Reigniting Hope: Building Muscle

Our sons are each about four years apart in age, so in all their growing up years, there was only one season when all three were involved in similar activities. In 2011, it happened that our three boys played some form of football. In the early days of the fall, our oldest worked out every-day, both in the weight room and on the field, as he trained for the spot he had finally earned on the varsity football team. Our second-born put his heart and soul into his middle school football endeavors, striving for a coveted starting position among his best friends. And our youngest gave it his all as he took his first steps under the blazing lights of the field, carrying the ball for a local flag football team.

In their own ways, these high energy Johnson boys worked hard to build their muscles so that they’d be ready for what the season would require of them. As the weeks rolled by – and by rolled, I mean raced – some games brought victories while others delivered heart-wrenching defeats. But, through it all, leg muscles made them faster, arm muscles grew stronger, and their inner core kept them moving forward when I knew I would have been knocked down.

It mystified me. The harder they worked their muscles, the bigger and stronger they grew. There was pay-off for their efforts!

I’m coming to understand that as I seek to grow stronger in my walk with Christ, it is necessary to build some spiritual muscle. Just as my sons’ physical determination demonstrates, the more faith I exercise, the stronger my faith becomes. The more I express my hope in Christ, the greater its flames grow. And, the more I share God’s love to others, the fuller and purer my love becomes. 

It is such an opposite action-reaction to most anything else in the natural realm. I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything else, besides muscles, that grows in volume after being used. 

The reverse is true, too. The less we use our muscles, the greater their loss. I hope the irony is not lost on us:  To hoard and stow away the faith, hope, and love we’ve been given is to lose them. 

So — it’s important for us to grasp that God has designed these gifts to increase with use. Why? Because He greatly desires that we would be His vessels, His vehicles for sharing them with the world.

Taking Action

Last week, you graciously tracked with me as we walked through a bit of a dive into word-nerd-world. We unpacked ‘hope’ as both noun and verb. We dug into the Scriptural meanings of ‘faith’. And the week before that, we got carried away along the waters of ‘love’ that stream from the throne room of God. We have spent some quality time grappling with the complexities of our trio of Christian graces – so that we can better live them out.

I’ve mentioned that Paul pulls these three gifts together about a dozen times throughout his letters, but he’s not the only New Testament writer to do so. The author of Hebrews strings the threesome together in order to encourage the flagging faith of a community of believers:1 

“Our great desire is that you will keep on loving others as long as life lasts, in order to make certain that what you hope for will come true. Then you will not become spiritually dull and indifferent. Instead, you will follow the example of those who are going to inherit God’s promises because of their faith and endurance.”

Hebrews 6:11-12 NLT

It’s hard for us, two thousand years hence, to imagine life for the new Christians of that first century Church. There was no handbook to help the leaders lead. No dictionary to define each point of division between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. No timeline offered for how long the persecution would last or how many years till Jesus returned. Truly, these early believers had to work through much greater divides and tensions than we do – and long before there was a printed Bible to be consulted. 

And yet, we happen to have on hand such an array of letters in our New Testament because the ‘fathers of the faith,’ people like Paul, Peter, and John, continually addressed the challenges the fledgling churches faced – in epistle form. 

This is the context for the writer of Hebrews, who has received a report that a particular church has people who have “turned away from God” (6:6). And because he knows how such ‘fallenness’ can discourage those remaining faithful, he writes a letter to uplift and exhort that community – to encourage them to press on and stay the course.1 He pours out the truth that God is just and that He will “never forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (v.10).

Together, these verses (6:10-12) serve as a call to action: Keep loving one another. Trust that your hope is true. Endure it all with faith and sanctifying grace. The writer of this letter knows that the initial faith and first love of these believers is not enough to sustain them (Revelation 2:4). Rather, their faith (and hope and love) “must continue as long as they live in the world.”1 In other words, faith is not “one and done,” as some are in the habit of believing, but a practice meant for everyday.

A Long Wait

For all of us who anticipate Christ’s return – from the earliest churches to today – the wait can feel long. And in the midst of all that waiting, a lot of life on earth happens. Families fracture. Bodies buckle under the pressures of age and illness. Tragedies abound. Mental health holds us captive. People disappoint us. Others abuse us. Change happens at every turn. And divisions seem to drift further and wider. 

The waiting is long. And difficult. The temptation is to lose heart, to give up – or at the very least, to take things in our own hands.

But, it’s actually into all the life-happenings that we’re called to hold onto faith, hope, and love – as commands, sure. But also as lifelines. And as a means to navigate the harshness of life without getting crushed by its cruel weight. Once again, we see the flexibility and facets of these gifts that remain. They are the action we’re meant to engage in. And they are the means for waiting well:

“The wait cannot be shortened, but hope can be revived by a reminder that hope in God will never be disappointed.”1 

Friends, there is something life-giving and hope-building about acknowledging that we are in a long wait – that there’s a reason why we feel restless and discouraged. We long for Jesus to come and make things right

Armed with this truth, we allow a renewed motivation to push us toward the three weights sitting on the gym floor, just waiting to be used by us:

We pick up faith, a mustard-seed-like barbell and flex our faith muscle – once, twice, thrice.
We lift hope, an unassuming ankle weight that we strap on as we start walking, walking.
We grab love, a squishy, heart-shaped ball, weighing only a pound, and squeeze over and over.

We get to work. We sweat a little and breathe a lot. We push ourselves to exercise these muscles even though we’d rather be couch surfing or chatting up friends at the coffee shop. Day in, day out we lift and walk and squeeze. Little by little, we add weight to all our endeavors, muscles gaining density and strength. Our faith feels firmer. Our hope’s strides are longer. And love grows larger – so that we not only love God more but ourselves better, other believers more fully and strangers more unconditionally.

Here we are, friends, catching our breaths between each repetition. Encouraging one another to keep the faith. Reassuring ourselves in godly hope. Speaking truth in love – because the more we engage our gifts, the more they grow. The more we share our gifts, the more they multiply. THIS is how we endure the long wait without just grinning and bearing it, but with joy. And reignited hope!

Let’s ask Eugene Peterson to send us out today with encouragement to keep working our faith, hope, and love muscles: 

“God doesn’t miss anything. He knows perfectly well all the love you’ve shown him by helping needy Christians, and that you keep at it. And now I want each of you to extend that same intensity toward a full-bodied hope, and keep at it till the finish. Don’t drag your feet. Be like those who stay the course with committed faith and then get everything promised to them.” Hebrews 6:10-12 MSG

Hebrews 6:10-12 MSG

Father God, your ways are such a mystery to us. We remember You teaching us that your ways are higher than our ways, your thoughts higher than ours – so we pray that we would grab hold of these truths about faith, hope, and love and start working them more and more in our lives. It helps to think of them as muscles that need to be used in order to grow stronger. It helps to picture their non-use as causing atrophy within our hearts, minds, and souls. It really helps to recognize that You will strengthen us – we are not in this alone! Lord Jesus, we deeply desire to live this life with the kind of faith, hope, and love that not only sustains us but multiplies within us so that we can share them with others. When we look to the way You lived while on earth, we see that You demonstrated how to keep exercising faith, hope, and love – and it had everything to do with getting alone with the Father and then going out into the world to work by faith, to model hope, and to love unconditionally. Holy Spirit, the only way we can achieve the kind of spiritual muscles that we desire is to have You alongside us for this journey of life. We need your promptings and nudges in the difficulties, temptations, and the long waits. We need your whispered truths spoken over us. We need the Father’s love poured out in us. So, as we get still in your presence, may we receive all that You have for us and release anything that holds us back. In Jesus’ name, amen.
(inspired by Job 11:7; Isaiah 55:8-9; Isaiah 41:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; Luke 4:42, 5:16, 6:12-13, 17-19; Romans 8:26; John 14:26; John 16:13; Romans 5:5)

Resources: I love sharing with you the books, podcasts, articles, and anything else that has inspired, encouraged, or taught me. These are humble offerings with no expectations.

  • 1 – The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, p.1032-33.^
  • Without realizing it, I managed to string three songs together on our Flames of Faith, Hope, and Love playlist that display the heart behind this post — each one on love, faith, and hope. 1) “Set a Fire” invites us into God’s presence with the heart cry of “there’s no place I’d rather be than here in your love.” 2) “Faith to Be Strong” calls out to God to strengthen our faith. 3) “Confident Hope” blasts this anthem, “Forever I will sing of you Jesus, my Confident Hope. I’ll remain in You until my final song, when all is said and done.” There ya go — now you have a playlist for a spiritual workout!
  • On Wednesdays I’ve begun posting 5-7 minute teaching videos on my Facebook Author Page and Instagram (@shelleylinnjohnson).
  • Rhythms we can incorporate into our daily lives to aid us in our dwelling with God, living for Him, and putting our hope in Him:
    • Maybe it seems counter to the call to action in today’s post to now ask you to step into the spiritual practice of stillness. However, as Jesus showed us (over and over), we can only know God when we get still in His presence (Psalm 46:10). We can only know His heart when we get still enough to hear His still, soft voice. We can only find the strength we need to keep marching onward in faith, hope, and love if we’ve first gotten before our Father. This week as you sit still with the Lord, try to quiet your thoughts and simply listen. Listen for the word of encouragement He has for your weary heart.
      • Getting our thoughts to be still is harder, most days, than getting our bodies to stop moving. If this is what you run into, you can try a couple of things. First, keep paper and pen handy so you can jot down things that come to mind that you don’t want to forget — that way you can let them go and then settle in. Second, have a word or short phrase at the ready to speak (in your head or aloud) in order to refocus yourself back on God. I find simply saying, “Lord Jesus,” is most helpful. Getting my thoughts to slow down is hard for me to do, but I’m finding the more I try, the more I stick with it — even in the “failures” — the better I’m able to get still. (This is another muscle to keep working at.)
  • Finally, as a community, let us not neglect sharing God’s hope with others! Share your God-stories with people around you. Share this site. Share God’s Word. Shine His light of His hope into the world!

Featured Photo by Gabin Vallet on Unsplash. Bits & Pieces Photo by Arjun Kapoor on Unsplash

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Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

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