Monday, July 30, 2018

Don’t Spike the Ball before You Reach the End Zone: A Reflection on Finishing Well

Winning early is not the same as finishing well. Everyone has a story about some hotshot who wowed his company/school/coach and then flamed out before ever reaching the finishing line. The Bible has stories about such people, too.

I want to learn from those whose early success was marred (or erased) by a later implosion of professional or personal failure.

Recently my wife and I were reading again the terrible story of how Israel was torn in two after the death of King Solomon. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son and successor, was a terrible king. A prideful, foolish man occupied the throne of his humble grandfather David and his wise father Solomon. Rehoboam’s hubris rent God’s unified people into two nations, northern Israel and southern Judah.

Rehoboam passed his rule to his son Abijah, who like his father, was an ungodly man and a bad king. And then came Asa, third king of Judah and first to rule under God.

When you start reading about Asa’s ascension to the throne, you want to cheer. (Read his story in 2 Chronicles 14-16). You think, finally, a godly man is on the throne again! He immediately began to steer the kingdom back into submission to Yahweh. He removed the idolatrous high places from Judah’s cities, led the nation in a covenant recommitting to worship and obedience of Yahweh, and even deposed his own mother as queen mother because she worshiped Asherah.

The first crisis of Asa’s rule came with the looming threat of a million-man army from Ethiopia. Though Asa had rebuilt Judah’s military to respectable proportions, it was dwarfed by this terrible invading horde. Asa turned to God, humbled himself and asked for God’s help.

The Lord fought the battle for Judah, and routed the invaders. Then, because he had humbled himself and sought God’s help, Asa received a prophetic commendation and an exhortation to continue trusting Him. The Lord rewarded his devotion with peace in Judah for over thirty years.

Asa seemed like the perfect king!

But in the thirty-sixth year of Asa’s reign he stumbled badly. Faced with another threatening army (but nowhere near the size of the army that had brought him to his knees decades before), Asa decided to rely upon his own wisdom and accumulated wealth. He played a triangulation game by bribing an ally of this immediate enemy. (Pallet loads of cash, you might say.) That strategy worked after a fashion. The invaders, having lost a key partner, retreated.

Asa may have forestalled an invasion, but he offended the God of the universe. This time a prophetic word came to rebuke him for trusting in himself and not in Almighty God. But instead of repenting, King Asa lashed out at God’s prophet and threw him in prison.

Asa ruled for thirty-five years in humble obedience to the Lord. During that time he was a great, godly king. But the last six years of his reign were marked by pride, cruelty, and national conflict. When he was struck with a serious illness, he refused to turn to God, and sought only medical solutions.

Winning early is not the same thing as finishing well.

No matter what our age, we all ought to reflect on our life, death, and legacy, and to consider how we might avoid repeating the last chapters of Asa’s life. Here are a few of my reflections:
First, and most obvious, we mustn’t assume that winning early means finishing well. Don’t spike the ball before you reach the end zone. The Christian life is a long walk of obedience, and we need Christ as much each day as we did the moment we first met him. The great Apostle Paul worried about this very thing, and spoke transparently about his need for godly discipline "lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Second, we better learn to listen to criticism. It just might be the voice of God. The need for humility, mid-course corrections, and repentance does not diminish - it escalates - the longer you walk with the Lord.

Third, how thankful we must be for God’s grace. Even at his death, Scripture portrays Asa as one of the good kings. Judah honored him as a hero. The Lord did not abandon him even when he took a wrong turn at the end.

I hope your legacy - and mine - will not be written like Asa’s but like Paul’s. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth 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 Timothy 4:7, 8).