Lining a Canoe Upstream

Writing about the river’s flow in our last post reminded me of the idea of “lining a canoe”.  The basic principle is this:  when seeking to take your canoe upstream against the current, you tie a rope near the front of the canoe and, walking upstream along the shore, you provide the power by pulling the rope and the river’s current keeps the boat from running into the bank.  When I googled “lining a canoe” to learn more, I found this explanation on The Alaska Hunting Forum:

“I can tell you from personal experience that lining any boat upstream any appreciable distance comes down to one thing – HARD WORK.  There’s just no easy way around it.  The truth is that you will be in, on, and around that river for a considerable amount of time.”  The author goes on to explain the details of the process and ends with these encouraging words, “If you decide to do this during the spring or summer, be sure to pack a big lunch and bring the bug spray!  You’re gonna be there awhile.”

I used to think that living the Christian life was like “lining a canoe” upriver.  I was always going against the current.  I was always going upstream.  And it was always hard work.  I justified this feeling with the idea that we were counter-cultural, always swimming upstream against the world’s current.  Always going against the flow.  In a sense that is true.  We are going against the world’s current.

What I was unaware of was that there is another river flowing; the river of God’s rest for the new covenant believer.  In this river, we are very much going with the flow – the rushing current of God’s infinite grace, love, acceptance, forgiveness, mercy, and indwelling.  This river never slows down or runs dry and God’s desire is that you find your rest in it.

This is the rest Jesus Himself offered his followers in the gospel of Matthew.  “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Mt 11:28-30).  Jesus’ offer of rest is not just for the world-weary in need of salvation, but for walk-weary believers as well, striving to “keep up” the Christian life.

You see, in this journey called the Christian life, Christ is inviting us to join Him in the yoke.  He is yoked with us.  Have you ever wondered how Jesus could give such a serious call to discipleship in the gospels; counting the cost, the hardship, and the promise of suffering, and then turn around and say, “My yoke is easy and My load is light”?  How do we reconcile what seem like opposites?  The key is to recognize that it is Jesus in the yoke living the Christian life through us.  He is doing the heavy lifting.  Is there nothing for us to do or contribute?  Our role is to join Him in the yoke, in the work, and to release the rushing rivers He has already put inside us.

Can I encourage you?  If you are striving to “line the canoe” upstream in your Christian walk, take a minute to study the situation.  Am I experiencing the “never thirst” that Jesus promised?  Do I see the work of the Holy Spirit – that flowing river within me – in my daily experience?  Have I believed all that became new under the provisions of the new covenant at my salvation?  Thank your heavenly Father that there is a believer’s rest and a river’s flow for the children  of God.

Never Thirsty

Similar to the offer of rest for His children, Jesus gives us another incredible promise in the same vein.  “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst’ ” (Jn 6:35).  The word “never” is a powerful word.  I try not to use it very often.  The word “never” doesn’t allow for loopholes.  Yet, in this passage, Jesus makes the incredible promise that “he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”  What narrow corner has Jesus backed Himself into with this kind of promise; a promise with no loopholes?

What Jesus has promised is that in your spirit, in the real you, He will so fill you up that you will never be unsatisfied; you will never thirst.  Jesus is your complete sufficiency.  The challenge, of course, lies in how we allow this to permeate our daily lives.

Jesus expanded on the promise in John chapter 7.  “Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.” ‘  By this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (Jn 7:37-39).

Notice the prerequisite for experiencing the river’s flow in John 7 is the same as the prerequisite for never thirst in John 6; believe in Jesus Christ.  That is it.  To experience the promise of never thirsting is only contingent on being a believer; embracing the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  There is no continuing or further requirement.  No level of spirituality.  No keeping a New Testament version of the law.  No second baptism.  Only believe.

How does Jesus keep the never thirst promise?  By filling us with His Holy Spirit (Jn 7:39).  And this filling is not stagnant.  It is to play itself out every day as we experience the supernatural Christian life.  The Greek word for “rivers” in this passage is often translated floods or torrents.  The Spirit is a rushing river of the all-sufficient power of the risen Christ.  Our role is not to strive to find the river, our role is to open the floodgates and allow the river – already rushing within us by the promise of Jesus – to flow out into our daily experience.

This, in essence, is the supernatural Christian life.  When we face life – family challenges, financial setbacks, health issues, ministry disappointments, job woes – by tapping into the river within, we are listening to the Holy Spirit in each of these situations.  How is God leading us to respond to these issues?  What would allowing the Spirit’s power to work in these areas of our life look like?  The short answer is this:  God has given us the power such that the challenges of life do not have to lead us to despair, discouragement, or sin.  The power to overcome is within us; not by some will-power or virtue on our part, but by the power of the risen Christ.  You have the rushing river within.  Let it’s power flow into every nook and cranny of your life.  He is waiting to be unleashed!

Entering the Believer’s Rest

Last time we posed the question “How do we enter the believer’s rest?”  How do we go from wilderness Christian to God’s promised land experience in the here-and-now?  The author of the book of Hebrews gives us some insight.

Starting first with the Old Testament example of those who refused God’s promised rest.  “Today if you hear My voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw my works for forty years.  Therefore I was angry with this generation and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they did not know My ways;’ and I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest’ ” (Heb 3:7-11).

With this picture of the children of Israel missing God’s rest firmly in view, the author now brings us into the story in the next verse.  “Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God” (Heb 3:12).  This is not falling away from salvation, but falling away from the promised rest of God due to an unbelieving heart.

The author continues in this chapter with a more specific point about what kept the children of Israel out of the promised land.  “For who provoked Him when they had heard?  Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses?  And with whom was He angry for forty years?  Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?  And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient?  And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief” (Heb 3:16-19).

What was the sin (vs 17) that kept the children of Israel out of the promised land?  It was the sin of unbelief (vs 19).  What keeps us from experiencing the believer’s rest?  It is the sin of unbelief (vs 12).  They are one and the same.  The key to experiencing the promised land rest of God in the here-and-now for New Testament believers is faith.  It is not some super acts of spirituality.  It is an act of faith.

“Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience” (Heb 4:11).  Do not follow Israel’s example.  Their “disobedience” was their unbelief and their lack of faith cost them the promised land experience.  Don’t let unbelief, a lack of faith, keep you from experiencing the precious rest of God this very day.

Again, unbelief here does not refer to salvation.  Your salvation is secure.  Unbelief refers to not believing the new covenant promises of God.  Not believing that your old sin nature died at the cross with Christ.  Not believing you have a new heart with God’s law written upon it.  Unbelief is not believing the Holy Spirit lives inside you and is influencing and forming your spiritual walk.  If unbelief in these promises describes your experience, repent, turn around, leave your wilderness living and enter His rest.  It is available to you right now.  Won’t you enter in?  Let’s believe all that He says to us!

The Believer’s Rest

Another prominent theme in the book of Hebrews is the believer’s rest.  Entering into God’s rest is foreshadowed in the Old Testament by the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt and their eventual arrival in the promised land.  The three stages of their deliverance are symbols of the three stages of deliverance for New Testament believers.

Stage one is the Israelites release from Pharaoh’s grip during their exodus from Egypt.  This represents our initial salvation when Christ delivered us from Satan’s grip by His sacrifice on the cross.  The Egyptian taskmasters of Pharaoh’s day represent the flesh, our sin nature, that controlled you and I prior to our salvation.  Paul writes of his before-salvation experience, “For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.  But if I am doing the very thing that I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (Rom 7:19-20).  Prior to salvation, sin is our taskmaster just as the children of Israel suffered under their Egyptian taskmasters.  And just as the children of Israel were set free by the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, we have been set free from our spiritual destitution by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.  And just as their Egyptian masters were buried at the bottom of the sea, so our sin nature has been crucified and buried with Christ.

Stage two of the Israelites deliverance begins at the crossroads of Kadesh-barnea.  Fearful of what lay ahead in the land of Canaan, they shrink back (a common phrase in the book of Hebrews) and lacking the faith to enter in, they are denied entrance and subjected to 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  They have already been saved (delivered from Egypt), but do not experience the promised land.  For New Testament believers this represents living in the wilderness of striving, not experiencing the rest that God promised.  The wilderness Christian received all the new promises – a new identity, a new heart, a new nature, a new Spirit, a new disposition, a new power, and so much more – at salvation, but has yet to experience their fullness.  For the wilderness Christian, the Christian life is a law-keeping self-effort that seeks to attain spiritual growth as if Christ were not there.  But we were made for so much more.  This is not where Christ wants us to be.

“There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God.  For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.  Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest” (Heb 4:9-11).  This is the transition to stage three: the believer’s rest.

In stage three of their deliverance, the children of Israel entered the land of Canaan, the promised land.  This represents, for us, as laid out in Hebrews chapters 3 and 4, entering into God’s rest in the here-and-now.  Canaan does not represent heaven despite what your hymn book says.  The land of Canaan represents the believer’s enjoyment, on earth, of the resurrection life of Christ.  (For a full length explanation see The Saving Life of Christ by Major W. Ian Thomas.)  In the Old Testament land of Canaan, there were still battles to be fought even though God had promised the victory.  Likewise, when we enter God’s rest and experience the power of the resurrection life of Christ is us, we still have battles to fight.  We still have the enemies of Satan and the flesh to overcome.  What this analogy emphasizes and the New Testament confirms is that the outcome of these battles is secure.  Christ has promised and given us the victory!

So, to put some application on this picture of the Christian life, how do we move from stage two in the wilderness to stage three in the promised land?  How do we enter into God’s rest?  We will answer these questions and more from the book of Hebrews next time.

Putting Faith into Practice

That the Christian life is lived “by faith” is a prominent message in the New Testament.  But how do we do it?  It is great to understand the theology and theory, but we all want to know, “How do we put it into practice?  What does living by faith look like?”  I can measure laws and law-breakers; I can measure rule-keeping and rule-breaking; I can measure a life lived by works.  But faith?  That’s a little too nebulous; a little too out there in a world that we can’t see, smell, or touch.  But it is exactly how God intends us to live.  So how do we bring faith to our every day experience?

Think of your Christian experience as a big circle.  We start with a faith challenge.  Something in our lives that doesn’t make sense.  Some crossroads where life isn’t working.  One path available to us is to walk by sight – seeking to explain everything in terms of consequences for our past actions, or finding the victim or beneficiary in each situation, or laying blame on God, our spouse, our co-workers, etc for what is happening.  The other path is to let God’s revealed Word guide our thoughts.  And when we take this route, we are choosing to walk by faith.  We understand that no matter what it looks like on the outside, our life is defined by what God has said and promised, not by our circumstances.  We choose to live as if Christ is living His life through us.  We act according to the influence of Christ living His life through us.  We hear the voice of Jesus and we follow.  When we do this, we are walking by faith.

When we walk by faith, the crushing influence of our external circumstances begin to lessen.  We find that in the middle of our challenging situation, we experience peace and joy and the fruits of the Spirit, because we are walking in the Spirit.  We experience God’s incredible spiritual blessings.  We experience success in our spiritual walk.  In short, we begin to see and feel in our daily lives what walking by faith looks like.

In the middle of this spiritual blessing, our enemy, the devil, comes along and stirs up trouble.  He reminds us of situations, some minor and some dire, where it looks like God has given up on us.  He accuses us of some besetting sin and tells us we are never getting better.  He blames God and encourages us to do the same regarding a chronic illness or wayward child.  We are back to a faith crossroads.

And just like the last time we were here, we choose to walk by faith.  We believe by faith that God is good, despite the fact that at times the evidence suggests the opposite.  We believe by faith that we have been set free from sin’s power and by virtue of Christ living His life through us will overcome our besetting sin.  We believe by faith that God has a training program for us, His child, marked by good gifts and a good plan.  In short, we choose to walk by faith rather than by sight.

Do you see the circle we are on?

  • We face a faith challenge.
  • We make a righteous choice by God’s power inside us.
  • We choose to walk by faith.
  • We experience the fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
  • Our faith grows stronger as we experience God’s blessing.
  • We face a faith challenge.

And the circle repeats itself.  The beauty is that as we continue to make righteous choices and exercise our faith, our faith gets stronger.  Does that mean the choices get easier as we go along?  I don’t know if easier is the right word.  The challenges become different as God, through His sovereign training program, conforms us more and more to the image of His Son.  Walking by the Spirit, walking by faith is not some distant goal for the super-spiritual saint.  It is how you and I, children of and home to the Living God, are designed to live.  And it is available to us right now.  It is our path to spiritual maturity – our sanctification.