What Holds You Back?

Read Acts 8:26-38 to start.

When I was in school, back in 1980s and 90s, we had semesters and school years. One thing that took place at the end of every semester, at in particular at the end of the year, apart from the finishing of exams and deadlines for papers, there were report cards.

I assume that in public school they still do this same sort of thing, although it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s not all digital now, rather than the folded cardstock we used to have to take home and sign. I did well in school, it was never much of a concern for me when report cards came out. But there were other students who did not do as well. Some of them may have been very good in certain subjects, but did poorly in others. And some just didn’t do so well in school at all. If your report card came back with too many low numbers or poor letter grades, then you might end up failing the school year and have to repeat the grade. Not something that anyone would look forward to, not the teacher, not the student, and not the parents.

I’ll point out that sometimes this is by far the best thing for the child involved. I had two different friends that ended up repeating the third grade. They both did much better in subsequent school years, and looking back I wonder if they aren’t happy about it now. They certainly weren’t at the time, though. That was difficult news to take home.

To help soften the blow, there’s a term that is used when a student has to repeat a grade. Held back. Rather than being promoted to grade four, the student is held back in grade three. They aren’t ready for the additional challenges that the next grade will bring, and so they do not advance with their classmates, they do not move forward as they should have in better circumstances. Their progress is hindered. They are held back.

In life, as in school, at times we are held back from what we might otherwise achieve. Sometimes this is a good thing, especially when we are held back from things that might be, or likely are, harmful to us. The railing that holds us back from falling off a balcony. The seat belt that prevents you from flying through the windshield should you get into a collision. The high fence that keeps the lion in his enclosure at the zoo, and keeps both the impulsive toddler and the Florida man out of that same enclosure. At times we definitely need to be held back, held in check, and hindered from furthering our misadventures.

More commonly, though, we are held back from things that we wish to achieve, or prevented from goals that we would seek to attain. This might be, as mentioned, advancing to the fourth grade. It might be that we are held back from a promotion at work, or in a personal project, whether practical, creative, or otherwise. We can be held back from relationship goals, because another person is not on the same page as we might be. We can be held back from physical goals because our bodies are not as strong or as healthy as we would like them to be.

Two summers ago I started working on an expansion to the deck on my house. I found myself hindered on the project on several occasions. It took longer than expected to get the required building permit. The needed lumber was in short supply at times, and with rising costs because this was in covid times, my budget was somewhat challenged. But the biggest thing that held me back was the fact that in July, after the permit was in place and much of the supplies had be purchased, I had a bad foot injury and was barely able to stand, much less do physical work.  I was held back from building the deck when I wanted to build it, and by the time I had the boards all in place, the summer was long past and it was time to put the patio furniture away for the winter. I was hindered and did not accomplish what I wished.

We can be held back in physical things. We can also be held back in spiritual things. And many times this is the far greater problem, because the repercussions last much longer, and the state of a person’s body is very often secondary to the condition and state of a person’s heart and soul. When those are prevented from knowing God in the first place, or from growing in a relationship with the Saviour, then that is a condition that is most serious, but also frequently ignored and dismissed as being not important, not problematic, and certainly not urgent. We are often hindered in our spiritual lives, in our faith, and we may not even realize it.

In the passage that we read to start, we see how this Ethiopian government official was concerned that he might be hindered. Upon hearing the gospel taught to him through the Old Testament prophets, he recognized that he needed salvation, and he did not wish to be delayed. We wait a little longer than he did before we generally baptize new believers, he saw an available body of water and asked “Is there anything that is stopping me from being baptized?”

Clearly there was not. We see in the next verse we see a clear profession of faith, and a baptism immediately follows. I do want to make it clear that baptism is in no way an essential part of salvation, and that this much compressed timeline, while certainly not wrong, is not a model that we follow today, at least not in this part of the world. I can’t say that in other places they might not do same day, or for that matter, same hour baptisms, as their normal way of doing things. It was often the case in the early church that people believed and were baptised in short order.

It’s interesting that while we live in a society that hates to wait, and is very much about doing things as soon as possible, there are some things that we don’t want to rush into. Baptism is clearly one of them. In many cases faith is another. People are quick to believe a lot of things, a lot of shallow and silly things, unlikely and inconsequential things, or sometimes outright deceptive and false things. Some people believe that margarine is terrible for you and butter is wonderful, while other people believe that you shouldn’t use either, and coconut oil is some sort of miracle elixir. Some people believe they are likely to win the lottery.  People believe whatever it is that their preferred echo chamber tells them to believe. But when it comes to their eternal soul, a lot of people are reluctant to believe much at all. They hold back from faith, from truth, from trusting in the Saviour. Rather than moving forward at the first opportunity, they delay, or they are hindered from believing in Christ.

We see an example of the first in Acts chapter 26. King Agrippa, the last king of Judea, listened to case of the Apostle Paul, along with his sister Bernice and the Roman governor Porcius Festus. Upon hearing the gospel presented, and having it explained how Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of a coming Messiah, Paul asked him directly if he believed the prophets. Agrippa was an intelligent and capable leader, and well versed in the scriptures. He was not a Roman who knew nothing of the prophets or the Messiah, and he may well have remembered the crucifixion of Christ, he would have been a child when that took place. His uncle Herod was the Jewish ruler whom Christ was brought before when Pilate attempted to avoid presiding over a trial he knew was unreasonable.

What was Agrippa’s response? It is a famous, or perhaps infamous answer that he gave, at verse 28. Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. There’s a hymn we sing sometimes based on that verse, “Almost Persuaded”. Perhaps the saddest hymn in the entire book. Almost does not avail. Almost is but to fail. Almost, but lost.

There is nothing in history to suggest that Agrippa ever came to believe, to come to faith in Christ. There is nothing to suggest that he ever came this close again. He heard the truth, and he likely acknowledged that it was factual and legitimate, that this was not some fanciful tale Paul had told him. But something held him back. He was close, ever so close, but he chose not to believe, not to trust, not to accept.

The Ethiopian we read about earlier, he was concerned about being held back, he believed and he wanted to make sure that he was not hindered from being baptised. That is a man who heard the prophecies, saw the fulfillment, and once it was clearly laid out in front of him, he believed. Agrippa, he knew the prophecies likely far better, and his family had several direct, if mostly unfortunate, connections with Jesus of Nazareth. But he chose to let whatever objections, whatever hesitation he had, he let that stand in his way, and he was hindered from ever believing, from ever being saved.

What stood in Agrippa’s way? What held him back? And for that matter, what was different about the Ethiopian that he did believe, that nothing hindered him? The two men had many similarities, more than you might realize. Neither were married, and neither had children. Both were men of means and authority. One was a high ranking government official, no doubt with considerable power of his own and significant responsibilities to match. The other was a client king, yes, he may have had the title of king, but he was ever and always subservient to the Emperor in Rome. Both of them, whatever power they had, it came from further up the food chain. One believed, and one did not.

Sometimes it’s not even the believing part, or the wanting to have salvation. Sometimes we may wish to trust and obey, but we are diverted from our goals. In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 19, we read about a man who wanted to follow, but things were not as smooth as expected.

Reading at verse 16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?  17  And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. 18  He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 9  Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 20  The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?  21  Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. 22  But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions

This young man new that eternal life was a good thing, a thing to be sought out, and in his mind, a thing to be earned. What good thing shall I do in order to get eternal life? he asked. He had done a lot of good things already, he was an upstanding young man who did not live in an evil or riotous manner, one whom I’m sure his friends and neighbours thought highly of. But despite all his commandment keeping and his righteous behaviour, he knew that he still came short. What lack I yet? he asked of the Lord. What am I missing? What have I missed?

Perhaps the question he should have asked was “What holds me back?” Because there was clearly something that held him back, something that got in his way and prevented him from immediately following Christ with his whole heart. Otherwise what I read would have ended differently, but no, the man went away sorrowful. The Lord had told him that in order to be perfect, or rather complete would be a closer translation to our modern English, he should divest himself of his stuff. Sell your goods, give the money to the poor. Effectively exchange your earthly wealth for heavenly treasure, and after that, instead of going about business as usual, and certainly instead of going about making a new fortune, come follow the Saviour instead.

I expect at the moment that the young man deeply regretted that he had ever come to Jesus of Nazareth and asked that question. What do I lack? What am I missing? What keeps me from gaining eternal life, or perhaps more specifically the assurance of having eternal life? He an answer, but I think not the answer he had been looking for.

Was he hoping for a pat on the back and a comforting “You’re in, you’re all set, you’ve done enough,” or something like that? Was he hoping that maybe there was a special prayer or blessing he might receive and that would be the missing piece? Whatever answer he expected, this was not it.

In the parallel passage in Mark, we read that Jesus looked at this young man and that He loved him. The Greek word used there is agape, the Lord cared for him and wanted the best for him. This was not the sort of harsh critique such as He often delivered to the scribes and Pharisees, this was not some strong rebuke, but rather this was the hard pill, but necessary pill, that was required in this case.

The Lord knew exactly what was in this man’s heart, as He knows my heart, and yours, and each and every heart. There’s a hint in the commandments given in verses 18 and 19, we see murder, adultery, lying, stealing, respect of parents, care for others, and each one is a nice big checkmark as far as this man is concerned. But it’s what isn’t on the list that is the problem. No mention of covetousness. No mention of loving God with a whole heart, mind, and soul. If he was given a report card showing his scores on keeping the commandments, I think while the middle of the list would be a lot of A and A+ marks, commandments one and ten would both be marked as fail, or at the very least as incomplete.

The love of money, that is what held this man back. When prompted to give us his possessions and his no doubt comfortable lifestyle, that was a no can do. He turned his back and walked away, sorrowful, yes, which is I suppose a good thing that he was sad, he was not happy with this result, with his current condition or with his likely future fate, but still he left. His wealth held him back.

We don’t know what became of this young man. Maybe he considered and evaluated and changed his mind about what was actually important, what had lasting value. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was held back from following the Lord for a short time, maybe for the rest of his days. But what we do know about him shows us how easily it is to be hindered in doing well, and how common it is to be held back from fulfillment, from being complete. So many people may like the idea of following Christ, of serving God, but they are held back from going all the way or attaining their real potential. Some are hindered from ever coming to a saving faith in the first place, of ever knowing the Saviour or having a personal relationship with Him. Others do believe, but are hindered in their growth, their progress, and so they remain weak and shallow Christians, unsteady in their faith, small in their vision, insignificant and ineffective in their ministry.

There are many things that might hold us back. The other week at Tuesday Bible study we looked at the first couple of verses of 1 Peter chapter 2. There is quite a list found there, a list of things that as believers we need to lay aside, or they will hold us back.  1 Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, 2 As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.

All of those things sound bad, and it should be obvious that we should not hang unto any of them, but how many of us do? Let’s take a moment and run down the list.

Malice is the desire or intent to see harm come to another, or bearing ill will towards someone. Even if the other person really has it coming, so far as we are concerned, wishing that harm or trouble might befall another person is malice. Wanting to see the guy who passed who on the highway when he should not have done so, that’s malice. Wanting to see your brother or sister get in trouble, that’s malice. We may not actively go about hurting people, but we might still hold on to malice in our hearts.

How about guile? Guile is being tricky, sneaky, or similarly deceitful. Saying something to manipulate another person in order to get your way? Guile. Arranging things so you have the advantage over others? Guile. Is this hitting close to home? It probably should.

Hypocrisy is saying one thing, but then doing something else. We may not think we are hypocrites, but how often we are! Telling the kids to go to bed on time, or not to eat junk food, and then you stay up too late with a bowl of chips? That’s hypocrisy. Being critical of others because they aren’t on time, when you’re not often all that early yourself? That’s hypocrisy.  

As for envy, that’s wanting what someone else has, whether it be their money, their possessions, their relationships, their talents or physical attributes. And evil speaking, well, if you’ve ever said something bad about someone else, then you know what I’m talking about.

If you’re feeling a bit attacked right now, you probably should be. I know I am, and I’m the one preaching. But I’m guilty of all of those to some extent, and odds are that you are as well. We all mess up, we all make mistakes. The thing is not to hold on to them. Peter says to lay these aside. Likewise, the author of Hebrews says in chapter 12, verse 1 to lay aside every weight, and the sin that so easily besets us, and then to run the race that is set before us. That’s what we should do, but we’re not terriblly good at it.

There are so many things we hang on to, things that we really should let go of, things that we must drop, must set aside and leave behind us, or they will hold us back. The analogy of running a race is perfect, because you don’t put on your heaviest winter coat and your biggest work boots and one of those giant belts that you win for being a champion boxer or wrestler, and then go run a marathon. That would be ridiculous, and would almost certainly lead to failure. Those things hold a runner back from victory.

Why do we hang on to things that hold us back from faith? Why do we retain that which hinders us, that which lessens the possibility of a productive walk with the Lord? Why do we let these things trip us up, slow us down, and hold us back?

At the heart of the matter it really comes down to what you want most. Because while everyone wants eternal life, sometimes we enjoy the fleeting, temporal things of this life so much that we lose sight of the end game. Every believer wants, or at least should want, to follow God and to please Him, but sometimes we want our sinful pleasures and our earthly desires more. The things that are good, we might want those, we might really desire them, but are we will to put in the effort.

Here’s a personal example. I want to be healthy, want to lose some weight and keep my blood sugar and blood pressure under control. Going for a walk in the evening is a common thing that I do in order to help with that, and I almost always feel better afterwards. But it requires getting up and getting out there. It’s much easier to just sit on the couch and be a potato. When I do that, I almost always feel worse. I know this is the case, but there are far too many evenings when I choose the easy path, when I choose to be the potato. Even though I know it’s the wrong choice, still I pick that one.

The shallow things, the fleshly things, the wrong things, those tend to be easy, at least at first. There is very little effort required to remain in our sins. Cleaning things up, setting aside the baggage, dropping the dead weight, that takes more effort. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Do we always choose it? Absolutely not.

This morning, I don’t know what may be holding you back. There’s probably something, maybe more than one. It might be something small, or it might be a mountain of challenge that you face. Maybe you want to be rid of it, or maybe you’re content and comfortable with your hindrances. I don’t know.  But I do know that if there is something that is preventing you from following God, then it is a problem. If there is something in your life that is causing you to stumble, then it needs to be dealt with. And if there is something that is standing in your way and blocking from coming to Christ at all, then it needs to go. Whatever holds you back, whatever hinders you, please ask the Lord to give you the strength to let it go. It will be worth it in the long run.