What I Learned From Rocky, Part 2

boxingIn 1976, a low budget film starring an unknown actor was released that immediately became a classic: Rocky. We experienced the exhilaration of his dancing at the top of the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We experienced his pain in the grueling training. We experienced the satisfaction of a goal met. We felt his pain and his joy because he was no superhero. He was just one of us.

There are a number of life lessons conveyed in this movie. Last time we looked at “Don’t let the world define what success looks like” and “Believe in yourself.” Let’s continue on:

#3 Don’t give up

Rocky faced setbacks, ridicule and obstacles that should have ended his dream, but he refused to give up. From the minute we are born life is a struggle, it always was and always will be. We are reminded as we watch our newest grandchild, Caleb. He started life by struggling to breath, to roll over and then to crawl. He would try to stand up but fall down time and time again until he learned to balance. Then came walking and running along with its scrapes and bruises. Did he stop? No, in spite of the struggles, in spite of the falls, he pressed through. Now mom has to run to keep up with him! Ahead is still bicycle and baseball, grades and graduation. Still further is job, marriage, children, aging, loss of loved ones. Reality is life is going to knock him down.

We can rest assured we will encounter pain and struggle. Everyone does. But it is the one who gets up before they are counted out who has a chance at seeing victory. These people look toward the prize. They know that failure is not about getting hit and knocked down; that is to be expected when you are in a fight. Failure is when you stay down. One of my favorite toys when the kids were small was an inflatable punching bag that was weighted at the bottom. When you hit it, it would fall over but then pop right back up. Down and back up, down and back up. The bottom line is: we get knocked down and we get back up.

There will be times when we try hard, give it all we’ve got and still get beat up by life. Rocky Balboa tells us: “It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward…that’s how winning is done.” That goes along with the Bible in Philippians 3:14 (NKJV); “Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

#4 Use what I have

Rocky didn’t have it all growing up in a troubled Philadelphia neighborhood. He trained by running the trash strewn streets. Who could forget the classic scene of Rocky pounding a side of beef in a meat locker? While his opponent trained with the finest equipment and latest technology, Rocky used what he had. I can’t expect to always have the best tools at work, so I must learn to work with –and appreciate – what I have and trust God to do what I can’t.

Paul said in Philippians 4:13 (NKJV), “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” My strength comes from God but it is still up to me to step out and put action to my faith. If I don’t have the desire to make something happen, then it’s not going to happen. Success comes when preparation meets opportunity. Rocky was fortunate in that his opportunity allowed him plenty of time for training, for preparation. Most of the opportunities we encounter will require advance preparation.

You have probably never heard of Shamgar. He only gets one verse in the Bible: Judges 3:31. One day he was attacked by the enemy Philistines. All he had to defend himself with was an ox goad, a pointy wooden stick, but with it he killed 600 Philistines. That happened not because he was highly skilled at using a pointy stick as a weapon but because he depended on God and used what he had.

Samson picked up the jawbone of an ass. David had just a sling and 5 stones when he faced Goliath. A young boy had a lunch of 5 loves and 2 fish that he gave to Jesus. Each used what he had and great things resulted. Their obedience allowed God to put His super on their natural.

Everything I hold in my hand is either a burden or a blessing depending on what I do with it. When I hold on, it becomes a problem. When I yield it to the Lord, He is able to release its potential for blessing in my life.

#5 People matter

According to Rocky, “You hang around coconuts you get nowhere…. You hang out with nice people you get nice friends. You hang out with smart people you get smart friends. You hang out with yo-yo people you end up with yo-yo friends. You see? It’s simple mathematics.” That goes along with Proverbs 27:17 (NKJV), “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

Imagine yourself standing on a chair surrounded by four friends. Your job is to lift all four up onto the chair while their job is to pull you off of the chair. Who is most likely to succeed? It is impossible to associate regularly with evil people and not be contaminated by their ideas and habits. 1Corinthians 15:33 (NKJV) warns, “Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits.’” When someone influences us to make a choice we know is wrong, we have, in effect, decided that their approval is more important to us than God’s.

We constantly face the temptation to follow the crowd, but not all who smile at us are going in the same direction. We need discernment and a willingness to distance ourselves when needed. That is when unity with other believes is so important. Being in relationship with like-minded friends shields us from that pressure. We need to choose a few fellow disciples to be with us. You might call them “lifeboat buddies”. Eccl 4:9-12 Proverbs 18:24 (NIV) tells us, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

I don’t live in a vacuum. I need to ask myself who is influencing me. Are they moving me closer to the cross or further away?

Finally, we need to allow the Word of God to transform our thinking. That is where our guidance, our strength and our hope comes from. Psalm 118:6 promises, “The LORD is on my side.” Perhaps in a boxing match we cannot expect that but certainly in the battles of life we can depend on that promise. Paul, in 1Corinthians 5:59a (NIV) admonishes, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you.” Sounds like Rocky read that verse.

A House on I Can Do It Street

san-franciscoImagine with me God the Father seated on His golden throne, His feet resting comfortably on a velvet foot stool. The air is heavy with the fragrance of flowers; Hillsong music is playing quietly in the background. He looks over the side of His throne down to earth and suddenly His eyes widen in horror, His feet drop to the floor with a thunder that shakes heaven and He says with a slight edge of panic in His voice, “Jesus, My Son, come quickly. Look at what Joe just did! Did Your sacrifice cover that?!” Jesus extends a nail-scarred hand to rest gently on the Father’s shoulder, “Yes, Father, My blood covers even that.” No, that conversation just ain’t gonna happen.

If I told you some of the things of my past would you be shocked!? Perhaps. Is God shocked? Of course not. If I could look into the future and see everything I will do someday would I be shocked? Undoubtedly. Is God? No. The truth is I cannot shock God. There is nothing God can’t fix through the blood of Jesus. More than that, there is nothing He hasn’t already fixed through the cross.

There is nothing spiritual about guilt and condemnation. God does not expect a penance of beating ourselves up for a period before he will forgive us. Guilt is just unforgiveness of myself and, like unforgiveness, it keeps me chained to the past and the devil loves it. Why would I continue whipping myself when Jesus took the whip for me?

When our oldest son, our firstborn, was little we made a lot of mistakes. We used negativity to motivate and we disciplined out of anger. We basically followed what was modeled to us by our parents. Today he is bitter and angry. The choices he has made sadden me but we have asked his forgiveness and God’s forgiveness. That is something “behind” (Philippians 3:14) and I will not be chained to feeling guilty about the past I can’t change. Not forgiving myself would be destructive to my destiny. I could not be a light of God’s love if I remained under a burden of guilt for every sin and failure of my life.

I was burdened by guilt and condemnation for many years after I became a Christian. Then I read a verse that changed my life: Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” The key is to repent and let go. 1John 1:9 promises, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Once we confess, once we repent, they’re gone. Why would I keep holding on to them? That just sucks me back in.

I will never be who God wants me to be if I am loaded down with guilt. There is a difference between healthy grief and carrying a burden of guilt and condemnation. Sorrow for sin is normal but a burden of guilt drains my energy and my desire to grow and serve God. I will be held back from going where God wants me until I am willing to let go of my past.

Isaiah 43:25 promises, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” Why am I still talking to God about things He has forgotten. Am I waiting for God to do something in my life? He has already done all He is going to do. Now it is up to me. I can’t change yesterday but I can change today and changes made today will change my tomorrows.

When our children were small we would load them in a backpack and hike with them. Problem was as they got older, they were darn heavy. So often I carry around a sack of guilt. I may put it down for a while when I go to church, shove it under the seat in front of me but after the closing prayer I pick it up again and carry it out with me. I may feel energized to carry that burden more easily for the moment but it is still there. It weighs me down and soon I am stumbling and shuffling under the unbearable weight again. That is the time I need to remember Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Ever feel like you can never do anything right and please God? Romans 5:20 promises, “Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound.” Grace is the empowerment from the Holy Spirit to overcome sin.

When Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees strikes out, do you think he comes off the field saying, “I’m such a loser. I can’t do anything right.” Or is he saying, “OK, I’ll do better next time. What do I need to change? I better be out for batting practice early tomorrow.” He is not dwelling on the past; he is focused on the future and that focus makes him an overcomer. Forward focused. When I sin I need to be asking: What was the trigger? What do I need to be doing differently? Every failure can become a launching pad to growth.

Guilt starts as a thought, becomes a feeling and we too often live by our feelings. When I live by what I know is true and not my feelings, my feelings will eventually change to line up with truth. All problems can be traced back to the way I think. That is why the Bible talks so much about our thoughts: Be transformed by the renewal of your mind (Romans 12:2), As a man thinks in his heart so is he (Proverbs 23:7), Bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2Corinthians 10:5). Meditating on the word of God will change my thinking, change my feelings and ultimately change my life.

Romans 6:2 declares I died to sin. Yet sin seems to be alive and well, screaming at me every day. Here is the difference: The new me does not want to sin. Sin has been taken care of. I am a new creation (2Corinthians 5:17). I have a new heart to replace a stony heart (Ezekiel 36:26). I am the temple of the Holy Spirit (1Corinthians 6:19). Is God giving me a license to sin? No! (You wouldn’t be reading this if you were looking for an excuse to sin.) God sees my heart. I have a new heart, a new desire to please God.

Jesus was my substitute in taking sin to the cross. All sin was taken care of. I don’t need to pay for it because Jesus paid for it.  In God’s eyes that was me on the cross. That is not, “I hope so, maybe it’s so, I wish it were so.” It is a fact. My name is written in heaven. Romans 6:3 promises that I can live in newness of life. That comes from knowing who I am in Christ.

What do I think are God’s expectations of me? God is not as hard to get along with as I may think. Matthew 5:48 says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Whoa, that’s a pretty high standard, impossible in reality. I can get discouraged pretty quickly trying to live to that standard, but the Amplified Bible gives a fuller picture, defining perfect as “growing into complete maturity of godliness in mind and character, having reached the proper height of virtue and integrity.” Life is not about having arrived but about growing. It is time to leave the city of regret which includes thought like, “I should have…” “I shouldn’t have…” “I did it again!” “I should know better.” “I’m never going to change.”

I died with Christ and now I live with Him.  The closer I am to God the more strength I will have to do the right thing and reject the wrong thing. When I fail, I repent, recognize that I have more growing to do in that area and keep moving. I don’t need to fear sin because it can’t conquer me.

According to 1John 2:1, if I should sin I have an advocate, a lawyer, someone on my side. When our son was killed, we hired a lawyer to help with the insurance settlement. He was the one on our side though all negotiations.  That is who Jesus is for me before the Father. He was the atoning sacrifice.

Hebrews 12:1 describes a cloud of witnesses that are cheering us on in this race. That is my son, my mom, the child we lost to miscarriage.  You may finish reading today and make a nasty comment to someone or dwell on a selfish thought, and the devil is right in your face saying, “How can you do that when you just came from church! You are never going to change!” “Devil, shut up. I am growing.” Hebrew 9:12 (NIV) says, “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” The work of redemption is complete. That promise is not just for Billy Graham or your pastor or Roy the gal in the next row at church. It’s for you!  Every stain removed. We have been set free.

Let’s start building that house on I Can Do It Street. Here are some construction materials to use:

  • I am a friend of God. (John 15:15)
  • God is on my side. (Psalm 118:6)
  • God lives inside me. (1Corinthians 3:16)
  • I have been made alive with Christ. (Ephesians 2:5)
  • Nothing can separate me from God’s love. (Romans 8:35-37, 39)
  • I am more than a conqueror in Christ. (Romans 8:37)
  • I am a new creation. (1Corinthians 5:17)
  • I am the righteousness of God in Christ. (1Corinthians 5:21)
  • I am free of condemnation because I am in Christ. (Romans 8:1)
  • The Father loves me as much as He loves Jesus. (John 17:23)

Tunnel Vision

TunnelI recently saw a video used in police officer training. In it the officer was directing a suspect to put down the rifle he had in his left hand. The suspect was compliant but the officer was so fixated on the rifle that he didn’t see the suspect reach with his right hand for the handgun that was in the small of his back. It is called tunnel vision as the field of vision narrows and the individual is blinded to all distractions and other threats.

Tunnel vision is what a wide receiver has, not thinking about crowd noise only the football as it spirals toward him. Or the batter as he concentrates on the baseball hurling toward the plate. Even the Anheiser Bush Clydesdales wear blinders to block out distractions.

In 1994, Tom Amberly set a world record by making 2,750 free throws in a row. Some important facts about this record are:

  • He was not a professional basketball player, he was a foot doctor.
  • He was 71 at the time.
  • He did not miss number 2,751. The building manager shut off the lights and closed the gym.
  • According to Amberly, “The only thing limiting you is yourself….we are more limited by our beliefs than our ability.”

Tunnel vision on the right things can be good, on the wrong things it is a disaster, because what I focus on gets bigger in my life. A man is so focused on getting ahead in his career that he neglects his family. A mother is devoted to her children at the expense of her relationship with her husband. A teenager emphasizes sports and lets the grades slip. We get so busy with the cares of life that we lose sight of what is of eternal value. Matthew 6:33 (NKJV) tells us, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

Samson (Judges 13-16) could have been one of the greatest leaders of Jewish history, but his focus was in the wrong place. He allowed the anointing of testosterone to overpower the anointing of the Holy Spirit. A man who could not be defeated from without was trapped by what was within.

Naomi (Ruth 1) returned to Israel after the death of her husband and sons and said God has dealt bitterly with me. She lost sight of the bigger picture that led to Obed, Jessie and David, the beginning of the generational line that would lead to Jesus. Tunnel vision gets us to focus on the pain and disappointment of today.

In Matthew 19:16-22, Jesus is approached by a young man who asks, “What must I do to have eternal life?” “Obey the commandments.” “I’ve done that all my life.” Jesus then hits at the heart issue for the young man, “One thing you lack. Sell what you have, give it to the poor so you will have treasure in heaven then come, follow Me.” The young man couldn’t do it. His focus was on possessions, not on following Jesus.

Matthew 13:22 warns that the thorns of power, fame or wealth will choke out the seed if we don’t have the right focus. Life is a race to be run. An athlete is focused on the finish line. In Paul’s day, the prize was a crown of olive branches, a perishable crown that soon wilted. Our prize is eternal life. We must live life with a sense of urgency. That requires ignoring the distractions of the world.

In Luke 10, Martha complains to Jesus because she is doing all the work and Mary had tunnel vision on Jesus. His reply in verse 42 (NKJV, emphasis added) is, “But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The Garden of Eden was beautiful with all of the trees and all of the animals. God would walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening. But Eve focused on only one tree and therefore lost sight of God’s plan.

Peter walked on water as long as he had tunnel vision on Jesus, but as soon as he allowed the wind and waves to distract him and took his eyes of Jesus, he went down. (Matthew 14:39)

In Psalm 27:4 (NKJV, emphasis added) King David declared, “One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple.” Tunnel vision.

In Luke 9:51 we read that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. He knew his purpose; He knew His Father’s plan and He would keep His focus on fulfilling that despite the suffering and shame involved. Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV) tells us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

We can read Paul’s take on tunnel vision in Philippians 3:13-14 (NKJV, emphasis added), “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead,  I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

“I do not count myself to have apprehended”

Picture a police office in pursuit of a suspect running down the street. “Officer Jones, what is your status?” “I have not yet apprehended, but I am in pursuit.”

Paul was a Jew of Jews, a teacher of teachers yet he counted all that as rubbish. He was imprisoned, whipped, stoned, shipwrecked, in danger of death throughout his travels. He had given it all yet he says “I do not count myself to have apprehended.” Paul spent much of his life in prison, but he did not sit there feeling sorry for himself or thinking about what he would do when he got out. Much of the New Testament was written while he was in prison.

How often do we get wrapped up in the “little” picture: a focus on today, how we feel, the present circumstances and forget tomorrow’s hopes.

“One thing I do”

Not 10 rules, not 5 steps, not 3 points, one thing. God keeps it simple: one thing. Tunnel vision. Another word is intensity. There was a time we were intense in pursuit of the devil’s plan for our lives. Are we now just going to be bench warmers? Someone does not become a winning athlete by listening to lectures or reading books or cheering from the sidelines. We must get in the game.

Paul did not say, “One thing I will do…” or “One thing I’m going to do…” He was living and acting in the present. What is the busiest day in the world? It’s not Christmas. It’s not Super Bowl Sunday. It’s not even Black Friday. It’s tomorrow! Tomorrow I’ll start that diet. Tomorrow I’ll put in that job application. Tomorrow I’ll start that Bible reading plan. Tomorrow I’ll really get my act together! Tomorrow, tomorrow.

“Forgetting those things which are behind”

There are times when I just want to feel sorry for myself. Sometimes I want to have a nice little pity party, sing a little “Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” and just pout. Joseph in the Old Testament was sold into slavery and then spent years in prison. He could have been bitter but instead he told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.” (Genesis 50:20a NLT)

Is it easy to “forget the things behind”? Of course not, but if I wallow in the sorrows of the past, I hinder my outlook on the future. Paul could have walked around all his life with a tremendous burden of guilt for his persecution of the church, but instead he used it to motivate himself to press forward.

“Reaching forward to those things which are ahead”

I don’t want to stay the same. I refuse to become satisfied or complacent. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1Corinthians 15:19 NIV) Joy does not come from external circumstances; it comes from the assurance of what I have in Christ and who I am in Christ.

“I press toward the goal”

When our son Paul was in grade school, he was active in competitive swimming. He was pretty good at it but he had one fault: when he was ahead he would look to the right or look to the left to see who was there and as a result lose time. We can’t be worried about what somebody else is doing. Like an athlete in the 100 yard dash, I don’t have time to look around comparing myself to others. I need to keep my eyes fixed on the finish line.

“For the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

This is a call to a higher way of living. I cannot stay the same. I cannot become satisfied or complacent. “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2 NLT) The things that sidetrack me now are trivial compared to eternity.

Press toward the goal:

  • “I just don’t feel it.” – Faith is not about feelings; it’s about choice. Press!
  • “I don’t think I can do it.” – With God all things are possible. (Mark 10:27) Press!
  • “I’ve failed so many times.” – His mercies are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:23) Press!
  • “The devil has such a grip on my life.” – Greater is He who is in me than he who is in the world. (1John 4:4) Press!

Finally I ask that we reflect on the old hymn:

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full into His wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim

In the light of His glory and grace.”

Intensity in our calling. Tunnel vision on Jesus.