We each walk individually with God who will hold each one of us responsible for what we do with truth, how we respond to temptations, and how we steward the gifts He has given us. However, we also walk with God corporately. We cannot—we must not—walk alone. Our God, Himself three in one, created us in His image as people who flourish in community.
The writer of Hebrews begins chapter 12 with the familiar marathon analogy for endurance. Runners set aside all that weighs them down and hear cheers from a grandstand full of saints who have already completed their race. We love verses 1 and 2, but we’d rather not talk about 12:5-11, which deal at length with the topic of discipline. But as every runner knows: no discipline, no marathon. It makes sense, then, for those topics to go together. However, the next section seems almost out of place. The author gives a list of commands that seem disconnected from what has just been said. But we have a problem. The word therefore kicks off the whole lot of them, indicating a close association; so we need to understand the connection between these ideas. That connection is this: We must endure the training and the race together. We desperately need each other.
We give each other strength.
This isn’t a new idea to the readers of this epistle. The author has already covered the ground a couple of times (3:12-13; 10:24-25). Here in chapter 12 he gives us more specific reasons that we can’t abandon one another in hard seasons. The first reason he gives is that we need each other to help strengthen one another. The training program of our Coach is custom-made to each runner. Consequently, today’s training regimen may be much more difficult for me than for you. Therefore, we must come alongside one another and “strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble” (Heb. 12:12). Like Aaron and Hur holding up the arms of Moses so that Israel could see victory over the Amalekites (Ex. 17:8-16), we must come to the aid of one another in moments of weakness and fatigue.
But how can we do this if we’re not enduring together?
Togetherness requires more than just physical proximity; it requires relational intimacy. I may go to church every single week with the same people, but that doesn’t mean I’m enduring with them. To strengthen their hands, I need to know when their hands are weak; and finding that out will require me to leave my own comfort zone and ask potentially uncomfortable questions. As if that weren’t difficult enough, it might also mean getting out of my comfort zone to answer awkward questions or approaching someone for help. Not only will this necessitate vulnerability, but it will require inconvenience. Taking time to ask questions, baking a meal, picking up kids from school, lending a car–whatever it is that we can do to strengthen weak hands will most likely be an inconvenience. But it’s one we can’t afford to skip. An assembly in which we all stay comfortable and value our own convenience is an assembly struggling to endure. We need one another.
We help each other grow.
This may seem basic, but stay with me. The author exhorts us to “pursue peace with all men and the sanctification…[and] see to it that no one comes short of the grace of God” (vv. 14-15). We’re called to be peacemakers endeavoring to see fellow believers grow in grace. The epistle of Hebrews contains a number of warnings to posers, those who play the part of a Christian for a while only to turn away. For so many warnings to appear in one letter, the original audience must have experienced this heartbreak many times.
Our churches are not so different.
I grieve to think of the number of people I have known from godly homes, who at one time gave verbal assent to the Gospel and then one day left it all behind. Of course, these individuals are accountable to God for what they choose to do with the Gospel. However, Hebrews also wants us to see that we can’t just ignore their sin. We can’t allow our brothers to go on sinning and say nothing. We must pursue their sanctification. That’s why we endure together—so that when one of us starts veering from the course, another is there to help him straighten out. That’s not to diminish the power of the Gospel. To quote again from Hebrews, Christ “is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him” (7:25, emphasis added). Our involvement in the lives of other believers doesn’t add to the Gospel; it demonstrates it. We pursue hurting and struggling people because that’s what Christ did for us. We’re not earning brownie points with God or just “trying to be a good person.” We’re living “no longer for ourselves but for Him who died and rose again on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:15).
Not only must we pursue the sanctification of another, but we must pursue peace. That means we cannot let wounds fester. Peter commends his readers to cover sins in love (1 Pet. 4:8). This requires an act of forgiveness without ever being asked. That means the offense is gone, never to be brought up to another person, to the offender, or to the offended again. That should be our default setting for dealing with the frequent annoyances and offenses that pop up within a community. However, sometimes an offense is great enough that it won’t be left alone in this way. It keeps rearing its head in the heart of the offended. In this case, peace must be pursued. Otherwise, the subtle and deadly assassin of bitterness is likely to creep into the congregation.
We’re prone to bitterness.
This summer a member of my extended family passed away after a brief but brutal battle with unbelievably aggressive cancer. She had no symptoms or warning signs until her shoulder began to hurt and an orthopedist discovered she had a broken humerus, which was mysterious since her arm had experienced no trauma. Just a few days later, she was hospitalized with horrible back pain and shortness of breath. The doctors ran tests and found that a silent cancer from the kidney had spread to her spine, brain, lungs, and shoulder. What began with optimistic plans for radiation and immunotherapy ended just weeks later with hospice care, palliative pain medication, and, finally, a funeral. At one point in all this she said to her son, “I had no idea.” According to the doctors, this type of kidney cancer is like that—silent and deadly.
This stealth assassin serves as a solemn illustration of what bitterness can do in the heart and in the church. It begins with harbored hurt, anger left undealt with. The peace that we’re commanded to pursue gets swept under the rug. On the surface everything is fine, while underneath, the cancer grows unchecked and undetected.
The latter portion of verse 15 tells us to make sure that “no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.” Even this brief mention of bitterness pays homage to its subtle and destructive nature. It “causes trouble” and defiles many. Meanwhile, the bitter person thinks he’s got it all under control, telling himself, “I just have a little problem with her, no one else.” Or maybe everyone knows not to bring up that topic around him. But bitterness, like cancer, doesn’t stay put. Eventually it makes its way into a part of the heart I thought was safe. Suddenly, I’m angry for what seems like no reason at all. Or there’s an edge in everything I say, and I don’t really know why. Then, like a cancerous cell, it metastasizes, and another brother or sister becomes infected. Then another one. Before long, it’s wrapped its ugly tentacles around the entire body.
We must endure together to stop bitterness in its tracks. Like with cancer, early detection is the key. This, again, is why we must pursue peace with our brethren. Unlike cancer, though, it’s never too late. The Gospel is always strong enough to soften even the hardest heart, though it will not undo the damage caused by bitterness. My friends, we need one another because our hearts are prone to bitterness rather than endurance. It may be terrifying to think about bringing such a sin to light, and confronting a hardened person. It’s a risk, to be sure. But the risk of not rooting out the bitterness is greater still.
We each run our own race and must endure an individualized training program. But we do not—we must not—run alone. We must endure together.