“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” —1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Jesse was in his forties and had a successful track record as a crackerjack salesman and executive in several Fortune 1000 companies. His success led him to start his own business. His desire was to found and run his company on biblical principles and commit part of the profits to Christian missions.
The company grew and profits came, and Christian missions benefited. Over time, however, the principles of Christian ethics remained in writing, but the operating activities began to veer from the desired targets. Why this happened is anyone’s guess, but, for many observers, the facts of the decline left disappointment in their wake—high staff turnover at the company, disillusionment for what it meant to be a Christian, and a cynicism about a business run on Christian principles.
Catastrophic Moral Failure
By the time Jesse was in his late sixties, things began to get tougher and, for reasons no one understands, Jesse had a severe moral failure that led to his resignation as CEO, a sale of the company at its nadir, and embarrassment for the cause of Christianity. Many said it would have been better if the company had never claimed to be operating on Christian principles. Jesse was (and still is) a good friend, but his failure caused me to begin thinking about what it takes to finish the race of life growing in the graces of Christ instead of stumbling into sin. For Jesse, life is not over—he can recover, and I hope he does—but damage has been done.
The recently exposed moral failures uncovered by the law firm investigating Ravi Zacharias, and the failure of Jesse, put an exclamation mark on my desire to think through what it means to endure and finish a life and career well. My administrative assistant, Pat Leahy, dug out some old notes from materials I used at a men’s retreat for a church in Portland, Oregon, and later at a ministry in Cleveland, Ohio. The subject of those presentations was “finishing strong.” After Pat read the materials, he vehemently urged me to put the material in book form. This book is an attempt to do just what Pat suggested—put in writing what I covered verbally at those retreats.
This book is not a biography or a narrative that flows from one day to the next or year to year. It is a collection of principles learned from godly teachers and preachers, and a life filled with athletic, military, business, family, mission-field, and pastoral experiences. All these principles and experiences point to the importance of “endurance” in running life’s race to the finish. Paul put it this way as he addressed the Philippian church: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3: 12).
My hope is that this material will help young men prepare for the finish line, equip faithful Christian men with challenges to help them grow, and prevent any other people like Jesse out there from failing as they approach the finish. When men like Ravi and Jesse fail in their later years, especially from some moral failure, a whole lifetime’s reputation can be destroyed and, more importantly, the cause of the Kingdom becomes dishonored.
But more important than these high-profile leaders are the millions of Christian men leading their families, their work associates, and their friends in the course of everyday life. I am not a high-profile personality, yet I influence my brothers and sisters, my grown children, my grandchildren, my wife, my cousins and extended family, my neighbors, my in-laws, my fellow church members, my friends at our former churches, my former work associates, my classmates from USNA and Harvard, my former teammates in baseball, basketball, football, and the men and women that I have mentored and counseled. I hope you get the idea. I am a “nobody” and yet the total number of people that might be negatively impacted by my finishing poorly is a large number. My guess is, if you think about it, we all have a fairly large number of people watching our example. Living well, enduring well, and finishing strongly are all important.
But a singular focus on preventing failure alone is a strategy that leads to a poor finish. Preventing failure is a defensive strategy. To win football games, a championship team needs to have both a strong defense and a strong offense. The same is true with finishing strong. There are things we desire to prevent and avoid— those are defensive strategies. I deal with those in this book. There are also things we need to pursue, develop, nurture, and pray for. These are offensive strategies, and they are equally important. I also try to deal with those. A fearful overemphasis on defense without an appropriate attention to offense will lead to a dissatisfying outcome. Both are important, and both need our attention.
Failures on defense or offense begin on the inside, whether you are a famous personality or regular guy. Let there be no doubt about that! The roots of our failures are in our hearts. The Bible defines the heart as the center of our being as God’s image bearers and includes the mind, the emotions, and the will of a believer. Beliefs drive the engine of our hearts, influenced by, regulated by, and responded to by our wills.
Proper beliefs begin in the mind and are tested by the trials of life. Those trials should lead to appropriate convictions of the heart. The convictions lead to suitable attitudes, and those attitudes then hopefully will translate into godly behaviors. This is why biblical knowledge, good theology, and accurate handling of the biblical text are so important. What we believe ultimately results in our willful actions. Belief leads to behavior.
An illustration may help. A curious young boy is warned by his mother not to touch the electric burners on a stove. The boy finds the beautiful red burners enticing. Attracted to them, he touches the glowing, round, hot elements. He cries, and his mom soothes his wounded spirit. He never touches the stove again. His belief begins by assuming his mom is wrong and stove rings are playthings. His belief is tested. That test produces a severely burnt finger and a conviction that his mom was right. His attitude toward stoves and his mom’s word changes. His behavior now conforms with his tested belief.
Sustained righteousness is an internal matter. The suggestions in this book may seem to imply that certain actions alone are what are needed to finish strong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sustained willpower is necessary, but not sufficient, for a proper finish. The heart of the matter is the human heart—real change and permanent change begin inside.
Change from the Inside Out
It is possible to willfully change your behavior in spurts. Isolated external actions for short periods of time are merely window dressings on a filthy, broken window. Christ called similar behaviors “white-washed tombs” as he addressed the external self-righteousness of the Pharisees. These tombs and behaviors look good on the outside for a period of time until the stench of death permeates their reality.
Let me be clear about this: I am after changing your mind and your thinking with proven ideas that have their origin in the Bible! The Bible is given to us to help us know who God is, what He has done in human history, and help us to understand how we may best relate to Him. My suggestions and warnings are not infallible, but their roots are in God’s Word, and they are designed to help us think about what it means to finish strong. Not all suggestions are merely suggestions. My wife pointed out that the suggestion in chapter 2 (You Must Be Born Again) is not a suggestion at all. In fact, it is an absolute requirement. She is correct.
As you read this book, may God cause you to be like the Bereans that Paul commended in the book of Acts.
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.Acts 17:11
Please, examine these suggestions and see if they are so.
Excerpted from Endure: A Christian Man’s Guide to Finishing Strong by Bill Newton, now available from Shepherd Press.