Strengthening your Grip is a series of devotions by Pastor Jesse Horton, a retired bull rider who now pastors Bethel Baptist Church in Jonestown, NC.

Will you only ever see yourself as a rodeo cowboy, bull rider or ranch hand or will you see yourself as an adopted son of God?

By Jesse Horton / Cowboys of the Cross

Why doesn’t everyone who calls themselves a Christian, carry out the Great Commission–the command from Jesus to tell others about him and then to go on to teach those who become follower’s of Christ? For a lot of cowboys and bull riders in the rodeo arena, it seems like their faith begins and ends with cowboy church and the prayer at the opening of the show.

So what is it that separates disciple-making Christians (those whose obvious faith in Jesus is taught to and reproduced in others) and all the rest who simply believe in God and assume they get to make heaven their eternal home but never really demonstrate much personal spiritual growth or reproduction? I used to think it was commitment – something each individual is responsible to produce for themselves; if you weren’t growing up into Christian maturity and making disciples of Jesus, it was because you weren’t committed enough. Deep down, though, I knew that even that kind of commitment was a gift from the Holy Spirit. But if that’s the case, why don’t all professing believers – those who are filled by the Holy Spirit – eventually demonstrate that life-changing commitment?

The answer to that question, I believe, is two-fold. First and most obviously, some professing believers are not really believers.

Even the demons believe in God (James 2:19), but that kind of belief – the type that denies and covets God’s sovereign kingship – won’t get a single human soul into heaven. In John 3 Nicodemus believed Jesus to be “a teacher come from God” based on the signs Jesus did, but Jesus condemned him for failing to understand that being born of the Spirit was of necessity for anyone to enter the kingdom of heaven. Pilate believed Jesus to be the king of a kingdom, yet denied that there is any type of objective truth (John 18:37-38) – you know, the type of truth Jesus acknowledged when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). None of these examples believed and were saved as a result. The point is there are categories of belief that do not result in salvation. You can believe in God and never make it to Heaven.

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If our faith is real, it’s proven over time, not by a single prayer behind the bucking chutes

By Jesse Horton / Cowboys of the Cross

One of the greatest plagues of Western Christianity is that so many who profess the name of Christ remain in perpetual spiritual infancy, and that many “Christian infants” are not following Christ at all, but simply wanted the fire insurance that is promised to those who belong to Jesus.

That’s why so often, you see one of the few, or even only times, you see a cowboy or bull rider pray is behind the bucking chutes before competing in sports that can get him killed.

As a retired bull rider now pastoring a church, when I started with them, I made it clear that my ministry would be focused on leading our congregation to pursue a mature faith in Jesus Christ as true disciples. One of the deacons told me he felt like that was a bold (maybe risky) way to approach what was essentially a job interview – to begin by suggesting we’ve been lax in pursuing maturity, content to be comforted with bottled milk and pacifiers rather than to graduate to the strength-giving meat and potatoes of a deep and growing dependence on Jesus. But, what else can you expect from a guy who spent ten years of his life riding bulls?!

But hard questions are important. Are you growing in your faith? Do you even care if you aren’t? Have you become satisfied with a little bit of Bible knowledge and a little bit of doctrinal understanding?

Satisfied. That’s where the audience of Hebrews was.

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Being a cowboy doesn’t get your out of Christ’s call on your life

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (emphasis mine).

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We don’t have to limit what we can achieve when God has given us the ability to do more

By Jesse Horton / Cowboys of the Cross

We all do it many times every day; most often, we do it unconsciously. What we conclude when we do it says a lot about who we think we are and what we think we are up against. Toddlers learning to walk do it. Elderly folks facing serious illnesses do it. Yes, we all measure our capabilities against whatever task lies before us.

We attempt to determine our ability to manage the obstacles ahead to achieve what we consider a successful outcome. We place our abilities alongside every challenge to see which is greater, and often we avoid challenges that seem to surpass our abilities. Some look at the rodeo schedule and choose to enter a deal where they know they stand a better chance of winning because of the stock that’s there.

None of this is wrong or irrational.

It makes sense to discern whether we have the skill set, the resources, the strength, and the influence to achieve success when we face a challenge. But when we look to our own experiences, resources, and talents we fail to consider something that is drastically more important – the good news that we who are in Christ are no longer bound by our limited human nature.

Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

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We obey God’s commands with more effort than we put into training the perfect roping horse

By Jesse Horton / Cowboys of the Cross

“How do we define true faith in Jesus?” From John 14:1-14 we can determine that true faith in Jesus is a gift from God, the receipt of which is confirmed by deep contemplation upon the words and signs of Jesus.

However, this is only the beginning of faith. Faith in Jesus is more than believing the right things; it’s living the right way because you believe the right things. True biblical faith is something that we live out. It reshapes and rearranges our lives. It’s more than just an intellectual ascent to doctrines and beliefs because it shows up in how we live and respond to the world.

Josh, Cowboys of the Cross’s ranch hand, has spent the last year teaching through a video series on this site about what it looks like to live out our faith. The series will continue for a few more months.

But consider Hebrews 11:1-12.

1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

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We can embrace a lifestyle of complaint or gratitude

By Jesse Horton / Cowboys of the Cross

Back in my bull riding days I was a regular at a weekly event that a small association sponsored from April thru October each year. A few times, they chose to do a bull riding clinic. It was an opportunity for the more experienced riders of the association to spend some time with the new guys who were eager to learn and advance their skills in the sport. Participants usually had the opportunity to get on five bulls throughout the day and get some feedback on their rides, learn how to avoid common mistakes and receive encouragement to always fight to move toward the “sweet spot” with each jump and kick. We usually didn’t have paid bullfighters at these events, so the instructors would step in and do what they could to give riders a reasonable opportunity to get up and get out of the way after they came off their bulls.

At one of these clinics, a young rider was thrown early in his ride. When he hit the ground – not so hard – he laid there; he looked up to see that the bull wasn’t coming back for him, then he laid his head down. At this point, I sat everyone down and made this comment: “There are no bullfighters here. We (the instructors) will make one pass to get the bull’s attention and give you time to get up and get out of the arena. If you decide to lay there and get stomped and hooked, that’s on you. The only valid excuses for lying there after you buck off are paralysis or unconsciousness.” I was pretty mad because his thoughtlessness and inaction put me and others at risk unnecessarily.

It really is difficult to do life with other people. Sin not only created a rift in our relationship with God, but it has also caused brokenness in our bonds with one another. We all have our own ideas about how things should or shouldn’t be done, and we tend to value our own lives and opinions over those of others. That’s why when we come together as a group it’s beneficial to have some kind of understanding of what we can expect from one another. My son is a Boy Scout. At every meeting, scouts recite the Scout Oath and the Scout Law. These recitations remind them of who they are called to be and what is expected of them as scouts. If you are found in breach of these expectations, you may be dismissed as a member. The U.S. Armed Forces, the Masonic Lodge, the Ruritans, and most other groups all have expectations and for the good of the group and its missions, will all dismiss those who don’t follow those expectations.

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Going through a hard time because of our faith can be evidence God has us where he wants us

By Jesse Horton / Cowboys of the Cross

We all want to hear from God. We want to know that he exists, that he loves us, and we want to know what he has planned for us and what he wants from us. We know from these messages over the past several weeks that God speaks to us primarily through the Scriptures, but that he also speaks to us through prayer and other people (especially other believers). We finish our discussion of communicating with God by noting how God communicates with us through circumstances and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Throughout Israel’s history, God has communicated through circumstances that he is with his people. He has confirmed his power and his leading by sovereignly arranging the world he created to speak to his people who are listening closely for his still, small voice. God spoke to Jacob and Joseph through dreams (Genesis 28:10-17; 37:5-8). Joseph and Daniel even interpreted the dreams of others to lead God’s people and prove God’s sovereign power by foretelling future events (Genesis 40:1-41:36; Daniel 2:1-45). Abraham’s servant had Rebekah confirmed as Isaac’s future wife when God led both the prayerful petition of Abraham’s servant and the generous actions of Rebekah (Genesis 24:1-28). There are countless other times throughout both the Old and New Testaments where God directed his people and confirmed his will both through miraculous and mundane circumstances. The key to our ability to hear God’s voice in these things is our relationship with God. Apart from the disciplines of Bible study and prayer in humbly seeking a relationship with God, he could part seas and raise the dead (as he did with Moses/Pharaoh and Lazarus, Jesus/Pharisees) and we will still not hear what he’s trying to tell us. We all need to ask this question: Am I placing myself in a posture and position to hear from God?

It’s equally important to remember that followers of Jesus live in a world that actively rejects and fights against them. Therefore, some of the affirmations we receive will be hostility and opposition. Jesus reminded his disciples that because he chose us out of the world, the world hates them (John 15:19). That same world decided that Jesus was a threat to their self-importance and autonomy, and that Jesus needed to be killed for them to keep that which they believed to be most valuable to them. When we follow Jesus – truly follow Jesus – we can expect the same opposition. Unfavorable circumstances that are the direct result of faithfulness to God are often a confirmation that we are where God wants us – standing in the place of Jesus.

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