U.S. Olympic hammer thrower, Gwen Berry drew the attention of both critics and supporters alike when she disrespected the flag of the nation she was to represent. Berry turned away from the American Flag while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played and placed a T-shirt over her head, which read, “activist athlete.” Not only were her actions deplorable and disgraceful, but were those which should disqualify her as a representative of the United States. I question why anyone with such hatred for her country would even consider being a symbol of America’s greatness. Not only did Berry disgrace herself by disrespecting the Flag, she violated Rule 50, imposed upon all Olympic contenders by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Rule 50 prohibits all athletes from protests or demonstrations.
It is undeniable that America has racism within its boundaries and yet, overall, America is still the least racist nation in the world, and I would venture to say, the least racist in the history of nations. America is called, “the melting pot of the world”. Why? Because America has welcomed all nationalities for nearly 250 years, and still welcomes any who want to come legally, live freely, and obtain a better life for themselves and their families. People like Gwen Berry need to go to a nation where they can represent that nation with pride rather detest their country and disgrace themselves and the country they represent.
While I personally think it is disgraceful for athletes in the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, etc. to protest while the National Anthem is sung, to do this at the Olympics is far more detestable. These athletes ascended to the place where they are because of the freedoms this country offers. They are wealthy and prosperous because of the freedoms they have had to pursue their dreams. Yet they spit in the face of the nation that has offered these freedoms. It’s not that America is perfect or ever has been, but it is still the best country in the world in which to live, and even the very poorest in this nation do not know the deprivation of many other countries. And most of the privations this country faces are the result of choices people make and not because opportunities are unavailable.
While Gwen Berry’s actions are reprehensible, her actions are not the purpose for this article. Her behavior is the catalyst for us, who call ourselves Christians, to reflect upon and evaluate our dedication, respect, and commitment to God and His Word. Christians are citizens of a heavenly country, whose builder and maker is God, and we represent Christ and His kingdom. His word is our constitution and the cross upon which Jesus died is our banner. As God’s chosen people, we must honor our King as well as His kingdom by living according to His word and honor Him with daily worship and thanksgiving.
What prompted this article was a recent phone call I received in which the man made a statement that resonated in my heart. Paraphrasing: he stated that he had his own vision, a vision for his life, and his personal vision hindered him from catching God’s vision. When one decides to become a part of an organization (such as a church, or even more importantly, God’s family) he must set aside his own goals and ambitions and assume the vision of the organization to which he becomes a part. Therefore, as Christians we must place before our eyes God’s ultimate plan. His purpose must be our purpose, His vision, our vision, His desires, ours, His way, our way. As one song says, “my ambitions, plans, and wishes, at my feet in ashes lay.”
Considering this man’s statements, I ask myself: How much do I live my life for myself and how much do I live my life for God’s glory? Do I have God’s vision and live my life accordingly, or do I strive to fulfil my own personal ambitions? What is the crowning purpose and motivation for my life? These thoughts force me to reflect upon scripture and contemplate those virtues God truly desires to be in His church. When we think about the ultimate goal, that which God intends His people to obtain, we must consider the means by which that final goal is reached. The Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 1:26-27, “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:”
There are two aspects of this “hope of glory.” The mystery which was hid through the ages was made vividly clear to Paul by the Holy Spirit, and the first aspect of this mystery was that the blood of Jesus would cleanse one’s heart and make it possible for the Holy Spirit to come and abide within. This is a most wonderful and precious gift and is given when one is born again. The second part of this mystery is that God’s plan incorporates the means by which man can truly become like Jesus Christ. In other words, the call to every Christian is to put on Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14: “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”)
In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul expresses a great yearning to possess something more than he had thus obtained. He clearly states that he had not yet gained all that Christ provided in His death and resurrection. “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13-14). In verse twelve he announces that he had not “apprehended that for which he was apprehended.” Most of us today would feel we had really made progress if we were to obtain the stature of the Apostle Paul, but Paul reached for something beyond that which he had already obtained. He heard the call to come up higher. Placed before him was a higher goal. That goal was to become like Jesus Christ.
The words written in the latter part of Romans are often dismissed by those who read only the first part. They love Paul’s teaching on God’s grace, but they draw back when they come to chapter twelve. The grace Paul writes about is the necessary means, or the essential gift, provided through Christ by which the bid to “go on to perfection” (Heb. 6:1) is possible and eventually reached. It takes grace to embrace what Paul proclaimed is essential for reaching the goal God has for you and me. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:1-2). So, unlike many pastors today, Paul taught what Jesus taught in The Sermon the Mount: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48).
It seems that it is time the church sets her sites on that which God placed before her. Most Christians are taught that perfection is not possible. I guess Jesus was just “blowing smoke.” He didn’t really mean it. It is similar to when God told Adam not to partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, He was just “blowing smoke.”
If one’s ultimate goal is to be like Christ, then he must walk in the path Jesus walked. It means taking up one’s cross and following Him. It means denying self, turning from many of the desires and appetites of the carnal nature, and crucifying the old man. This goal to which the church is called is not reached overnight. It is a process which takes time. God is dealing with men’s hearts. In Jeremiah 17:10 we are told how God is searching for those who will venture out into that path He designed whereby believers can be perfected. “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.” God examines hearts to see how we will respond to truth. Will truth be accepted or rejected? There is a grave misunderstanding as to why men’s hearts are hardened. Pharaoh is always used as the example of how God hardens one’s heart. We are told that God arbitrarily hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This is not true. If it were, God would be a respecter of persons and, therefore, would not be a just God. Let’s see how Pharaoh’s heart was hardened so we can examine our own hearts to be sure we are not following Pharaoh instead of Christ.
Moses came before Pharaoh and performed the miracle God had told him to. Pharaoh’s magicians copied this miracle through their enchantments. The fact that Aaron’s serpent swallowed up the magician’s serpents did not phase Pharaoh. It was at this point that Pharaoh hardened his heart. (It is certain that Pharaoh had hardened his heart many times before Moses appeared before him in doing things he knew were wrong and rejecting those things he knew were right.) God was trying the reins of Pharaoh’s heart. How Pharaoh responded was a choice he made to the situation placed before him. Pharaoh chose to ignore God and God’s servant, thus hardening his heart. Pharaoh continued to harden his heart throughout the whole ordeal until his hardened heart destroyed him and the whole Egyptian army in the Red Sea. Death is where every hardened heart will end: but it will be in spiritual death.
Every day we make choices. We choose to live according to God’s word or to reject it and live according to our own desires. Every day we are either hardening our hearts or allowing it to be pliable by conforming to God’s word. Paul informs us that God’s law is written in every heart. “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another” (Rom. 2:14-15). That does not mean that every single aspect of God’s law is written in a sinner’s heart, but enough that the man can make the right choices if he will. It is in response to this inner voice of right and wrong that one’s heart is hardened or made pliable. Those who reject this inner voice and determine to do as they please very often end up in prison. They knew to do right but they chose to violate their own conscience. The same rule affects every person alive today, whether sinner or saint. We all make choices.
So, what do we learn? God is said to harden men’s hearts, but He does this by bringing about situations in men’s lives which require a choice on their part. The choice then affects the heart, very gradually shaping it. While it is said that God hardens hearts, it can also be said that God softens hearts. I know this from personal experience. God has softened my heart over the years. It’s not yet where I want it to be, but it’s certainly not what it once was. Praise God!
Returning now to our original thought, the choices we make must be in keeping with God’s word. Through faith every Christian must set his affections upon things above and not on the things of this world, which are temporal and fleeting. This is not forced nor coerced but is a choice we freely make. God will work with us, bringing into our path those things which will produce His divine objective. Scripture reveals that God’s divine plan involves presenting to Himself a glorious church, a church cleansed and purified, both by the cleansing power of the blood and also by the word of God. The word of God is a cleansing agent just as the blood of Jesus is. Paul, in speaking of the church, writes in Ephesians 5:26, “That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.”
The final goal is to become like Jesus. Every day we experience opportunities to turn from self, its desires, and demands, and allow God’s word to soften our hearts so He can mold us into the image of His dear Son (Rom. 8:29). Let the twenty-first century church join Paul and “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). Let us not turn away from the cross because we are ashamed of Christ. Let us not cover our faces when the Gospel is preached, but rather let us boldly say with Paul, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16)
Bro. Alfred King