Spring is traditionally the time for spring-cleaning, for getting the clutter out of our houses. That started me wondering how the idea of de-cluttering our houses might be applied to our spiritual lives. How can we get the clutter out of our spiritual lives? As I thought about this my mind went to Heb. 12:1-2. The first part of this passage says, “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” In other words, we are to get rid of anything that might hold us back in our relationship with God. So how do we do that?

What's holding Us Back?

Perhaps before we answer that question it’s worth asking another one, namely, What is it that holds us back in our relationship with God? There are in fact several things that can cause problems in this area. One of these is worldly distractions and pleasures, and it’s an area in which we in Western society are particularly vulnerable. It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that we need to acquire more and more material goods, which usually means working more and more in order to be able to buy them, and that can become the focus of our lives. And then there are the pleasures which our society offers. What with TV, movies, books, sports and the Internet, there’s always something around to entertain us. It’s all too easy to let these things come to have greater importance in our lives than they should, and to distract us from what’s really important. But all this is the world’s way, and Jesus warns us against it the parable of the sower. Some of the seed falls among thorns, and the thorns choke the seeds, which stops them from producing a crop. Later Jesus explains that the thorns represent the world’s concerns, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things than the things of God (Mark 4:18-19). Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul can tell his protegé Timothy that “the love of money is the root of every kind of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10).

Similarly, our worldly cares and responsibilities can distract us from our relationship with God. Paul talks about this in his first letter to the Corinthians. There he says that unmarried people are free to concern themselves with God’s business, while married people must concern themselves with how to please their spouses and families (1 Cor. 7:32-35). Recently a friend of mine, who’s not long married and a new mother, told me that she’s amazed at how easily mundane things like grocery shopping, laundry and housework can get in the way of her spending time with God. Does this mean that Christians must, or should, abdicate their legitimate responsibilities? No. It’s a matter of putting first things first. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37). We must realise that our relationship with God should be the most important relationship in our lives. It’s well-known in Christian counselling that this kind of misplaced priorities is at the root of many family problems. If our relationship with God is right, if we put him first, our other relationships will fall into place underneath that one. I should also say that our legitimate responsibilities are given to us by God, and if we keep him first, he’ll help us fulfill the responsibilities he’s given us.

Another thing that can hold us back is sin and guilt. Heb. 12:1 says that sin is like a weight that keeps us from running the Christian race with the power which we could have. Isaiah goes further. He tells the troubled Israelites that the problem is not that God is weak or deaf; the problem is that their sins have become a barrier between themselves and God (Isa. 59:1-2). This raises the question of whether when we have difficulties they are the result of our sins. We could spend a long time discussing that question. Suffice it to say that in some situations, we just have to believe that God knows what he’s doing, even if he’s not telling us what he’s doing. But sometimes, though not always, God allows us to suffer the consequences of our wrong actions. When he does this it’s for our good, so that we can learn that what we’re doing is wrong, and can repent. Now this is not to say that whenever something bad happens to us we’re being punished for our sins. But we must admit that sometimes we bring our misfortunes on ourselves. And when we fall into sin, it’s not surprising that our relationship with God is one of the things that suffers. So it’s important that we deal with sin and not let it hold us back. That being the case, we can thank God that he has provided us with a way to do just that: get rid of our sin, once and for all. We’ll come back to this below.

On a similar note, guilt is another thing that can weigh us down. The memory of past sins and hurts can leave us trapped in the past and carrying a very heavy load of guilt around. But this isn’t what God wants for us. He wants us to be free of guilt. Guilt seems to be a favourite weapon of Satan to attack believers and prevent them from being effective for God. By the way, I should say here that we must distinguish between guilt and the spirit of conviction. The spirit of conviction comes from God; it’s his way of speaking to us about our sin, and calling us to repentance. Guilt, on the other hand, comes from Satan, and his purpose in loading it onto us is to destroy us. Paul talks about the difference between guilt and the spirit of conviction in his second letter to Christians in Corinth. “Godly grief [i.e. the spirit of conviction] produces a repentance that leads to salvation, but worldly grief [i.e. guilt] produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10). And there’s the key to distinguishing between them. The spirit of conviction leads to repentance, which leads to a restored relationship with God, but guilt leads only to self-hatred, self-destruction, and hiding from God. Perhaps there’s another difference between conviction and guilt, in that repentance brings with it the belief in God’s forgiveness, whereas guilt brings with it the mistaken notion that “there’s no forgiveness for me.” There’s an illustration of this difference in the different ends of the stories of Peter and Judas. Judas betrayed Jesus by telling the authorities where they could arrest him. Peter, when he was questioned, said that he didn’t even know Jesus; and there is a sense in which that was as much of a betrayal as what Judas did. The difference lies in what happened next. Judas regretted what he had done, but did not truly repent. There’s a difference which is concealed by a wrong translation in some English Bibles. This regret and the guilt feelings associated with it led to his destruction. Peter, on the other hand, did truly repent, and this led to a restored relationship with Jesus. This in turn led to his going on to do great things for God.

Paul must have known all about the problem of guilt, first-hand. As a persecutor of the Church he had a hand in the imprisonment and death of many people who eventually became his brothers and sisters in Christ. This was something that he could scarcely have been proud of, and I suspect that his opponents reminded him of it at every opportunity. But Paul didn’t allow himself to dwell on what was past. He knew that continually looking back was not going to help him grow spiritually or accomplish anything for God. He also knew that what he had done in the past was covered by the blood of Jesus (i.e. it was atoned for by the blood that Jesus shed on the cross). He also knew that his story wasn’t over. Back in the ’70’s, when I first became a Christian, there was a slogan going around the Church: “Please be patient, God has not finished with me yet.” I haven’t heard that slogan in a while, but it’s still true. God is at work in our lives, making us into the people that he wants us to be. Some parts of this process can hurt, as God shows us things in our lives that need to be worked on. But when I tell people this, sometimes they’ll say, “But how can God forgive me? You don’t know what terrible things I’ve done.” Perhaps not; but I do know what God has done, and what he has promised. It’s another apostle, John, who tells us about it in one of his letters, which was probably written to Christians in Asia Minor. He says, “If we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). And again, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). By sending his son Jesus to the cross to die for our sins, God has provided us with a way of dealing with sin, and with guilt, once and for all. He has promised that if we confess and repent of our sins, he’ll forgive us. And if he has forgiven us, we ought to forgive ourselves. Aren’t we contradicting him if we don’t? And if all this is true, then we don’t need to let sin and guilt hold us back in our relationship with God.

Another thing that can hold us back is fear. We can allow ourselves to become convinced that we’re not capable of doing something that God has called us to do. In fact this can be a trick from Satan as he tries to fool us into not doing what God wants us to do. We must remember that God won’t call us to do something and then leave us high and dry to do it on our own. On the contrary, he wants us to depend on him for the strength to obey him. He has promised to be with us and to empower us as we do what he has called us to do. And when we remember that, we can stop fear from stopping us from doing God’s will. After all, as Paul puts it, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, and of love, and of self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). I’ve experienced this myself. For my first few months on the Prayer Line I had no confidence that I would be able to properly handle the calls I took. When you pick up that phone you never know who’s going to be on the other end. It could be just a crank call, because there are some people who think that tying up our lines is a fun game. It could be someone with a simple prayer request, or someone who’s just lonely and wants someone to talk to. Or it could be someone with a complex problem, or even someone who is so desperate that if you don’t give them some answers right then, they’ll commit suicide. You just don’t know. Some days I was so terrified that the only thing that got me into the telephone room was the knowledge that God wanted me there. But as time went by I learned to trust God to give me the wisdom I needed, when I needed it, and as I did that the fear went away. To this day I still get occasional reminders that I can’t depend on my own wisdom. But we don’t have to depend on our own strength to do what God wants us to do. God will be with us and empower us, and that means we don’t have to be afraid.

Well, now we’ve looked at some things that can hold us back in our relationship with God: worldly distractions and pleasures; worldly cares and responsibilities; sin; guilt; fear. So why is it that these things hold us back? Quite simply, the answer is that they get our focus in the wrong place. All these things draw the focus of our attention to ourselves, or to our situation. This is why it’s so easy to get distracted by these things, because self has an attraction that makes it easy for it to become the centre of our focus. But this is not where our focus should be. If we keep our eyes on ourselves, or on our situation, we’ll never accomplish anything for God. Or perhaps what I should say is that if we keep our eyes on ourselves we make it difficult for God to accomplish anything through us, because when we do accomplish something for him, we must be careful to give him the credit and not think we’ve done it ourselves.

As an aside note, another thing that we can say about these things that hold us back is that they take away our joy. But this isn’t what God wants for us. His will for us is that our joy be complete (John 14:11; 16:24). And in the Old Testament we read, “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). So if we let anything deprive us of our Christian joy, we miss out on something good that God wants for us, and that helps us accomplish what he wants us to do.

Where Should We Look?

Well, if ourselves and our situation is not the right place to keep our eyes, where should we keep them? We can get the answer to that question from the theme passage for this devotional, Heb 12:1-2. That passage ends, “keeping our eyes on Jesus, the founder and finisher of our faith.” It’s only as we keep our eyes on him that we can have a share in God’s work on Earth. But if we do keep our eyes on him, there’s no limit to what God can do through us. It’s interesting to note that in this context Jesus is described as “the founder and finisher of our faith.” Why is he called this here? Well, he’s the founder of our faith because it’s because of his death that can be saved. He has done what is necessary for our salvation. He’s the finisher, or perfecter, of our faith because he has done all that needs to be done for us to be saved. It’s in him that we believe for salvation, and in no one else. As Peter puts it in a speech recorded in the book of Acts, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 2:12). This is why it’s right for us to keep our eyes on him.

Let’s close by summing up. I asked how we can get the clutter out of our spiritual lives, and suggested that the answer lies in Heb. 12:1f: “let us lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race which has been set before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the founder and finisher of our faith.” We saw that there are several things that can hold us back: worldly distractions and pleasures; worldly cares and responsibilities; sin; guilt; fear. These things hold us back because they draw our focus to ourselves and our situation. But this isn’t where our focus should be. We need to keep our focus on Jesus if God is to accomplish anything through us. Our Lord’s will for us is that we run the race which he has set before us to the end. So let’s lay aside anything that will hold us back, and keep our eyes on him.