Spring was in glorious full bloom, and I thanked God for a few hours of solitude during a recent women’s retreat. As I hiked through the green hills and blossoming fields of the conference grounds, relishing the scent of pine and eucalyptus, I came through a clearing and found the archery range open for instruction. I welcomed this opportunity to try a new sport, and in so doing discovered that the Lord had a spiritual lesson targeted just for me that day.
Our genial, red-bearded instructor looked like a modern-day version of the ruddy, good-looking King David and immediately put me at ease. He gave me terminology and tips, followed by a masterful demonstration of his own prowess as a bowman. I watched him fit the notch of his arrow to the bowstring and take up his stance with precision. When he drew back and let it fly, he never missed the center of the target. Clearly he had plenty to teach me.
The first step was to match a bow to my individual strength level. It was humbling to find that I couldn’t even budge the bowstring on the first two I tried. “David” had to run back to forage around in a shed to find one for me and, although he didn’t rub it in, I suspect he finally handed me one built for a child. No matter. Constructed with cables and pulleys, it was considerably more powerful and sophisticated than the bows my dad taught us kids to make from a flexible branch and a length of fishing line.
My instructor showed me the proper form, stance, and method for aiming straight. He told me not to rush, but to carefully focus my eyes where I wanted the arrow to land. I confess, my nerves started to feel as taut as the bowstring as he detailed possible injuries and maimings that could occur if I failed to follow instructions. Finally, he handed me an armguard for my left arm to protect me from painful string slap and 5 colorful arrows.
I was daunted, no question, but took 5 practice shots which all somehow penetrated the straw target. Pleasantly surprised that I hadn’t missed the mark entirely, I waited for the signal to gather back the arrows before returning to the firing line for a second round.
Now if I let the photo simply speak for itself, you might be impressed by the remarkable improvement I’d made with each successive shot. Wow, this woman is a natural you could conclude—a real-life Katniss Everdeen.
But you would be wrong. Here is the truth. I barely hit the white outer ring the first time.
Then I refocused. I notched my second arrow, pulled back straight and high just as I’d been told, and heard that satisfying thwack as my arrow flew right into the bullseye.
I enjoyed the momentary thrill of victory. It was, however, fleeting— just beginner’s luck it turned out. That second arrow turned out to be my best shot of the day. It was all down hill after that. I finished off the remainder of my quiver and landed back in the outer rings again. My arms were already starting to hurt. Noting the likelihood of tendonitis or worse if continued, I snapped a picture of my success and quit while I was ahead.
Back to the Bible
Back at my cabin, I pulled out my Bible study materials to review my notes for the Sunday School class I was teaching. I found myself lingering on this passage:
1 John 5:1 & 3:
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One…We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.
Missing the Mark
Two words stand out. The first is sin. Most of us have heard that the Greek word for sin comes from an ancient archery term meaning missing the mark or falling short of the target.
Romans 3:23 tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. When we consider the mixed results of our attempts to live righteously for the glory of God, it is easy to picture our arrows dropping to the ground before they even reach the target.
To sin is to not just miss the bullseye, but the target itself.
And the target we are aiming for? We must learn to focus and fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. In his Word we are encouraged to
“take on an entirely new way of life — a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you” (Ephesians 4:22 Message).
We are to allow God’s Holy Spirit to work in us so that we grow to resemble Jesus more and more as the days and years go by.
When shooting your bow, you must focus on the target and only the target. You look intently at the spot where you want your arrow to land. When the goal of our lives is to give God glory by growing into the likeness of his Son, we must also focus, gazing intently at the record of Jesus’ life given to us in the Scriptures. He is our example.
The second word that stood out in my study of the passage from 1 John 5 was obey. By definition obedience is compliance with an order, or submission to another’s authority. It means looking to God and his Word as the final authority in our lives. It means we orient our lives so that we are always aiming at the target. Recovering perfectionists like me have to be reminded that obedience is not hitting the bullseye each and every time. We aim for the target (“I write this to you so that you will not sin…”) But we don’t always hit the bullseye (“… if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One”).
2 Corinthians 5:10 instructs us further about our life’s goal, the spot on the target we are trying to hit: “…we make it our aim to please him.”
So what pleases him? What delights our Father? Where do we aim for that?
1 Samuel 15:22 provides a clear answer:
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice.
The Lord delights in our obedience. Jesus addressed this directly. At his last meeting before with his beloved disciples before his crucifixion, he equated loving him with obeying him:
Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me.” (John 14:21)
Our aim is to show Jesus we love him by our submission to him.
Living a lifestyle of obedience to the Lord is hitting the bullseye. Aiming to please him. Confessing when we don’t. Moving on in the freedom of forgiveness. Pulling out another arrow and taking aim again.
Out on the archery range, I didn’t do my own thing, make my own rules, decide what I thought was best. No, as I held the weapon, I pointed my arrow where my instructor told me to. I didn’t try to shoot my arrows at the deer in a nearby pasture—this was archery practice, not hunting. Nor did I argue with the instructor about my freedom to choose my own target and take aim at the people in line behind me. I submitted to the authority of the archery instructor. He showed me the target and I agreed to aim there. He was pleased that my attentiveness to his advice resulted in not only in all my arrows hitting the target, but that one of them actually hit the bullseye.
My granddaughters are obedient. They have parents who give them rules and boundaries and advise them on the wisest course of action in any given circumstance. In love, their parents monitor their behavior and apply consequences when those cute little toes cross the line. Much love flows in their homes, and accordingly they desire to please the parents who shower them with kindness and affection.
But that doesn’t always mean that an unattended cookie left on a plate is safe. While the grown-ups are talking, there’s a good chance it might find its way into the chubby hand of a toddler smart enough to sneak around the corner before she pops it in her mouth.
My precious ones do miss the mark. But it is not a lifestyle— it is a mistake that needs correction followed by an intention to do better next time. In truth, they want to hit the target their parents set before them. Obedience is not perfection. Rather, it is a submission to God’s authority, it is orienting yourself so that you are always aiming at the target God has set before you.
“Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT)
We are a work in progress. Every day is not going to be a bullseye day. Some days you will get it just right—you will hear the Holy Spirit’s prompting and respond, learning later that your words or actions changed a life. Other days you wonder how you could have been so spiritually tone deaf or blind to what God had set before you to do.
Think of it as target practice. God delights in your desire to be obedient. He promises that will be faithful to complete the work he has begun in you—his love is constant and true.