Home » Sermons » New Testament » 1 Timothy » The Muscularity of Faith


The Muscularity of Faith


 1st Timothy 4:10      Colossians 1:28-29   Colossians 4:12


“We are to pray as if it all depended on God and work as if it all depended on us,” Cardinal Cushing of Boston used to say. We know what he was trying to say and we agree with him; namely, that God alone can do what God is to do, while we alone can do what we are to do. While we are always beggars (in the words of Martin Luther), always beggars in the sense that we are utterly dependent on God’s grace, we are never to loll lazily in God’s grace, like a sunbather soaking up the sun’s rays passively, mind and muscle out of service.

I like what Cardinal Cushing said – for the most part. I am, however, more than a little disquieted by his use of “as if.” To say “as if it all depended on God, as if it all depended on us” means “but in fact it doesn’t.” I remain convinced, on the contrary that it does. It’s true that it does “all depend on God” even as it’s equally true that it does “all depend on us.” Everywhere in scripture we are told that we humans, however godly we may be, aspire to be, or think ourselves to be; we can’t bring in or build the kingdom of God : God alone can. At the same time, the kingdom of God , implemented by God alone, remains invisible until such time as we give it visibility. The work God gives us to do is going to get done only as we do it.

I think we need to be careful how we use the expression “as if.” When our Lord says in John 15, for instance, “Apart from me you can do nothing,” he doesn’t mean, “…as if you could do nothing.” Once again there’s no “as if.” He means exactly what he says. On the one hand, apart from him we can indeed do nothing (with respect to the kingdom.) On the other hand, unless we do what’s been given us to do, it isn’t going to get done.

My point is this. Christian faith impels us both to pray (that is, wait on God for what he alone can supply) and to work (that is, spare no effort in giving ourselves to the tasks he has given us.) We must pray because in truth it all depends on God; we must also work because in truth it all depends on us.

When the apostle Paul wants to emphasize the muscularity of faith he uses the Greek verb agonizesthai. Agonizesthai doesn’t mean he’s in agony, beside himself in unendurable pain, craving morphine as he craves nothing else. Agonizesthai is a Greek word that he has borrowed from the realm of athletics. It was first used of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece . It has to do with exertion, training, striving, persistence. But all of this needn’t imply something tortuous or grim, never mind ghastly. Any athlete knows that exertion is essential if exercise or training is to be beneficial; at the same time, every athlete (or even non-athlete) knows that such exertion pays off abundantly. After all, exertion sheds pounds, lowers blood pressure, reduces niggling depression, leaves the perspiring panting person exhilarated. To be sure, vigorous exertion may find us uncomfortable at first, even cause us to speak of “self-inflicted suffering;” but vigorous exertion ultimately leaves us exhilarated, stronger, more contented with ourselves and more useful to others.


I: — Listen to the apostle. “For to this end we toil and strive (agonizesthai,) because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the saviour of all men, especially of those who believe.” (1st Tim. 4:10) “For to this end we toil and strive.” To what end? The end of furthering the entire Christian mission; the end of advancing the gospel; of magnifying the grace of the gospel, the claim of the gospel and the consequences of the gospel. To this end we toil and strive.

A clergyman my age told me that after many years in the ministry he had begun preaching without notes and was delighted now to preach without notes. “If the congregation sees that you use notes,” he explained, “the congregation knows that you prepare the sermon; then it continues to expect you to prepare. No notes? The congregation sees that you don’t prepare and never expects you to prepare anything.” And then he laughed as he told me his life was now easier, his workload lighter, and the congregation no worse off in any case. As far as I’m concerned the man’s laziness is disgraceful, his trifling with the gospel blasphemous, and the spiritual starvation of the congregation tragic. Only one hundred years ago students for the ministry in Scotland ( Scotland , Presbyterians should know, has traditionally treasured theology and worked very hard at it) were sufficiently poor that two theology students rented a room with only one bed in it. Each student slept four hours per night and studied during the other four hours when his roommate occupied the bed. When the “New Learning,” as the Renaissance was spoken of five hundred years ago, emerged in Europe and inflamed theology students as much as it did arts students, theology students in any case hired someone to keep them awake while they studied long into the night lest they forego something precious. They knew, as their Scottish descendents came to know, that a clergyman’s ministry is sustained by the depth of the well from which he draws. Where the minister’s well is shallow needy congregations perish in the heat of scorching exposure. And that clergyman laughs because the congregation now receives as little from him as he expects from himself?

You people in Schomberg know better. The proof that you know better is that you do better yourselves.   On the one hand many of you have told me how much you appreciate the preparation any sermon here presupposes; on the other hand, you work hard, very hard (agonizesthai) to support and sustain and care for each other. I remain impressed by the wonderful level of concrete caring that this congregation manifests as this person or that becomes ill, suffers bereavement, loses a job, has to be hospitalized, or appears discouraged. I’ve always been aware that while the sermon should be as good as the sermon can be, good sermons by themselves never build a congregation. Congregations are built up and strengthened by concrete caring that we all render each other as life bumps and bruises us and sometimes finds one or more among us haemorrhaging.

From time to time we sing here Charles Wesley’s fine hymn, “Jesus, united by thy grace, and each to each endeared.” We mean it. I know we mean it. We are dear to each other in Schomberg. We know the difference between caring and being nosy; between caring and gossiping; between genuine caring and sweet-smiling indifference. We know that in any congregation everyone struggles (somewhere in life); everyone hurts (whether from a recent wound or an old wound); and everyone is lonely.

Charles Wesley’s hymn again:            Help us to help each other, Lord,

Each other’s cross to bear;

Let each his friendly aid afford

And feel his brother’s care.

Two matters require comment here: (i) Wesley wrote it during the Industrial Revolution in Britain when his heart broke at the thousands of people who had to move from villages where they were known to factory cities where they could disappear overnight. (ii) When Wesley speaks of “feel” – “and feel his brother’s care” – he doesn’t mean feel in the sense of “have a warm feeling inside.” In Eighteenth Century English “feel” meant “to confirm through daily experience.” In other words, to feel our brother’s care is to confirm day after day our undeniable experience of being cared for.

As everyone knows it’s easy to care concretely in the short run; in the long run, however, endurance is needed, steadfastness, perspicacity. The Schomberg congregation is exemplary here as well. When Mark Pengilley was hospitalized in Guelph for four weeks; when Gordon Hilts was hospitalized in Newmarket for the better part of a year; people here were as ardent in their caring at the end as they had been at the beginning.

I admit that hospital visitation is relatively dramatic compared, for instance, to cutting the grass here or shovelling snow or ensuring that the toilet flushes or bringing food and drink to the coffee hour following the service. But dramatic or not, it all gets done in Schomberg, and gets done well.

We must never think it unimportant, and we must never think it fruitless. We are told in scripture that hospitality is nothing less than receiving angels unawares; we are told that a cup of water given in our Lord’s name is blessing beyond our imagining. We are told that all such striving (agonizesthai) is wonderfully fruitful just because our Lord has promised to multiply a hundredfold whatever we undertake in his name.


II:– “For this I toil, sweat,” Paul tells us in the second place, “striving with all the energy which God mightily inspires within me.” (Col. 1:28-29) Striving with every ounce of God-inspired energy? Toiling and sweating? To do what? To proclaim Jesus Christ, he says, warning everyone and teaching everyone so as to present every man and woman mature in Christ. Clearly the apostle believes that Jesus Christ is to be proclaimed in such a way that hearers are cautioned and hearers are instructed, all for the sake of bringing hearers to maturity in Christ.

There are many aspects to Christian maturity. When I look out over the church today, however, I think that the one aspect that seems to have receded and needs to be restored is balance. The church today appears to lack balance, with the result that it lurches lopsidedly, even staggers.

In our era the smallest tail has learned how to wag the biggest dog. A small minority with a piercing yell can pass itself off as the voice of the people. A lobby group which in yesteryear would have been regarded as silly is now heard as if it were the essence of wisdom. (And whether it’s the essence of wisdom or not, it certainly knows about the essence of manipulation.) Balance is lacking.

It’s no surprise, then, to hear someone say that the gospel can be reduced without remainder to a crypto-Marxist program of social dismantling. Someone else wants to say that the essence of the gospel is psychotherapy, and the church ought to be the vehicle of inexpensive psychotherapy. And then we are told that the real business of the church and the “faith” (so-called) it attempts to proliferate is ensuring the morality essential to preserving social order.

It’s plain that balance is a major aspect of the Christian maturity we must toil, strive, sweat to restore.

[1] For instance, we must strive to restore the balance between urgency and patience. If we lack urgency concerning the gospel, urgency concerning the gospel’s forging of faith within hearers and the gospel’s fostering of obedience within them simultaneously; if we lack urgency here then we are telling the world that the gospel isn’t important at all. So far from being good news, unique news, it isn’t news at all. At the same time, urgency without patience becomes frenzy in us and coercion visited upon others.

On the other hand patience is needed sorely in our “instant” society. (Instant coffee, instant breakfast, microwave cooking, one-stop shopping, fast-drying varnish, video watching for two hours instead of reading a book for twenty.) The gospel takes time to seep into hearers; the gospel takes time to seep into them, soak them, pool within them, only then to bring forth the fruit of faith and obedience. Patience is always needed. At the same time, patience without urgency dribbles off into shallow indifference.

In other words, urgency keeps patience real and prevents patience from becoming indifference. Patience keeps urgency real and prevents urgency from becoming frenzy. Balance is the preservative.

[2] We also need balance between head and heart. Faith (so-called) that is merely a collection of theological doctrine housed in one’s head is no more than an abstract parlour game that happens to use religious vocabulary. Yet faith (so-called) that is only mindless mush is no more than useless romanticism.

Think of the balance between head and heart in terms of a surgeon and the surgery he performs. A surgeon who lacked the head knowledge of anatomy would be a surgeon whose surgery could only kill the patient. On the other hand, someone who possessed the finest head knowledge of anatomy but wholly lacked heart would be someone who didn’t care enough for sick people to operate on any of them – with the same result; the patient dies.

Years ago lopsidedness in the church arose as a one-sided emphasis on the head – sound doctrine – considerably outweighed an emphasis on the heart – the believer’s love for the Nazarene who embodies the truth of God. In our era, however, the lopsidedness pertains to the heart as the church has all but surrendered the truth that Jesus Christ is just that: truth.

Head without heart issues in abstract sterility. Heart without head issues in mindless sentimentality. The head keeps the heart informed; the heart keeps the head warm.

[3] We need to strive for balance between the contemplatives and the activists within the congregation. Contemplatives teach us to examine ourselves. Where and why and how do we rationalize our sin? Why is it that our anxiety is increased hugely by developments that are trifles, devoid of kingdom significance? What particular “attachment” has “hooked” us and now deflects us from giving ourselves wholly to our Lord? If we aren’t serious about the contemplative dimension of the Christian life then we are strangers to Jesus Christ. For one look from him can unlock the secrets and subterfuges of the most self-deceived heart. And concerning contemplation, he insisted on going himself to a solitary place not once but habitually, didn’t he?

At the same time if we aren’t serious about the activist dimension of the Christian life then we are strangers to the One who immersed himself in the world’s anguish until his fatigue nearly frayed him. Jesus stood with and stood up for a woman who was about to be stoned; a youngster whose epilepsy had collapsed him into a fire; a deranged man whose violence a straitjacket couldn’t restrain; a widow whose only son (that is, her sole economic support) had just died. In addition Jesus faced up to and faced down church authorities who impeded the kingdom of God , or slandered him, or sneered at the people who believed in him.

Three areas where we have to strive for balance, sweat for it? There are three dozen. What matters is that we begin and then go on to toil and strive relentlessly, labouring to overcome the lopsidedness that renders us individually and the church at large less than mature. Paul toils and strives with every ounce of energy, he tells us, to present every man and woman mature in Christ.


III: — The last instance of agonizesthai we are going to examine this morning: Paul conveys greetings from Epaphras (Epaphras lived in Philippi, was visiting in Rome , and had friends in Colosse) to the congregation in Colosse. In conveying Epaphras’s greetings Paul reminds the Christians in Colosse that Epaphras prays for them with intensity and fervour, zeal and anguish. When Epaphras prays for the congregation in Colosse, he sweats.

One of the most misleading paintings found in church basements is that of Jesus praying in Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion. A bright beam of light highlights his brown-blond hair. His hands are clasped in front of him, his hands resting on the smooth, flat rock beside which he kneels in peace. Peace? The Greek text of the written gospel tells us that he was beside himself. When the gospel tells us that Jesus “knelt” it uses a verb tense that means Jesus fell to his knees repeatedly; his knees kept buckling on him, so very overwrought was he. His knees collapsed; he got up, staggered, and went down again; over and over.

Jesus, Epaphras, plus countless others haves been so very intense about their intercession just because they cared. When Jesus was in Gethsemane facing that ordeal in which he would be the intercession for the entire creation, he cared. When Paul reflected on his congregations (most notably Corinth) that had certainly come to faith in Jesus Christ yet behaved as if they had scarcely heard of him he didn’t toss it off, saying, “Not my fault that they are such a poor advertisement for the gospel.” He cared.

We care. We care about the course of the gospel in our congregation and in our community; we care about the course of the gospel in our own lives. Since we care, our intercession can never be “Now I lay me down to sleep…,” mumbled thirty seconds before sleep cuts us off in mid-mumble. Since we care, we strive with God when we pray; we struggle; we sweat.

Abraham intercedes for the city of Sodom . Moses intercedes for his people. Paul, Epaphras, above all Jesus himself pray to the point of perspiration. It wasn’t a Yoga-like exercise in “getting it all together.” It was exertion, the exercise of a ministry to which God ordains all of his people. Such intercession is work, to be sure, yet never fruitless work, for our confidence is in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe.


Then let us exert ourselves in all the work that’s been given us to do. We must toil, strive, spend ourselves for the enlargement of the Christian mission, for restoring balance in the church, and for interceding on behalf of others. Let us exert ourselves in any endeavour we take up on behalf of Jesus Christ, for it all depends on us – even as first it all depends on God.

                                                                                                 Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                   

  January 2004

A Study in AGONIZESTHAI: To Struggle, Strive, Toil, Do One’s Best