- Peter is hanging out and eating with non-Jews. Now he suddenly pulls back from them.
- Esther, by speaking up, may save her people. But in doing so, she may lose her own life.
- Philemon suffers loss when his slave runs away.
What need do all three have in common? To be spurred on.
Paul challenges Peter over his two-faced behavior when conservative Jews from Jerusalem show up in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14). Because Esther may have “come to royal position for such a time as this,” Mordecai urges her not to remain silent (Esth. 4:12-16). And Paul, having seen the runaway Onesimus become a Christ-follower, presses Philemon to welcome him back. (Philem. 17).
Encourage vs. Spur On
Spurring on, says the author of Hebrews, should happen when we meet with fellow Christians. Like encouragement, it is a major element in one-anothering—part of the mutual give-and-take of shared church. Encouragement and spurring on overlap. Yet the New Testament seems to distinguish between them. Encouragement aims to restore eroding trust (Jn. 14:1; Acts 14:22), whereas spurring on seeks to refuel love and right doing (Heb. 10:24). One shores up faith; the other renews practice.
Where the NIV uses spur on, other versions translate the Greek word as motivate, stimulate, or stir up. To many, a set of spurs may seem like an instrument of pain and cruelty. Yet to those who know and love horses, spurs—used in the right way—are simply intensive tools to move the animal into action.
In her website, Stacy Westfall (a trainer in horsemanship) says “a spur is nothing more than a motivator . . . something that encourages your horse to make a change in its behavior. . . . When used correctly the horses don’t really mind spurs at all. The key here is ‘used correctly.’ It is important for you to know your own limitations. Don’t use spurs if you know you might jab when you don’t intend to. And remember, using spurs when your horse doesn’t understand is like talking louder to someone who doesn’t speak your language; it doesn’t help.”
Like horses, we Christians often need to change our behavior. Living in bodies made of dust, working among the “thorns and thistles” of the world, we quickly drag our feet or balk. All too easily we “become weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9). Even young people, Isaiah said, “grow tired and weary” (Is. 40:30). No wonder, then, that each one of us needs prodding to keep on plodding.
Churches Need It, Too
Churches can come up short on love and good deeds. So, they—like individuals—need to be roused and redirected. According to Jesus, the church in Ephesus had left the love it had at first. He spurred them on to “Repent and do the things [deeds] you did at first” (Rev. 2:4,5). He told the church in Sardis to “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (3:2). And because the lukewarm Laodicean church was producing defective deeds, Jesus spurred them on to repent (3:15, 19).
Having served as a pastor, I know that some of the most effective spurring on comes from one’s peers in the trenches. Suppose a believer who works all week as an accountant for the government has nearly given up on shining the light of Christ because of a twisted emphasis on separation of church and state. Imagine the impact of hearing another government employee tell how God has shown her effective ways to live out her faith in a public agency without running afoul of the law.
A few days ago, I spoke with Nita Kotiuga, who serves as pastor of spiritual growth, connectedness, and prayer at the Westview Bible Church in Quebec, Canada. She told me about the Sunday-morning testimony of a man who suffers from chronic back pain. He told the congregation, “I have such a temptation to take that extra pill. I know I’ll get addicted. It is so easy for me to become an addict.”
Here was a man, whom the Westview church family holds in high esteem, confessing how easy it is to become an addict. After he spoke, two people came up to him and said, “You know, I’m addicted to painkillers, and I’m in the process of weaning myself off.” Clearly, his words had spurred them on to continue the battle.
Spurring On in the Sunday Meeting
Nita told me, “These were two people we would have never thought of in this regard. In church, you can feel like everyone else has their life together and I’m the only one who’s wrestling. This happened in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning. It was a beautiful, holy moment of God.”
For many Christians, what takes place “in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning” is the only church they experience. In Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, I quote Steve Cordle, who reports: “The stark reality is that more of America’s church members stay away from home groups than attend them. Joseph Meyers writes that in the vast majority of churches, no more than 35 percent of the congregation participates in a home-based small group.”
If it is true that 65 percent of church people do not take part in small groups, where will they receive any regular spurring on by other believers? And where will fellow Christ-followers receive spurring on from that 65 percent? Is it possible that discipleship today too often lacks horsepower because so few church meeting formats provide a place for spurs?