously provided for them – they also had spiritual food and drink because actually, in a remarkable way, Jesus was with them. Like the hare, they started so well. But, verse 5:

Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

They were like Christians who have been baptised, who perhaps have had great spiritual experiences, who have seemed to make a great start to the Christian life, but who have ended up in the spiritual wilderness.

Starting is not the same as finishing! Complacency is a killer.

I don’t know where you think you are as a Christian today, and how you feel things are going. If you are worried about getting shipwrecked as a Christian, then this passage will give you great help and encouragement by showing you how God will keep you going. If you think things are basically going fine, then these verses were written for you! They warn you to watch out! And they tell you how.

So here in the rest of these verses are three things that will help us to keep going as Christians. See if you can spot them with me.

Firstly, in verses 6-11, LEARN FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT.

It’s always good, isn’t it, when you can learn from someone else’s mistakes rather than from your own? And in the Old Testament God has given us a gigantic visual aid of salvation. Jesus Christ is there throughout its pages, just as he was there with the Israelites as their ‘rock’. All the terrible things that happened, all the mistakes that were made, Paul says in verse 11, “happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.”

Isn’t that extraordinary? It happened for our benefit, so we could learn! That’s why it’s so good when we have Old Testament readings in church, or when you read the Old Testament at home. That can be hard work; but one thing that I’ve found revolutionary is to read a book like “Dig Even Deeper”, or “God’s Big Picture”, which shows how all the different parts of the bible fit together.

And here, Paul lists five specific mistakes that we can learn from in the Old Testament narrative of those 40 years in the wilderness. Have a look for them with me:

First, in verse 6, these people whom God had rescued desired evil. In a way, that’s their fundamental problem: their hearts and desires wandered away from God.

Second, in verse 7, they became idolaters. Do you remember how they made the golden calf to worship while Moses was up on the mountain?

Third, in verse 8, they indulged in sexual immorality.

Fourth, in verse 9, they put Christ to the test – here, specifically he’s talking about the time when they complained about the desert conditions and wished themselves back in Egypt.

And fifth, in verse 10, they grumbled. Specifically here, he’s probably talking about the time when 250 community leaders began a mutiny against Moses. When God judged them with death, everybody else started to grumble about that, and thousands of them died in a plague.

Terrible times. But terrible times that happened as an example to us, to show us God’s plan of salvation and help us to trust him.

Let’s learn from the Old Testament! That’s the first thing.

Secondly, we must KNOW OUR DANGERS.

Look at v12:

If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.

Complacency is such a dangerous thing for a Christian. When we think our spiritual life is going well, that’s often when we’re most vulnerable to the devil’s attacks. Can I ask, where do you need to ‘watch out’ at the moment? Think back over that list of five we’ve just read. Is it the evil desires of verse 6 that are getting out of control? Is it the idolatry of verse 7? (That might be mixing other religions into Christianity; or for us it’s often the worship of objects in a different way: materialism and greed.)

Do you need to ‘watch out’ for sexual temptation in one form or another, as in verse 8? Are you in verse 9: in danger of testing Christ by complaining about what he’s given you, or saying how hard the Christian life is? Or, verse 10, are you in danger of grumbling against God’s appointed leaders in the church? Beware of the respectable sins, like grumbling or greed, as well as the more notorious ones. They are just as dangerous. We need to watch out for them all! One of the best ways to ‘watch out’ is to read the bible and pray with other Christians who can keep us accountable over our weaknesses. That might be in a House Group, or one-to-one.

What have we seen? If we’re to finish the Christian race, we must learn from the Old Testament; we must know our dangers; and, finally, we must TRUST IN THE FAITHFULNESS OF GOD.

Fundamentally, Paul knows that it is God who will keep the Corinthians going as Christians. Just turn back to the first chapter of his letter, on page 162. In chapter 1 verse 8 he says:

He [God] will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

If the prospect of falling as a Christian concerns you, then you’re probably not the kind of person who needs to worry about it! If you’re steadily keeping going like the tortoise, wondering how you’ll get to the end, then don’t worry: God will keep you going! Paul is not really writing here to people like that. He’s writing to people like the hare, who are complacent, and trusting in their Christian past.

But Christians who face trials and temptations and want to overcome them can be sure of God’s faithfulness. Have a look back in our passage at chapter 10 verse 13, where there’s a specific promise:

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Whatever your trial, whatever your temptation, there is always a right way out, the way Jesus would have chosen in your position. That means, of course, that we never have an excuse for getting it wrong; which is why we constantly need to depend on the death of Jesus for our sins, as we remember at this communion service. But it means the Christian can never be trapped in an impossible position, even when it seems like it. There is always a right thing to do; God has made a way out, and will give you the strength to endure the test.

Think back to my friend the singer, who went from apparently being on fire for Jesus to walking away from her church and her husband. I don’t know what went on in her head. But often it is just a slippery slope of seemingly harmless things that can lead us astray. Perhaps just a bit of flirting with someone to see if they flirt back and give your self-esteem a boost. Perhaps letting the love of money or possessions gradually take over. Perhaps a seed of discontentment with what God has given you. Perhaps compromising on biblical teaching on some issue that you find hard or unpopular. Perhaps just having a little grumble about the church or its leaders, to see if anyone else agrees with you. To which Paul would say, “Watch out!” But he’d also say “God is faithful; and with this test he has also provided a way out.”

Praise God for his faithfulness! Praise God for the Old Testament, which teaches us so much. And as Christians let’s be like the tortoise, not like the hare. Let’s watch out for complacency, resist temptation, and press on steadily to finish the race.

[All Saints Crowborough, 13 October 2013]

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