My Story (3) — I Decided to Stay

This morning, we’re in the third week of a four-week series entitled “My Story”. If you missed the last two weeks, let me quickly catch you up. All of us have a story that we tell about where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and where we’re at. And it’s important for us to realize that the decisions we made yesterday determine the stories that we tell today. Even more important – the decisions we make today determine the stories that we will tell tomorrow.

The reality is that five years or so from now, you will look back and you will tell a story about this time in your life. And the good news is that a lot of you, you’ll tell a story that you’re proud of. “Hey, a few years ago, when I was living in Fayetteville and attending Cruciform, let me tell you what happened, let me tell you what I did, let me tell you how I grew in my faith.

But the bad news is that some of you will look back to this season of your lives and you won’t be very proud of your story. Because right now, you’re not making very good decisions, you’re not making very godly decisions. And the decisions we make today will determine the stories that we tell tomorrow.

Now, many of you, during this period of your life, are going through a very difficult time. You’re facing some sort of obstacle or challenge. Maybe it’s a job that you don’t think you can survive one more day. Maybe it’s a relationship that turned sour and you’re thinking, “It’s not even worth it to stay in this relationship.” Maybe there’s something about your walk with God that’s been a challenge and you’re thinking about quitting. And so you’re facing a decision — do I stay the course or do I walk away?

And we need to acknowledge that there are times when we should walk away. There are some times in our lives when we need to let one chapter end and start a new chapter. But sometimes, the best decision we can make is to stay when it would be easier to go, to stay the course when it would be easier to walk away.

I remember my very first preaching job. It was in Milan, Tennessee, which is a small town in the western part of the state. Well, technically the church wasn’t in Milan. It was more in the cornfields north of Milan. It was a small country church that had been there about a hundred years, and as best as I could tell, they hadn’t changed anything they were doing over the course of that time. In fact, I think some of the members there may have been charter members of that church.

I ended up there because I needed somewhere I could preach while I was finishing up my last semester at Freed-Hardeman and this was the only place I could get a job. But it didn’t take long to discover that it wasn’t an ideal job. I should have figured it out when, a few months into my work there, I got married to Sueanne. We got married on a Thursday, but we had to come home from our honeymoon on Saturday because the elders told me I had to be in the pulpit on Sunday. Well, I could have been gone but their policy was, “If you aren’t here, you don’t get paid” and I couldn’t afford to go a week without pay. I later found that that policy held true even if you have to be out of town because of a relative’s death.

I won’t go into all the issues we faced there, but suffice it to say that there were many Sundays that I went home in tears. And, in less than a year, I felt like I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to a teacher at Freed-Hardeman that I highly respected and I poured out all my frustrations. The advice he gave me was this – “Hang in there. If you start running now, you’ll be running the rest of your life. Stick it out as long as you can.”

So I stuck it out. Fortunately for me, the elders of that church believed in changing preachers every two years. That way, they could remove the ten dollar a week raise they gave to me after one year and go back to the previous salary. So they came to me after two years and said, “Brother, we believe you’re such a good preacher that we feel like we need to share you with everybody else.” And with that, my pregnant wife and I were given the boot (and we didn’t shed too many tears over it).

But that advice has stuck with me through the years — “If you start running now, you’ll be running the rest of your life. Stick it out as long as you can.” Because, you see, we all have a tendency to want life to be easy. And if we’re doing something that’s not easy, then we think we need to quit doing it because I don’t like doing things that are hard. And after all, God wants me to be happy.” The only problem is — God isn’t so much interested in you being happy as he’s interested in you being faithful.

Some of you may be facing a difficult decision like that right now. Some of you may not be facing it right now, but you will later on in life. And the big question we’re trying to answer in this series of lessons is this — “How do we live out a story that is worth telling? How do we live our lives today so that later on we can tell the story that God wants us to tell?”

And last week, I said that the key is found in Hebrews 12:2 when the writer says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.” Not fix our eyes on the situation, not fix our eyes on the options. But fix our eyes, fix our thoughts, fix our minds on Jesus.

And as we fix our thoughts and our hearts on Jesus Christ, he is the one who helps us to live out the story that he wants us to tell.

And so, in this series, we’re making four decisions. Week one, we decided to start. We decided to start one discipline that will help us to live out the story God that wants us to tell.

Week two, we decided to stop. We decided to stop one thing that is hindering our story.

This morning, week three, we’re going to decide to stay when it would be easier for us to go.

And then next week, week 4, we’re going to talk about deciding to go when it’s easier to stay. Because every single one of you, to live out your full potential, there’s going to come a time when you’re going to have to step out of your comfort zone, to walk away from what is known, to take a step of faith and to go, when it would be more tempting to play it safe and to stay.

This morning though, I want to talk about times when we need to decide to stay rather than to walk away. And again, the reality for some of you is that, right now, you are facing something in your life where you are really struggling. There’s something really tough that you’re going through and you don’t think you can hang in there much longer. And so you’ve got to make a decision — Do I stay the course or do I walk away, because that sure looks a lot easier? And of the four decisions we’re looking at, for a lot of you, this will be the most important and the most difficult decision for you to make.

Some of you may say, “Well, I’m really not in a situation like that right now.” And that may be true. But one day, you will be, I promise. It may be tomorrow, it may be next week, it may be next month, it may be next year. But at some point in your life, you are going to go through a rough time, and you will want to quit something you have made a commitment to. And, when that time comes, I want you to fix your eyes on Jesus, and ask yourself the question, “Later on in life, what story do you want to tell?”

And if you’re honest with yourself, many of you are going to realize the right thing to do is to stay when it would be easier for you to go. There’s a great example of this in the Old Testament in the story of Naomi and her two daughters-in-law.

In Ruth chapter 1, we are introduced to Naomi the mother-in-law; and she had two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. Just as a side note, a bit of trivia for you. You may not know that Oprah Winfrey was actually named Orpah when she was born, named after Orpah in the book of Ruth. In fact, that’s what her birth certificate says. But apparently, nobody could pronounce it right and everybody always called her “Oprah”, so that’s what she ended up going by. Which is probably just as well because the “Orpah Winfrey Show” just doesn’t seem to have the right ring to it.

But back to Naomi. Unfortunately, Naomi’s husband died and then tragically, her two sons also died. And so, that left Naomi, Orpah and Ruth without a husband. And in that society, this was a tragedy because they couldn’t just go down to Walmart and get a job. They didn’t have a man to take care of them and so they were reduced almost to the status of beggars.

And so, Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “You need to go back home, go back to Moab. It will be easier for you there. In fact, God may even give you a husband if you go back home.” And so Orpah decided to do that, she decided to go back to Moab. And there was nothing wrong with that decision, no shame in it. In fact, that was the logical thing to do, it made sense.

But Ruth decided to do something very different. She decided to stay when it would have been easier for her to go. Naomi tried to talk her out of it. In Ruth 1:15, Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is going back to her people, go back with her.”

In verse 16, Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or turn back from you.” And then we have this great verse that’s used in a lot of weddings – Ruth says, “Where you go, I will go.” And “Where you stay…” “I will stay.” Even though it would have been easier for her to go, Ruth said, “I will stay. Your people will be my people and” — watch this — “your God will be my god.”

Ruth decides, you know what, we’re family. And I’m choosing your God, the one true God. I’m committing myself to him and I’m committing myself to you. Even though it would be easier for me to go back home, I’m going to decide to stay with you.

And you know how the story turns out. After they got back to Bethlehem, Ruth went out into the fields. There was this rich guy, Boaz, an incredible guy, who owned the fields. And Ruth would go out into the fields to pick up some of the leftovers after the workers had reaped the harvest. And Boaz, this amazing guy, heard about her and had compassion on her. He said to his workers, “Give her some extra food.” And he took care of her. Which raises the question, why would this rich landowner show compassion on this foreigner?

And the answer is because he had heard her story. He had heard how she stayed with Naomi when it would have been easier for her to go. And watch his response. In chapter 2, verse 11, Boaz said to Ruth, “I’ve heard your story. I’ve been told all about what you’ve done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, how you left your father and mother and your homeland to come and live with a people that you didn’t know before. You stayed with your mother-in-law.

And then he pronounces a blessing and he says, “May the Lord repay you for what you have done.” And the Lord does repay Ruth. Boaz ends up marrying her and suddenly this girl, who had no future whatsoever, after making this decision to stay, now she’s one of two women who had books of the Bible named after her. And if you trace the lineage of Jesus, you’ll find that he came from Ruth’s bloodline.

Her whole life changed. Because she decided to stay when it would have been easier to go.

Now, don’t miss this point. Ruth didn’t stay, hoping that God would bless her. She stayed because she believed it was right, and then God blessed her because she did what was right.

All of us, at some point in our lives are going to come to a fork in the road, and we’re going to have to make a decision — “Should I stay with what I have committed to do, or am I going to do what’s easy and leave?’’

The big question we’ve been asking throughout this series of lessons is, “What is the story that God wants you to tell?”

It might be that God wants you to spend more time with your family, or to help develop them spiritually, or to maybe develop yourself spiritually because you’re not really growing as a follower of Jesus. Or for some of you, it may be to stop pursuing your own dreams and surrender yourself to God. Or it may be to stop living for things that don’t matter.

Whatever it is, what does God want for you? And then, in light of the story that God wants you to tell, where does God want you to stay? Where does God want you to stay the course when it would be easier to walk away?

One of the qualities of God that should be a quality of his followers is that God doesn’t quit. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful.”

And God wants us to follow his example – he doesn’t want us to quit. In Hebrews 12:1, the writer says, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” It’s not whether you come in first place or not. It’s a question of whether you’re going to continue to run the race to the end or you’re going to drop out.

There are times when God wants you to stay. Now, I know what you’re thinking – “But, Alan, you don’t understand, it’s hard. I’m tired. I want to quit.” But I’m convinced this morning that God is calling some of you to stay the course when you would rather call it quits.

It could be one of many different areas. Maybe you’re in college right now and you think I just can’t make it through. It’s too expensive, too time consuming, the hill is too big, I can’t climb it. And so, you can do what a lot of people do and maybe the right thing for you to do is just walk away and not finish.

But maybe you’re convinced that that’s not what God wants for you. And so, you keep your head down and you may work two jobs and you may not be on the four year plan, you’re on the seven-and-a-half year plan but you remain faithful. Semester after semester you plow away, one class here, two classes there, a summer class here. And one day, you wake up and you realize you’ve got a degree.

And your story is — it wasn’t easy but I stayed with it, and now I’ve got a job I couldn’t have had otherwise because I am not a quitter; I’m a finisher. And I decided to stay when it would have been easier to quit. That might be your story some day.

For some of you, it might be a problem that you’re having at church. You get your feelings hurt; somebody does something and your attitude is, “Forget them, forget that. I’m leaving the church. I’m going to show them, I’m walking away. I’m not staying in this stupid church.” And that can be your story; it’s a lot of people’s story.

Or, maybe you just stop going to church – you get busy without everything else in life and you used to go to church but you don’t anymore. That can be your story.

Or you can say, “You know what? Somebody hurt me but I’m going to do for them what Christ did for me and I’m going to forgive, and I’m going to work through it. And I’m going to stay in there.”

And then years later — your story goes like this, “You know what, I hung in there, and these people I didn’t really like, now they’re my best friends in all the world. I’m so glad I stayed in the church because spiritually, I’m at a place that I never was before. And now, one of the high points of my life is making a difference in this world as part of the body of Christ. I don’t just go to church; I’m a part of the church and my life is different because I decided to stay when it would have been easier to go.”

For some of you, your story will be with God. Something’s going to happen in your life that you don’t like. You don’t understand why you’re suffering the way you are and suddenly you think to yourself, “God, if you’re going to let this happen when you could have stopped it, then forget you.” And your story can be you walked away from God just like a lot of other people do. “God, if you’re going to let that happen, I just can’t believe in you.”

Or you might decide to stay with God the way that God will always stay with you, because he will never leave you nor forsake you. And so, you tell God, “I don’t understand this; this doesn’t make sense to me but I realize that I’m not God and you are. So, I’m choosing to believe in you even when I don’t understand.”

And then time goes on and something happens inside of you, and you start to look back at that thing that you hated and you realize you didn’t know it at the time but God actually used that in your life to make you stronger. And what the enemy meant for evil, somehow God used for good. And now you know God and his faithfulness in a way that you never did before. And now you’re living for him and for his glory in a way that you never thought possible and this is your story because you decided to stay with God when it would have been easier to walk away because you didn’t understand.

For some of you, it will be in your marriage. Over and over again in our society today, we see one or the other spouse say, “I’m not very happy so I’m gonna call it quits. This just isn’t working. It’s hard, it’s painful. He’s not meeting my needs and there’s this trainer at the gym, he sure compliments me a lot. Or she’s kind of boring and the girl at work, she’s kind of fun, and so, I’m going to walk away. My spouse just doesn’t make me happy. I mean, we gave it a shot for a while but it just didn’t work out.”

When your marriage gets to that point, and it’s a struggle, because all of us who are married have been there, you need to ask yourself what story you want to tell down the road. “Well, kids, we gave it a shot for a while but we just weren’t happy, so we called it quits.” And that can be your story. It’s a lot of people’s story.

Or your story might go something like this. “We didn’t like each other; in fact, we pretty much hated each other. We didn’t believe in murder so we just prayed the other one would die. I mean, it was so bad, you wouldn’t believe; it was the absolute worst thing ever.

“But you know what? We made a covenant before our God so we hung in there. And we got counseling and we got help. And we made a church a priority, and we made a commitment to be the kind of people that God called us to be. And it didn’t happen overnight, but over a period of time, God started to change us.

“And the wonderful is that now, we have a marriage — it’s not perfect — but we’ve gone 27 years because we believe a covenant is something important and God has given us something we didn’t think was possible.” Some of you need to make a decision to stay when it would be far easier for you to go.

And if you’re going through a rough time in your marriage, you may be thinking that I just don’t any idea how bad it can be. Trust me, I do. Sueanne and I went through a terribly difficult time in our marriage after about 7 years. You may find this hard to believe but there was a lot of yelling and screaming that took place in our home (mostly on my part), and we couldn’t stand being around each other.

By the way, let me tell you that a preacher doing a lot of yelling at his wife while living in a duplex with paper-thin walls isn’t the best way to do evangelism. For some reason, we never could get our neighbors to go to church with us.

But Sueanne and I said, “You know what – we’re not quitting. And if we don’t want the rest of our lives to be miserable, we’re going to have to work on changing it.’ And now, our story is that we can look back on 40 years of marriage and say, “This is as good as it gets.” But we never would have enjoyed what we enjoy now if we had called it quits 30 years ago. The decisions we make determine the stories we tell.

Or it may be that some of you right now are serving God in a variety of ways, but you’re just tired, and you’re not even sure you’re doing any good, so you’re thinking about quitting. What I want you to hear is that sometimes the greatest act of faith is faithfulness, continuing to do what you’re doing to serve God. Let me assure that what Galatians 6:9 says is true, “Do not grow weary in doing good. For at the proper time, you will reap a harvest if you do not give up.”

The decisions that we make today determine the stories that we will tell tomorrow. And sometimes, the best decision you can make is to stay when it would be easier to go.

As I said earlier, I realize that some of you are not yet facing a difficult choice in your life whether to go or to stay. But I want to ask all of you to make a commitment today, that when that time comes, you will keep your eyes on Jesus. You will let him be the author and the finisher of your faith. And if God shows you that the right thing to do to stay, even though you may not want to, even though you may not even see how it’s possible, even though it may not feel like it’s worth it, that you will commit to stay even though it would be easier for you to go.

For every single one of you today who are living life without God, Jesus stayed the course for you. For every single one of you who realize you’ve messed up, and you need forgiveness, and you need healing and you need a Savior, Jesus stayed the course for you. For every single one of you who realize you need the presence and the peace of God, Jesus stayed the course for you. And he became sin for us on the cross, died and rose again so that you could be forgiven, so that you could be healed, so that you could experience the goodness and the love of God on this earth, and forever in heaven.

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