The hardest part of being a Christian for me is I don’t get to make up the rules.  I’m not in charge.  I’m not running this gig and calling the shots.  I don’t get to cross out verses in the Bible I don’t like and still be a true follower of Christ.

That’s hard to deal with.  We humans like to control to “ensure” our security, our success, and to boost our pride.  (I use quotes because we can’t ensure anything by being controlling.  But the illusion makes us feel better.)

Paul speaks to this in 2 Timothy.  He says, “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus…Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus…if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules,” (2 Timothy 2:1,3,5).

“Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus…”  Be confident that He empowers us, out of His grace, to do what He’s called us to do.  Among other things, He’s called us to endure hardship in the manner He prescribes –  with love, faith, and righteousness.  No easy task, but He will empower us to be successful.

“Compete according to the rules.”  Sports have rules.  If you use your hands in soccer, you are penalized.  You cannot win if you don’t abide by this rule.  If you break the rule incidentally, the other team gets the ball, and you try to obey the rule going forward.  In this case, you remain in the game, in the contest, eligible for the win.

But if you break the rule on purpose, you are penalized more severely.  The other team gets the ball, and you either get a warning card or an ejection card, depending on where you were on the field when you purposefully handed the ball.  If you intentionally use your hands again, you will be ejected, removed from the field permanently.  You can no longer win the game.

So it is in the Christian life.  There are rules – God-mandated rules – we all must abide by or suffer the consequences.  When we inadvertently break a rule, we are met with grace and love and gently corrected.  We still experience the natural consequences of our disobedience, but we aren’t disqualified from winning.

On the contrary, when we purposefully break God’s rules, repeatedly telling Him we don’t like His rules and will not adhere to them, we are met with grace and love and unpleasant discipline.  (The simple fact that we aren’t smited for our obstinance proves His grace and love).  In addition to natural consequences, we experience supernartural consequences – a hardening of our hearts toward God and a separation from His perfect will.  We become disqualified from winning.

It’s essential to note that “winning” is not “being saved”.  Paul already knows Timothy is saved in these verses.  This passage is for those who already have eternal salvation guaranteed by having accepted the blood sacrifice of Jesus.

Rather, “winning” is living in harmony with God, hitting on all cylinders in your walk.  It’s not easy to do.  Living by His rules is hard.  But when we do, we can win.  We can feel and, more importantly, be lit up by the Holy Spirit, harnessing the full power of Him to accomplish our specific Kingdom work God has prepared in advance for us to do (Acts 1:8; Ephesians 2:10).

When you are ejected from a soccer match, you can’t return to that match.  You cannot win that game.  But you will get another chance another day to play in a new game with a fresh opporunity to win.

And, praise God, so it is with Him.  When we’ve boldly defied Him, rebelling against His system of rules with every anarchic urge in our souls – when we’ve lost – He gives us another chance.  His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).

We can win today….if we play by His rules.

I’ve won a handful of times in my life.  Victory is sweet and well worth any perceived loss we experience along the way.