The movie Chariots of Fire tells the story of Eric Liddel who ran for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics. Liddel loved to run. He said he ran because “God made me fast and when I run fast I feel his pleasure.” But Liddel chose not to run when he discovered the qualifying rounds for his race were on Sunday. He believed in observing the Sabbath and though he was told by many he had to run for team and country, Eric’s answer was, “I run to feel God’s pleasure, not for medals or fame.” Liddel refused to run if it meant disobeying God. God honored his servant in a memorable moment of Olympic history. I encourage you to see the movie to find out the dramatic ending.
Feeling God’s Pleasure
Eric Liddel’s pursuit of Olympic gold is a parable for our spiritual transformation. We are called by God to be transformed, to be holy. To be holy is to be set apart for a special purpose. To be holy also means to belong to God as his special possession. Liddel’s phrase captures both meanings well: to feel his pleasure. God made us to be holy, and when we are holy we feel God’s pleasure. That’s how we are to “run” our lives. That is what our spiritual transformation is all about.
Sometimes in our emphasis upon grace we are confused about the importance of obedience. We emphasize grace to protect against self-righteousness, a false confidence in our own obedience as well as self-condemnation, a false despair in our own sinfulness. But in emphasizing God’s grace we must not suggest that holiness is optional. The Scriptures could hardly be clearer. “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality;. . . learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, . . . For God did not call us to be impure but to live a holy life” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7). “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance, but just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do” (1 Peter 1:14, 15). Clearly God wants his people to be holy.
A Noble Calling
Sometimes we may wonder if holiness is desirable. We live in a world that glamorizes unholiness. Is the character of God really more attractive than worldliness? We are tempted to live for the world’s prizes, for popularity, success, and pleasure. But deep in our hearts, most people know there is a nobler calling than the lifestyles so often celebrated. People are inspired not so much by those who are successful in this world, but those who are successful over this world; not so much by those who always win, but by those whose integrity is more important than winning; not so much by those who are popular, but by those courageous enough to stand for right even when it is not popular. Deep down we know it is holiness, not worldliness, that is most desirable. Immodesty may be fashionable, but it is not holy. Vulgar speech may be typical, but it is not holy. Arrogance and cockiness may give some a competitive advantage, but it is not holy.
Is Holiness Possible?
But even if we desire holiness, is holiness really possible? Which one of us has not pursued holiness only to end our pursuit in frustration? We make a zealous start, then fail, then try again, and fail again, and on and on. Then we’re told we need to “relax in the Lord” or just “let go and let God” or stop “trying so hard.” So, with renewed zeal we try again (or rather try not to try) only to fail again and with this last failure begin to doubt our commitment. Satan whispers, “If you really loved God, you wouldn’t fail.”
Part of our frustration is our peception of holiness. There is a traditional picture of being holy: unpleasant and joyless, “If it feels good don’t do it!” Heaven is the reward for those willing to be most miserable on earth. There is another perception of holiness as a kind of instant, mysterious transformation performed by God alone. God simply takes over as we “surrender” and get out of the way. The first emphasizes personal effort. The second minimizes personal effort. Scripture speaks of a third option, a holiness that comes not through the misery of our own effort or the mystery of God’s alone. Spiritual transformation is not something we do alone or something God does leaving us uninvolved. Peter says we “participate in the divine nature.” The key to our spiritual transformation is learning to discern God’s part and ours.
God’s Precious Promise
What does God do? That’s easy. The impossible part! “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:3, 4).
God gave us the victory over Satan; we couldn’t do that. God has declared us free from sin’s condemnation; we couldn’t do that. God has freed us from sin’s domination and given us access to spiritual power. We couldn’t do that. That doesn’t mean there is no struggle. And Satan lies to us by leading us to believe that the struggle is evidence that we are not saved. Here is where we find another precious promise God has given us, the truth about our salvation. Salvaion is not a one-time occurrence but a lifelong process. It began at the cross where we were saved in Christ. It is accessed by our faith and trust in Christ’s work on that cross. It continues every day as we are being sanctified. And it will be completed on that great day when he finally appears and “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2).
Making Every Effort
Which brings us to our part. Peter told us how to participate with God; we are to make every effort. “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Peter 1:5-7). We must not use our freedom in Christ to indulge our sinful nature (Galatians 5:13). As Paul wrote, “We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2). Christ’s death is not an excuse to sin. The gospel is good news only to those who want to become like Christ.
Peter went on to say that those who “make every effort” to add to their faith will be productive (2 Peter 1:8); they won’t forget the basis of their salvation, the atoning sacrifice of Christ (v. 9). Knowing this they will be more certain of their salvation (vv. 10, 11). Most importantly, they will be motivated neither by the misery of trying to be good enough nor by the mystery of God’s instant transformation, but by the dignity of participating alongside God’s divine nature in the process of being changed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 2), increasingly becoming people who live simply to “feel his pleasure.”
David Langford serves as an elder and minister with the Quaker Avenue Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas. He is also an adjunct professor with Lubbock Christian University.