He that overcomes, I will...
This is a repeating theme in each of the messages of Jesus to the seven churches recorded early in the book of Revelation. Yet I have come to realize that overcoming has itself become a confusing issue for many people. I know for myself what I long assumed was meant by overcoming was that I was supposed to work very hard (with God's help of course) to overcome sinning, down to the minutest detail in my life, my mind and thoughts. This led me at a very early age to become consumed by an obsession to eliminate every transient thought I might find in my mind that was not something that God could approve. Sadly the result of this was not holiness as I was trying to accomplish but rather a frenzied, increasingly desperate state of mind bordering on and tending me toward literal insanity.
At the age of 16 after a number of years suffering from this obsession having taken over nearly every waking minute of my life, pushing me closer and closer to a mental breakdown, I finally decided that my approach was not accomplishing what I intended to accomplish and that before I lost all sanity I needed to find a different way to live life. Sadly no one around me knew anything about what had been torturing me inside for so many years, but God knew about it and I believe He placed doubt into my heart to rescue me from the plague of perfectionism which was only deepening distrust of Him.
Yet just because I decided I had to change direction to keep my sanity did not mean I understood how to be right with God. For most of my life I struggled to really understand what it actually means to overcome, and it hasn't helped that most people around me support opinions about overcoming that erodes ones capacity to function mentally and emotionally healthy. False doctrines of perfectionism have long been a blight that have distracted, discouraged and enflamed false zeal among those infected with such ideas believing that God demands perfect behavior and thinking as a condition to be achieved before He will give them permission to enter His kingdom.
There is so much I could say about all of this, but I will rather focus on the core issue of what it means to be an overcomer which is clearly something Jesus emphasized in each of His messages to the churches listed in Revelation. I don't believe we should ignore or discount the words of Jesus when it comes to overcoming for this is central to what it means to be a serious follower of Christ. However, when we are infected with false ideas, fears and fanaticism that infect our thinking when it comes to this subject, we are in extreme danger of being deceived and manipulated and discouraged because we are attempting to accomplish something God never intended for us to do and are not even capable of doing. When a person believes they are required to do something God never asked them to do or even equipped them to do, the end can result in derangement of the mind, not healing and wholeness.
This subject is very broad and I can't go into all the facets of it here, but a few days ago I was impressed to jot down some new insights that came to me about what it means to overcome, what it is God wants me to overcome and more about what it is I am not supposed to focus on as I seek to be an overcomer.
I have explored this in the past and for balance it might be helpful to read some of those thoughts and insights that I wrote down. One of the verses that comes to my mind this time is something Jesus said that I believe brings insight concerning what He has in mind related to overcoming.
"These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
We may assume that what God wants us to do is to emulate Jesus by overcoming the world the way He did. And to a degree that is true. But there are things that Jesus had to do that are impossible for us to do, yet many Christians are in fact trying very hard to do anyway. They think they are supposed to overcome governments to reshape them by their own ideas in order to impose laws to 'reform' people to look and act like Christians think they they are supposed to act. They attempt to overcome other religions, even resorting to violence if necessary to impose the kingdom of God on this earth and break down all resistance on the part of those refusing to side with us. But clearly none of these are what Jesus came to this earth to accomplish as such activity is completely foreign to His way of life.
In some respect Jesus has declared that the world has already been overcome by Him. But do we really grasp the way in which Jesus actually overcame this world? We well may be clueless as to what He has in mind for us to do thinking we are to overcome like the world does it. What is it that Jesus overcame and what does He mean for us to overcome, and are they the same things? Is it possible that He has already dealt with forces, issues and the resistance from the world that He does not intend for us to be involved in because that was His job, and in doing so He paved the way for us to focus on overcoming something else in an arena only we have access to and where God will not trespass?
That may sound almost bizarre initially, to suggest that there is some area of our lives that is off limits to God. But I have come to see that this is actually one of the most important aspects of salvation almost universally ignored or rejected by many today. Yet it is still true that there are areas of our lives where God will not impose Himself lest He destroy the very capacity He gave us to thrive in the love and joy He wants for us to experience. God respects and protects the freedom He has given to each individual to choose to respond to God's love or to reject it, and this is an arena that God honors and that He will never violate. For to truly love us means to honor our freedom and never exploit or violate our right to choose for ourselves who we want to follow and serve.
I don't know how to emphasize this central tenant of salvation enough to make clear the extreme importance it carries. There is so much confusion about how God relates to both His children and His enemies (He views them all as His children anyway) and it is difficult to expose all the lies that have infected our minds about God's methods, motives and character. But I have come to be convinced that this is what we must appreciate if we are to grasp the real truth about the battle we find ourselves in and perceive the issues at stake and how to effectively relate to them. As we do begin to see what is really going on we can also begin to come closer to what it really means to be an overcomer.
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NIV)
It is safe to assume that this passage has something to do with what God has in mind related to overcoming. The real question that needs to be asked is this: What are these things listed here we are to fight? What kinds of strongholds is Paul referring to and where are they located? Are the arguments and pretensions set up against knowing God external ones, that is, arguments from other people? Or are these internal arguments raging in our own heads as we find ourselves wrestling with conflicting emotions, ideas, contradictions, assumptions and ideas about God and reality that never seem to find full resolution? What does it really mean to take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ?
When we think these things primarily involve others, we will have a problem when it comes to the last item, for it is unrealistic to think we have the power to bring someone else's thoughts into captivity and force them to be obedient to Christ. If we do believe that we are are very messed up indeed. Yet if we acknowledge that bringing thoughts captive is something that can only effectively take place within our own minds, we should see that all the rest of these things Paul lists here likewise take place within our own hearts, minds and psyche and that presuming we are to fight against external opposition may in fact be a subtle diversion, a diabolical scheme of the enemy that will only result in ultimate defeat.
Increasingly in recent years I have become more aware of the fact that overcoming is what happens inside of me rather than outside. Jesus had much to say about this, like washing the inside of a cup instead of obsessing about what is on the outside. Yet like the biased and hard of understanding Jews in His day, we too are immersed in false notions about what or who we are to fight making it very hard to see that maybe we have been fighting the wrong battles much of our lives.
What keeps coming more clear to me the longer I study the Word and listen to the Spirit is that our real battle is within my own mind and heart and not so much outside of that arena. Do I have a responsibility for challenging evil in other people? The question itself must be challenged before a healthy answer can be found, for are often tempted to believe it is our job to change other people yet fail to see our own faults, distorted thinking and disobedient impulses.
Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)
We have no business whatsoever in trying to correct, condemn or straighten out other people and their sins unless that is something God has specifically instructed us specifically to do on a case by case basis. But get this very clear: God does not ask people to correct others until that person has themselves first dealt with similar issues in their own heart so that there is no taint of censure, condemnation or accusation in the how they approach another person. And I know of very few people qualify for that role at this point. If there is any angst in our spirit we have no business pointing out someone else's sin.
Did Jesus confront other people about their sins? Yes He did, but the manner and attitude and tone of voice and the spirit in which He did this was always in harmony with the perfect, unbiased love that defines the heart of God. Jesus never allowed a spirit of irritation or impatience or frustration to taint the rebukes God sent through Him appealing to those who had hardened their hearts in resistance to God's love for them. His strong public rebukes were only a last attempt to dismantle their walls of resistance against the truth about God Jesus was longed to bring to their hearts, yet He never violated their freedom through the use of threats, intimidation or coercion.
Anything that is not in perfect harmony with agape love is never valid in the life or spirit of a follower of God. Particularly when correction and reproof are conveyed, any person used by God to relay such messages must be mature, one who has themselves brought their own thoughts into obedience to Christ. Since Christ is the perfect and complete revelation of the Father who is all love, that means that any person believing God is leading them to correct or reprove another person must first be sanctified and transformed by that same love to love unconditionally the people they seek to reform.
This issue of confronting other people and their sins may be the rare exception, not the main activity of an overcomer. Jesus is the only one qualified to confront others about their sins because there was never a single thought, motive or attitude in Him that was ever out of harmony with perfect love and compassion. Therefore the business of overcoming the world, which pretty much means anyone outside of our own minds, is the job of Jesus, not ours. And on the rare occasions where He might send someone to be His messenger they need to be sure that He has already worked in them bringing them to reflect the same love for the recipient of that message that God feels toward them.
Where does that leave the battle for overcoming? In our own hearts, our own minds is where the battle for our souls takes place. Yet the devil, the one who fights to confuse, distract and deceive us, will stop at nothing to prevent us from seeing that this is where the real fight is happening. So as long as he can keep us thinking we are to fight against other people, political forces or even demonic opposition instead of dealing with the evil, selfish desires running loose in our own minds and hearts, then he can block us from making any significant progress in true overcoming. For it is in our own heart where the warfare is taking place, and it is in our heart where the real overcoming is most critical.
What impressed on me strongly as I pondered these issues is that what is needed to be overcome are not the false doctrines from other people. Rather, the core issues to be overcome are anything that prevents me from reflecting the beauty and goodness and compassion of God in my own life.
It is my own resistance to believing in and resting in the constant and passionate love of God for me personally that is my greatest enemy that needs to be overcome.
It is a damning spirit of fault-finding and criticism that clings so tenaciously to my inner psyche that I must overcome so that others will not continue to assume that God has those attitudes.
It is the spirit of bitterness and resentment about how others have hurt me that poisons my own heart and spreads infection to those around me that needs to be overcome. (Hebrews 12:15)
It is the subtle and/or not so subtle pride (which includs feelings of worthlessness which is just another form of pride) that infects nearly everything I think or do that is in desperate need of being overcome inside my heart.
It is accusing, lying voices in my own head that defy the promises of God, discount the goodness of God and seek to make me feel that God cannot always be trusted to be fair, to provide for me or that He doesn't really care about me all that much that must be overcome, silenced and expelled.
It is anything spirit or attitude that discredits, discounts or casts doubt on God's unconditional love and care for me and His perfect goodness and consistent love that must be overcome so that I can know for myself His rest in my soul.
We have recently passed through a traumatic time of contention in the global church to which I belong. There have arisen intense feelings on both sides of a very divisive issue that have created not only a lot of controversy and arguments but has polarized many into opposing positions that appear irreconcilable. To aggravate the issue, those who gained the upper hand through a vote immediately began to assert that everyone should now turn away from this contentious issue and unite with the majority to be reconciled. Furthermore they have insisted that this majority vote represents the final authoritative voice of God for His church on this earth.
Throughout this process I have pondered how I should relate to all of this and where God is in this. Is it really true that God ordains whoever happens to be in charge of a corporation so that whatever decision is made, even when dubious methods or questionable tactics are used to achieve the desired ends, that it all must be accepted as God's unquestioned will for us all? I cannot believe that the God I have been discovering in Scripture and especially in the person of Jesus would stoop to using such tactics as I have witnessed recently to reveal His supreme will to His people. That is not to say God does work in spite of the selfish tactics of those claiming to follow Him, yet at the same time it is not safe to think that any human organization has authority to dictate to the conscience of anyone else.
During all of the debate and ongoing struggle over this issue that has transpired over recent months, I have witnessed a great deal of what might be called attempts to overcome. Arguments have become more intense and emotions, particularly on one side of this issue have sometimes become inflamed and volatile. The spirit that has been seen among many pushing about this issue has often been very different from the gentle Spirit that has been leading me for many years to challenge the way I perceive my heavenly Father. The way many people have promoted what they insist is God's strict rules for how His church is to be run and organized has reminded me of the harsh and debilitating views I used to hold of God that nearly drove me to insanity at a young age. This debate has left many feeling unsafe within the church as a result.
Is this what Jesus had in mind when He counseled His followers in Revelation 2 and 3 to be overcomers? Was He talking about overcoming arguments of other people who believe opposite from us concerning how to live or how we are to carry out God's plans on this earth? I cannot bring myself to believe this is what it means to be an overcomer when I compare it to the way Jesus dealt with differences of opinion or even open sin. Jesus did not come to this world to force God's will on those who would be His followers, to lay down rigid rules for them to comply to. Rather He lived a life of humility and service, compassion and forgiveness that had inherent power attracting others to long to know God better rather than intimidating or compelling people to come into line with His demands.
Jesus said that He has overcome the world, and yet we find no record of Him using the tactics or sharing the attitudes of many who claim to be His followers today. He did not overcome in ways so many of us assume we must use to overcome. Interestingly, if we look at how His ministry often offended people and measure it by the standards we use to define success today, we would likely have to conclude that His attempts to change the world were a failure at the time He spoke these words.
Yet Jesus did overcome, and later on He declared He had received all authority on heaven and on earth. But how did Jesus perceive authority and how did He utilize it? These are questions that must be clarified in our minds before we can grasp what true overcoming is about, for as long as we have false notions of what authority is all about we will also have mixed ideas about what it means to overcome.
Authority is not about having the power to dictate or control other people. That is the worldly version of authority, a counterfeit. Nearly every word or concept related to God's ways of doing things has a counterfeit that is usually more familiar to us than the original. Authority is definitely one of those things where the counterfeit version is much more familiar than the true, and this is partly why we have so much difficulty grasping what true overcoming really means.
The authority of Jesus is an authority that is earned by His demonstration of extreme humility proving to the entire universe that God can be trusted to never employ methods and tactics that we so often use to get our way. God never imposes His will on us but rather governs His children through the use of love alone and the principle of attraction. Coercion, intimidation, compulsion or any other such methods are all of the enemy and not of God. Authority in God's kingdom is never imposed but is the willing submission on the part of all who have come to see that God is completely worthy of their trust and devotion. Their affections have been awakened and thus their submission is not something extracted from them by fear or threats of punishment but because they are so enamored with the selfless love they witness in the ways of Jesus and they are eager to follow Him anywhere He leads.
With this as a context it can be seen more clearly what kind of overcoming we must experience. It is an overcoming of the myriads of lies that lurk hidden deep in our minds about how God feels about us, how He relates to us and the real nature of His goodness. Arguments that must be taken captive are the accusing voices in our heads badgering us into feeling we are not loved or leading us to believe our own achievements can in some way impress God to love us more.
Strongholds that must be torn down are internal strongholds, pockets of lies we believe that create resistance to the truth as it is revealed in Jesus. We are held captive by strongholds of pride, selfishness, feelings of worthlessness that deny how God values us. We have strongholds of lust, of resentment, of bitterness that act as triggers that explode when touched off my someone's comments to us. We want to control and rule over other people and demand our own ways, insisting that others conform to our beliefs and opinions rather than allowing God to be the only master for their life. All of these and many more are strongholds established by the enemy deep in our hearts that must be attacked with the real truth about God, the only power that can demolish and expel them with His love.
When Jesus says that in the world we will suffer tribulation and persecution, He knew that when the real truth about God's humility, love, compassionate and forgiving nature became evident and permeated our beliefs and attitudes, resistance to this new view of God will become intense and even vicious as the enemy would pull out all the stops to prevent the true love of God from exposing the darkness created by his lying accusations.
But note what Jesus says as to how we are to relate to this fierce opposition to the truth about God – we are to leave it all in His hands for He has already overcome all the lies about God through His own demonstration of the real truth about God in His life, death and resurrection. Jesus is what God has to say about Himself and nothing can add or detract from that compelling testimony. It is not our job to overcome the world for Jesus has already finished that job and all we need to do is defer all opposition to Him. Our job is to overcome our own internal resistance to the truth about God, the arena where only we have authority to make a real difference.
Because God will not violate our freedom to choose what to believe about Him, the battleground in our heart is where the real overcoming must happen in our lives. That is not to suggest that God will not come to our aid when we invite Him to be involved. God's power must be injected into our lives or we cannot overcome in any arena. But in the sacred area of our freedom of choice within our own minds and hearts, it is only when we choose to give God permission to be involved is He allowed to come in and provide all the weapons and ammunition we need to battle against the lies and strongholds, selfish desires and false beliefs that hold us hostage and block our view of what is really in God's heart.
When Jesus tells us to take courage because He has overcome the world, He is saying that any and all resistance we may encounter as we spread the incredible news that God is much better than anyone has dared to think He is, can be handled by Him and we don't need to fight it. We are to overcome internal lies, feelings and misconceptions that keep us from reveling in His love and graciousness in our own lives, then others will either be drawn to want to experience a similar transformation in their own lives or will feel compelled to fight against the truth they see us embracing. But leave that all with Jesus, for it is not our fight to compel others to believe the truth about God in their hearts. Our job is to live In His love and speak the truth about Him and then trust that God can and will handle doing whatever is needed to draw our opponents to repentance and a change of attitude toward God themselves.
One last thing that I felt God speak to me as I pondered these things. Let resistance be turned into rest. I have long sensed that my biggest problem is not the bad things I am tempted to do or mistakes and sins that I fall into but rather a deep-seated resistance I encounter to just allowing God to ravish my heart with His love for me personally. I have little capacity to know what love feels like as there has been little unconditional love in my life. Yet as I choose repeatedly to allow Him to love me and let go of my resistance to it whenever I sense it, I find that my capacity to experience and accept it increases a little more and I am enabled to enjoy it a little more the next time I feel it close.
I have been learning that wonderful peace comes with true humility, another topic that has fascinated me in recent years. Humility is not at all what most people assume it to be but is actually something enjoyable when embraced. True humility becomes easier as I embrace the truth of how much God values me and as I choose to love myself because of how God defines me. Because of the principle that I can only love others to the extent that I love myself (according to the second great commandment), to learn to love myself on the basis of how much God loves me liberates me from the fears elicited when others attempt to shame or manipulate me with assertions contradicting what God says about me.
The reason people like Moses (who is said to be the most humble man in the Old Testament) and Jesus (who clearly was the most humble person ever) were able to live the lives they did was because they relied so much on God's view of their identity and value and not on what other people thought about them. This too is part of how we are to overcome, so that we may be freed of all fears that have power to cause us to act differently than our true self as designed by God. Humility then, involves learning to rest solely in the consistent and irrepressible love that God has for us personally, trusting that God never changes His opinion about us. Humility frees us from living in fear of what other think and being intimidated by their attempts to make us feel less valuable than we really are. As we learn to live only in reference to how God views us, our stability, peace and serenity that will become evident in our lives becomes an irresistible witness of the goodness of God and the truth of His love that has transforming power to save and heal from all of our messed up thinking, fears and malfunction.
Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience.... So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:6, 9-12)
In conclusion, to be an overcomer means to allow the sword of truth, the word of life that comes from the mouth of Jesus (Rev. 2:12) to bring us both the truth about God and the truth about our own value in His eyes. This has the power to expose and dispel all the dark notions and internal lies that cause us to resist Him (Rev. 19:15, 21) and prevent us from resting in His faithful love for us.
'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.' (Revelation 2:7)
'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.' (Revelation 2:11)
'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.' (Revelation 2:17)
'He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, “to him I will give authority over the nations.”' (Revelation 2:26)
'He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.' (Revelation 3:5)
'He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name.' (Revelation 3:12)
'He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.' (Revelation 3:21)