I was on the starting blocks. The occasion was the heat of the 110m hurdles at the all-England Schools Athletics championship. I was feeling good, if a little nervous. I’d qualified at the age of 18 for the nationals in three sprint events and gone for the hurdles. I hoped to do well: I was school champion, county champion, East of England champion. For those who did well, there was the prospect of being picked to represent the country at Under 19 level. I was on my marks … get set … and the gun went off. I pushed up with all my power, and as I did so, my blocks slipped. And I stumbled. I was the last to the first hurdle. But I pressed on, giving my best. The person next to me was pulling away and hit what I think was the fourth hurdle. He hit it so hard it bounced up into my lane. I swerved, and stumbled again. And from there, there was no way back. I came in last. My worst performance of the season – and I was embarrassed.
My family who’d come to watch me put a brave face on it, but we were all disappointed, and in fact, that was my last ever competitive athletics race. In my mind there were good reasons for my poor performance, but the bottom line was that I didn’t qualify for the next round. Simple as that.
I didn’t qualify, because I stumbled. Stumbling once in a sprint race is not good. Stumbling twice is really bad. And that’s also true in the race of life: stumbling is not good. Being tripped … or falling … it can finish you. So you must take care, because there are lots of things out there that can trip you up. That’s why St Paul says in 1 Cor 10:12, ‘So if you think you’re standing firm, be careful you don’t fall’. Be careful. Take care. Watch out!
So what kind of things might cause you to fall? Three of the most obvious are: money, sex and power.
Don’t let money and love of money have a hold on you. Trust God with your money. Ask him for what you need. And in particular, be generous with your money. Hold lightly to it. Give a lot away. Be faithful with small amounts and God will see you are a worthy investment and will give more. Take care what you buy. I need to do that, because I like nice things. I appreciate good architecture and great design. I love well-made furniture. There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself, but I know if I don’t take care that I could easily waste money. That’s why, before I buy things that are not essential, I normally send up a little prayer asking the Lord if it’s ok. A few weeks ago I was about to buy a shirt that had caught my attention and so I asked the Lord if it was ok, and I sensed him say ‘No. You’ve got enough shirts’. And he was right. So I put it back and walked out of the store and on that occasion probably got it right. But I don’t always. We all need to take care with money.
Sex and Relationships
So many fall in the area of sex and relationships, you’d think people would take more care. But many don’t and find themselves in some kind of unhealthy relationship and then wonder why they stumble. So going too far sexually before you are married can cause you to trip – that’s why I’d advise couples who are going out to be clear about boundaries and not to do things like sleep over, and certainly not in the same bed. If you stumble sexually not only does it make you feel guilty, but it makes you feel like you haven’t got the ability to do what the bible says. So later in life, when the bible says something that seems difficult in another area of life, you compromise again … and again … until eventually you think ‘I can’t do this’ and you become a defeated Christian. I have seen it on many occasions in people and often it begins with a compromised relationship. Whilst it’s not easy to follow the bible’s sexual and relational ethics in a society that has little or no sexual boundaries, it is possible not to stumble here, and I want to tell you that you can do it! And to those who have tripped up here: repent (which means change your thinking) and start afresh.
The way you handle power and influence is very important. I was telling the Staff Team at The Belfrey the other day that just being on the staff team gives them some degree of power and influence. When we are given power we must take care how we use it. And as Christians are aim is to use any power and influence for the service of Jesus Christ, not for ourselves. So you aim to make him look good, not you. If you don’t, and it’s for your glory, you’re preparing yourself for an eventual fall.
So in these 3 areas in particular, we need to take care. The good news if that we have a Saviour, Jesus Christ who (according to the great prayer at the end of Jude) wants to keep us from stumbling. That means that Jesus is not looking to trip you up. In fact, he wants just the opposite! He wants to help you run the race of life well. Really well. And at the finish, he wants to be able to present you before his Father (v.24) ‘without fault’ and ‘with great joy’ because he’s so proud of you – the way you’ve lived life, and lived for him.
A couple of weeks ago Roger Simpson led a wonderful funeral service for Robin Watson in St Michael le Belfrey Church. Robin was not perfect, but he was forgiven, and because he knew he was forgiven by the Saviour, he lived carefully. His was a life well lived. And now, Jude tells us, the Lord Jesus is presenting him and commending him to his Father ‘with great joy’. Fantastic!
Now Jesus wants to do that for you too. He wants you to know that you are loved, forgiven and empowered by him, and that his Spirit helps you not to stumble. So take care how you live. Listen to what God has for you. Call on him daily in prayer. I’ve done that every day since I was about 15. And I don’t regret it. Ever. And read his word. That will help you run the race well. Psalm 119:105 tells us that God’s word is ‘A lamp to your feet, and a light to your path’ which means the bible lights the way for you, so you can run along the path of life safely and securely. So make sure you’re in God’s word every day. Through the written Word (the bible) the living Word (Jesus) will help keep you from stumbling.
Staying prayerful, and being regularly in God’s word is about fixing your eyes on Jesus. That’s what sprinting coaches tell athletes to do – to keep your head up and relaxed and to fix your eyes on a spot down beyond the finish line. Maybe a sign. A spectator. Something. To keep you focussed. The bible says, in the race of life ‘fix your eyes on Jesus’. ‘Throw off the sin that so easily entangles and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus’ (Heb 12:1-2). So throw off the sin that gets in the way, that can cause you to stumble. Get rid of it. And run, with eyes fixed on Jesus, and as you do, don’t forget that he is (as Jude v25 says) ‘the only God our Saviour’… the One to whom ‘be glory, majesty, power and authority. So stay close to Jesus. Know who Jesus is. Keep worshipping him. That will help you run well, and keep you from stumbling.
There are some things in life that you can’t foresee coming. Like my sprinting blocks slipping. That had never happened to me before. But there are some stumbles in life that you can foresee, and probably avoid. So let me ask you: where are you vulnerable to stumbling? Is there an area of life that, right now, you need to change? Is there a sin that you need to walk away from and throw off, so as to make sure that you run well? Jesus wants to help you with that, if you’ll let him.
So I invite you to pray the ‘Don’t Stumble’ prayer (below) with me. It’s short enough for you to learn if you like. Pray it, and live it.
‘To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.’ (Jude 24-25)