The Beautiful Fight
By Gary Thomas
The Beautiful Fight
Today’s believers often lose touch with the sense of the glory of being a Christian. We settle for so little — a tame religion, a few rituals, maybe even an occasional miraculous answer to prayer — and so pass our lives without understanding our true identity in Christ, embracing our calling as God’s children, or fulfilling our divine purpose.
Is the Christianity taught today large enough to seize our hearts? Does its promise of transformation so compel us that we would give all we have to take hold of it?
Most of us have heard the modern translation of 2 Timothy 4:7 that says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” The Orthodox fathers looked at the passage in a different way. They translate the reading like this: “I have fought the Beautiful Fight.” What a mesmerizing twist of a phrase! We can easily think of what is beautiful, and our minds can quickly grasp what constitutes a fight.
But putting the two together? A beautiful fight?
Here’s the brilliance of it all: in the Christian life of real transformation and sacrificial service, there is drama, passion, struggle, and vision — everything our souls need to feel alive…
…The Beautiful Fight explores how faith in Jesus Christ can be radically different from and better than what we are currently experiencing. Christianity as a spiritual journey is not simply defined by what we believe or how we behave but is marked profoundly by who we are. It is a different type of transformation — a transformation of being, not just allegiance; a transformation of experience, not just confession; a transformation of existence, not just adherence. It is a return to splendor — for the glory of God.
A Compelling Life
In my view, the contemporary church is severely tempted to compensate for its lack of spiritual weight with reliance on cleverness and cultural awareness — as if these two qualities can overcome a lack of God’s empowering presence. While I applaud the God-given desire to engage our culture, how much better it would be if we were first transformed. Then we could demonstrate to the world true, God-breathed creativity instead of cleverness, and familiarity with the Trinity instead of an obsession with proving how well we can read the latest cultural trend. We cannot compensate for being strangers to God by becoming friends with the culture. On the contrary, we become our culture’s truest friend by becoming more aware of the God who not only engages our culture but also inspires, critiques, and transforms it.
Perhaps one of the best ways to engage our culture is to do the hard work necessary to cooperate fully with God to develop a compelling life. Bono isn’t a compelling figure just because he’s a rock star; he’s compelling because he’s a rock star who has something to say.
What defines a compelling life? Someone who is available to God and regularly experiences God’s fellowship, presence, and empowerment. There are no substitutes, no shortcuts. We are not compelling; on the contrary, we are sinful, often poor imitations of our Lord. But when God lives through us, shines through us, and overcomes our worst inclinations with his merciful transformation — now that’s compelling! People become interested not so much in us but in what’s so different about us. The non-Christian notices the changes as we become more and more like Christ — if indeed we are experiencing more and more of Christ.
Looking Through God’s Eyes
When we look at life through God’s eyes, we become lost in wonder and convinced of God’s astounding generosity, his marvelous mercy, and his gigantic grace. Sin causes us to look at life through the lens of entitlement — that we deserve salvation without repentance, wealth without work, accolades without self-denial, health without personal discipline, pleasure without sacrifice. Biblical truth reminds us that, in reality, we deserve hell. Because of Adam’s and our own sin, we deserve “painful toil” all the days of our lives, eating food only by the “sweat of [our] brow” (Genesis 3:17, 19), and an eternity separated from the God against whom we have arrogantly rebelled.
Every small laugh, each tiny expression of joy, a simple meal — any momentary reprieve from the ongoing agony of hell — truly is an undeserved gift. When we add the assurance that the completed work of Christ guards our eternity, our lives should radiate not merely joy (though there should be an abundance of that) but wonder and astonishment at how good God truly is.
Being Used to Glorify God
Here’s the joy of the God-empowered life: we can cease expending energy trying to be impressive and instead rest in being used. The reality of being used, by definition, points people back to the One who is using us. Such a ministry glorifies God by relying on God and by demonstrating the reality of God. It recognizes the providence of God, the activity of God, the grace and generosity of God, and the wisdom of God. And there is no greater thrill — absolutely none — than being used to glorify God.
Marking the Manner of Jesus
Every time you enter a room, you bring something with you. Is it lust? If you allow your thoughts to roam into impure places, at that moment you are both creating and bringing lust into your environment.
When you walk along a sidewalk, stroll through the marketplace, or enter a church, what are you bringing with you: lust, or the Spirit of Christ?
When you walk into your house following a long day at work, do you bring selfishness, negativity, harshness, condemnation — or the meekness and gentleness of Christ?
When you go to church on Sunday, what marks your manner more than anything else? Christ, or some spiritual failing? Do you bring encouragement or criticism, judgment or grace?
It was a stunning thought for me to realize that wherever I go, I can spread splashes of glory or showers of sin. What do I want to leave behind?
A Heart For God
A stressed-out mother with no time to herself, perhaps ignored by her husband and isolated from laughter and friends, may soon wonder why she feels so drawn to the refrigerator. She was made to enjoy eternal pleasures; if the poor woman is not experiencing healthy pleasure, she’s likely going to start searching for any kind of pleasure.
A narcissist who hasn’t learned the joy of being used by God to serve and encourage others instead tries to find solace in drawing all attention to himself every time he enters a room. He doesn’t know the joy of selfless, nurturing love and thus gets distracted by a fruitless, constant search to get more and more attention.
Pick a sin, and you can find a holy opposite: giving instead of stealing, encouraging instead of gossiping, building up instead of tearing down. The path of life is filled with eternal pleasures that lead to steady fulfillment. The path of death throws pitiful substitutes at our feet while inevitably leading us to disappointment and occasionally even into various soul-shrinking addictions.
Here’s the well-known trap: temporal pleasures can easily crowd out eternal ones. We are told to let go of cheap substitutes for the same reason that our parents told us not to eat a bag of potato chips a half hour before dinner. If we want to truly relish genuine spiritual nutrition, we must be willing to grow just a little bit hungry without immediately running toward a sin substitute…
…True transformation of the heart is a chosen, focused, intentional, and lifelong journey of surrender, repentance, and renewal. And the longer we keep choosing cheap substitutes, the more obstacles we create in our journey toward transformed obedience. That is why we are told, above all else, to guard our hearts.
Please, let’s avoid the moralist’s trap. A heart for God isn’t just a heart that’s against something; on the contrary, it stands out in what it is for. If I don’t lust, steal, gossip, slander, murder, or covet, but also fail to love, I am far from having the heart of God. It is such a trap to focus on avoiding the negative; to do so is to mistake the means for the end. The end is a heart that loves as God loves, that is satisfied in the things of God, and that revels in the glory of God.
Growing in Holiness
If avoiding certain sins makes us proud and self- righteous, then all we’ve done is act like an alcoholic who thinks he’s superior to another because he gets drunk on vintage wine instead of malt liquor.
There’s a far more glorious motivation for embracing real character growth than selfish piety: “[The Lord] guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3, emphasis added). If my transformation can bring glory to God and comfort to his people,
I’m going to take it that much more seriously. Jesus picked up this theme in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16, emphasis added).
Throughout my youth, I heard sermon after sermon decrying the negative effects of sin, describing how it would do this to me and that to me and make me miserable and so forth. All of that is true, but all of that is also secondary. The highest motivation for striving to grow in holiness is to honor the God who has saved us.
A Transformed Life
The reason I can be so up front and honest about my present sin is that, like Paul, I know that “if God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) — providing such essential comfort that I can’t possibly overstate its importance. Grace means we have the amazing, overwhelming joy of living life with God as our loving ally. He is for us. In our obedience, in our service, in our sin, in our humanity, in every sense, God is for us, redeeming us, loving us, forgiving us, empowering us, drawing us to himself. Once adopted by him, we will never, ever — not even for a second — be forced to live as orphans. Transformation is never about winning his favor but rather about revealing his presence.
Transformation will wear us out if it becomes our duty in order to be accepted by God; but transformation is a life-giving force when it becomes God’s gift…There is no hope without God’s gift; on the other hand, there will be no transformation without our response and cooperation.