At Mayhill Baptist, I’ve been preaching through 2 Timothy. Recently, we landed on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, and I got hit between the eyes with a quote I read in one of my commentaries. I mean, right from the beginning of sermon prep, I was battling tears as a sea of conviction swept over me in my study.
It was a quote by Dale Carnegie, someone I’d never heard of before, but it read, “Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw the mud, the other saw stars.”
I haven’t the slightest idea about the context of how Mr. Carnegie uses that sentence, but in the context of 2 Timothy 4:6-8, it stops me in my tracks. To a degree, it’s a more poetic form of the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty, optimist/pessimist divide. And yet, when I consider Carnegie’s words in light of the Apostle Paul’s words, they’re profound. Paul writes,
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure is close. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. There is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me, but to all those who have loved his appearing.
Follow Along With Me
As we look at Paul’s current situation, he’s a poor man, shivering in a cold, dark prison cell (v. 6). His friends are gone, his primary companion is only the contempt he receives from the jailers, and his work in Ephesus is being torn apart by Hymenaeus and Philetus.
We see the mud of Paul’s current situation, but Paul sends our eyes with his tears to the stars. It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, this isn’t an execution; it’s an offering. An offering unto the Lord.” And just as soon as he sends our eyes upward, he sends us back in time (v. 7).
Sure, it would be easy to look back on his life and see mud–he was beaten, battered, shipwrecked, deserted by friends, and more. But once again, he lifts our eyes out of the mud in his past to see the stars. Ever since his conversion along the Damascus Road, he’d been in a fight; he’d been running, by God’s grace, the course God had set before him.
His faithfulness included missionary journeys, planting churches, contending with false teachings, standing up to leaders in Rome, and struggling “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens” (Eph. 6:12).
With ups and downs, twists and turns–we see a litany of dangers, but he shouts, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Paul doesn’t see the mud of his past; he sees the stars! He sees God at work through it all.
And then comes verse 8, and once again, we might expect him to say something like, “But was it all worth it? I’m about to die. It’s over. I’m done. The end.” Instead, he sends our eyes upward to his glorious future where we see our Savior waiting on him with a crown of righteousness with his name on it.
So Why Did This Convict Me?
Recently, I’ve had a case of “woe is me.” I look at the circumstances facing my church with COVID-19 and wonder if we’ll be able to keep the lights on. I worry I might lose a church member to the Coronavirus. I feel the temptation of believing I must carry this church through this sea of uncertainty.
And sometimes, I look back, and instead of seeing God’s hand, I see the mud–the missed opportunities and thoughts that 20 years of ministry have been largely impotent. And sure, I know my eternity is secure in glory, but worries of the past and present are taking my eyes off of the prize–that crown of righteousness not only reserved for Paul, but also for me.
I doubt I’m alone, so I encourage you to look through Paul’s bars to see the stars in your present circumstances, past experiences, and future certainty. In fact, let’s do so right now.
Deep in that prison cell, those bars become a grid for Paul to see the stars. As he does, he looks not at his muddy circumstance, but at his opportunity to give even his death as an offering unto the Lord he loves.
Looking back, he’s not dwelling on failure, but faithfulness. No one can deny he fought the good fight, that he finished what God set before him, and that, through it all, he was faithful to the gospel he declared in every way.
Looking forward, he’s not looking at his impending death; he’s seeing the Savior and the homecoming awaiting him. There was light in his midnight because he chose to see the stars.
And so, dear pastor, don’t look at this season and see the mud. Instead, look up and see the stars. We’re on a course God laid out for us since before there was time. So, choose today to fight the good fight, to run YOUR race, and stay faithful to YOUR calling to proclaim and live out the Good News. And then, one day, when that course comes to an end, there’s a crown of righteousness waiting on YOU with YOUR name on it.