I remember as a kid when I had done something wrong and I knew my parents knew. That was a terrible feeling. I knew punishment would fall from on high and I would be hurting. At first it was the thought of the punishment and getting caught that I was upset about. Over time, as I started to understand the disappointment in my mother’s eyes, that was the far worse pain. Grounding, regardless of what it was or how long, didn’t compare to the fact that I knew that I had hurt my mom by not meeting her expectations. So when I read the following from Paul, it makes me go, “I want to be just like that, too:”
I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day – 2 Timothy 1:3, NASB
That really hit home, being able to say I serve God with a clear conscience. If we’re honest with ourselves, it is unlikely that many of us can say that. We know the mistakes we’ve made and the opportunities to further the kingdom we’ve failed to seize or we’ve made more about ourselves than the God we serve. It’s amazing how God is willing to and does forgive us and yet we aren’t able to put those past missed steps behind us. He knows our faults and our lack of perfection: that’s why He sent His Son. I’m not giving a pass to sin, don’t get me wrong. But we tend to not accept God’s forgiveness even though we’ve gone before Him with repentant hearts asking for it. God has given it. We just haven’t accepted it. And the Enemy seizes on this to rub our noses in our past. His tactic is straight-forward: he uses our past so we’ll be distracted in the present and ineffective in the future. So how was Paul able to do it? How was he able to say to Timothy that he served God with a clear conscience? I think Paul gives us the answer a bit later in the letter:
You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. the hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. – 2 Timothy 2:1-7, NASB
The very first Paul says to do is be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. That goes back to what I was saying about letting God’s forgiveness wash over us by accepting it. We are imperfect creatures always at war with our sinful natures. And each day there are times when that sinful side wins out. But ultimately, the sin is not held against us, rather Christ’s righteousness is seen instead of our own unrighteousness, because of Christ’s grace. Instead of letting Satan win the guilt game, we should remember and rejoice in our salvation and the forgiveness that is in our Savior’s ultimate act of sacrifice and surrender. We just have to let go. God has. Now it’s our turn.
The second thing Paul reminds Timothy is to be set apart. Having served in the military, you can’t think like a civilian. For instance, when you have a natural disaster and the military is sent in, usually it’s to rescue the civilians and get them out of the area and to a place of safety. So while we’re saying to the civilians, “Get out, get out of harm’s way,” to our fellow military personnel we’re saying, “Get in, put yourself in harm’s way.” That’s just one example of how being in the military results in a different type of thinking than as a civilian. When it comes to God, we should have a different sort of thinking that the rest of the world. God’s ways in many cases runs contrary to what the world tells us. God says put others first. The world says take care of yourself. God says that material things and positions and power don’t matter. The world says to strive after them. So once we’ve accepted God’s forgiveness, we’ve got to strive harder to do it God’s way. We’re not going to be perfect. See step 1. And we need to realize that as we choose God’s way, we’re going to come into conflict with the world. We may also be asked by God to sacrifice of ourselves. That’s part of a soldier’s lot in life. But a sacrifice in this is nothing compared to the promised future in the next.
And finally Paul says we must compete like an athlete, obeying the rules. In other words, the end does not justify the means. God is interested in our hearts. He is interested in the why and the how not just the what. If we do the right thing for the wrong reasons, it’s wrong in God’s eyes. We aren’t supposed to take shortcuts or delve into gray areas. It’s God way or no way. Again, this also goes back to that soldier’s mindset. The world tells us that it’s about what we accomplish and while we may initially rebuke someone for doing something the wrong way, it’s amazing how after a period of time everything is okay and we’re celebrating what they’ve done. God says He doesn’t work that way. Motive and method count. We work hard, we push ourselves, but we do it the right way.
I want to stand before my God and say like Paul, “Lord, I served You with a clear conscience.” I want my efforts to be about bringing Him glory and not about me at all. I want my life to be a lantern for His light to shine from and through. I’m thankful for God’s Word because we clearly have how to do it. And while it won’t be easy, this is what I’m striving to do: to let the past stay in the past, to have my mind on Christ and not the world, and to do things the right way each time. Notice I didn’t say be perfect, although I’ll certainly strive for that. I also didn’t say anything about numeric goals or ministry accomplishments. Those belong to God. I’m here to serve, to do as my Master commands. For I desperately want to serve Him with a clear conscience today and every day I walk this life.