The Apostle Paul urged Timothy to “fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 1:18). The two essential components needed to stay in that fight, according to Paul, were holding on to your faith and maintaining a good conscience. The faith Paul was referring to was the biblical doctrines of Scripture. These are foundational to what we believe, and what we believe is foundational to how we live. Paul said we also need a clear conscience. Although not considered very important in our postmodern society, the conscience is a God-given mechanism for helping us stay in the fight. If our conscience is informed from Scripture and we listen to the Holy Spirit and obey his voice, our conscience will help lead us on the right road.
Another way Paul sees this fight is as a race. He wrote to the Philippians that he was “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).
The metaphor that Paul gives us is one of a runner who runs in such a way that he pays no attention to what is behind but looks to what is ahead. How easy it is to look back at our failures, our hurts and our disappointments. Often we find ourselves running against opponents in this race. Whenever we take our eyes off the prize, which is Christ, we will be hindered.
This very thing happened in 1954 when two of the fastest runners in the world met in Vancouver, Canada to run the mile. Roger Bannister of England had broken the barrier by running a mile in under four minutes. Another runner in Australia named John Landry had done the same thing. Now the two of them met for the first time to compete. The race was tight with Landry leading the race, but suddenly, in the final turn toward the finish line, Landry turned his head slightly to locate Bannister. In that moment Bannister passed him and won the race by a millisecond. This is precisely what Paul is talking about. He wants Timothy and us to keep our eyes on the prize and not look back.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the kind of man who kept his eye on the prize and never looked back. Refusing to leave Nazi Germany when he had the opportunity, he chose to stay and fight. He preached and taught his seminary students and founded the Confessing Church. Eventually he became a double agent working for the demise of Nazism, all the while fighting the good fight of the faith. He worked saving as many lives as possible and fighting for the truth. Ultimately, on April 9, 1945, just hours before the Allies liberated the camp where he was held, he gave his life in this fight.
Here is an excerpt from a sermon Bonhoeffer preached in England on the subject of death. It portrays his spirit of courage and love of God.
No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence. Whether we are young or old makes no difference. What are twenty or thirty or fifty years in the sight of God? And which of us knows how near he or she may already be to the goal? That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up—that is for young and old alike to think about. Why are we so afraid when we think about death? . . . Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace. How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world? Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.
The camp doctor at Flossenbürg concentration camp was H. Fischer-Hüllstrung. Several years later he wrote of watching Bonhoeffer die:
On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster, General Thomas and Reichgerichtsrat Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed
the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.