The Three Keys
Be devoted to one another with [authentic] brotherly affection [as members of one family], give preference to one another in honor; constantly rejoicing in hope [because of our confidence in Christ], steadfast and patient in distress, devoted to prayer [continually seeking wisdom, guidance, and strength], never lagging behind in diligence; aglow in the Spirit, enthusiastically serving the Lord; contributing to the needs of God’s people, pursuing [the practice of] hospitality.
Romans 12: 11-13
In a few passages in his letters to the churches, Paul boils down the walk of faith to simple, profound principles. In his letter to the Romans, he gives three keys to spiritual life. Practice these, he instructs, and you’ll go far in your relationship with God.
The first key Paul tells us about is to be “joyful in hope.” In the Bible hope isn’t wishing as in, “I hope my investment makes 40 percent this year.” No, hope is a strong expectation of God’s deliberate action. It’s not wishing, it’s confident believing. And with that confidence, our hearts sing as we anticipate God’s divine work to accomplish His will in our lives.
The second key is “patient in affliction.” Difficulties are a part of life. We are a fallen people living in a fallen world, and beyond that, God “prunes” fruitful believers so we will bear even more fruit-and pruning hurts! When we experience problems, our natural reaction is to try to get out of them as quickly as possible, but that’s not how God wants us to respond. Whether He takes us out of them or through them, God wants us to look to Him for wisdom and strength during the difficulty so that our faith grows stronger.
Unfulfilled expectations, unforeseen difficulties, and waiting for God’s answers can make us want to give up, but the third key is to “continue praying with resolve.” In difficult times, our prayers deepen and take on new urgency. And if the delay continues, we stop asking and start listening, which may be the lesson God wanted to teach us all along.
Most people who fail in their dream fail not from the lack of ability but from a lack of commitment.
Quite often I’m asked, “Is it really that simple to live the Christian life?” I’m aware that many have heard some pretty complicated things about following Jesus. Almost every church can provide you with a how-to booklet. You will find some crossovers between those and there will be some basic principles but most people don’t look at them. They seem to focus on the variations that attempt to define what it means to be Christian or what is expected from Christians. And boy, that can be incredibly confusing.
Paul, as he is writing to the church at Rome is well aware of the background of the believers. As Gentiles, most of them had come to Christianity from a religious background of worshipping a number of different gods. You remember that Athens had so many gods, that the city council passed a law prohibiting any new god being introduced. When one has practiced certain rituals for so long, it’s easy to want to incorporate them into this new relationship with God. And truth is, rituals are attractive because they give us a sense of accomplishment and help us feel that in some way we are contributing to our salvation. We aren’t exempt from this even in our day. We will hear that there are certain things and certain ways that must be kept if we are truly believers. We will argue and divide over these things almost effortlessly.
So let’s take a page from the first century church and keep it simple.
In these couple verses, Paul provides three simple things that everyone can do. Oh to be sure, they aren’t easy to do. Perhaps that’s why we like to make it complicated so that it will be difficult to measure. The more complex we make a relationship, the more wiggle room we have. But when we bring it back to simple, it becomes more clear when we veer off course. In Jesus’ day Ten Commandments had multiplied into over six hundred laws. Why? Because the Jews kept trying to get around the Commandments. Not much seems to have changed. We want to find the exception clause so we can choose our own path.
The first thing that Paul says is to “rejoice in hope.” Some days life can be tough. It can be filled with pain, suffering, loss, and tragedy. In those moments, there is the push to respond like those around us who do not know Christ. But if we choose, we can reach down into the depths of our relationship with God and remind ourselves of His promises and the future He is preparing for us. We find joy in the midst of sorrow because of our hope- our hope in the person of Christ, our hope in the character of God, and our hope in the world to come. Sometimes what keeps my sanity is the hope of what is yet to come. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians says, “We do not sorrow as those who have no hope…” Even when death calls and leaves us empty and lonely and lost, we cling to the hope of the One who promised that we will join those who died in the faith.
Second, Paul says, we are to “be steadfast and patient.” Staying put and not pacing the floor while we wait or wade through a crisis tests the best of us. I think that waiting for things to change or for prayers to be answered or for the storm to pass by is one of those things that stretch our faith most. We want to run away from the crisis. Maybe that’s why we look so forward to vacations since we get away from things even briefly. A dear friend of mine some years ago spoke a powerful principle in my life. They said that we just need to keep doing the last thing God spoke to us until He speaks something different. Remaining steadfast and patient is just that. So many people are like those who are standing in line and keep switching lines, hoping to move faster only to find that every time they switch, they get farther behind. I’ve travelled from Rocky Mount to Roanoke on 220 so many times that I can tell you that most of the time those who keep switching lanes trying to get there sooner are usually sitting beside me at the first light. If Satan can keep us jumping around, looking for the magic, quick button that will give us instant, easy success, he’ll cause us to miss what God has for us. So as another dear friend of mine said, “We hold on and stay put until God moves.”
Third, we are to be “devoted to prayer.” Now that’s an interested phrase, “devoted to prayer.” Webster defines devoted as: loyal and loving. Most of us don’t place prayer in that category, but Paul does. Perhaps that’s why his ministry was so successful. I wonder if he took a page from Jesus’ example. Prayer ought not be a chore, a duty, or an obligation that we are required to perform. Prayer in reality is is a delightful conversation between two loyal and loving friends. I’m sure that God delights when His children take time to be with Him. A careful reading of the Bible and church history will reveal that those who were “devoted” to prayer were also those that God worked through powerfully. One of those devoted to prayer was Daniel who every day opened his window toward Jerusalem and prayed and God heard. He was so devoted that he continued even when the king outlawed it. Oh, it got him in the lions den but he also had a peaceful night sleeping with the lions while the king paced the floor. Devoted to prayer means that in every situation, prayer is our default mode. We go to prayer first before we look for any other resource and God honors us when we do.
Three simple little things: rejoice in hope, remaining steadfast and patient, and devoted to prayer. And that’s enough to get us through this life.
Dr. John Thompson