It was a surprise when I realized that I enjoyed running. As a kid, I had no aspirations to be athletic. When I finished my physical education requirement in high school, I assumed my days of running were over. But then, God gave me the desire to go to the Coast Guard Academy. I had to start running, and I had to be more serious about it than I ever had been in P.E. class. My father took up running so that I could train safely and not run alone. At first it was a big motivator to me that someone thirty years older than me could just start running and push me so hard. But eventually, I left him behind.
My father has often reminisced about the first time he couldn’t keep up with me on a run. We were traveling, staying at a campground near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I also remember our run in that hilly landscape. While my strength and endurance had been increasing, I don’t remember feeling especially good or strong, that day. I remember being determined. We came to a hill, and I told myself that if I wanted to be a Coast Guard Academy cadet, I couldn’t quit running. So I pushed myself up that hill, believing my perseverance would be rewarded.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.1 Corinthians 9:24-26
It took a few more years, but the discipline and perseverance that I learned when I was seventeen eventually led to loving the activity I once hated. This lesson that goes far beyond physical training. Lately, I have been thinking that I want to finish the race of life well. The Apostle Paul, as well as the writer of Hebrews, used this analogy of life as a race. We Christians talk of our ‘walks’ and the journey of faith, but God doesn’t want us casually strolling through life.
I want to run with perseverance the course of life, just as I ran up that hill in Pennsylvania. One of my favorite verses is from Acts, when Paul was saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders. He was going to Jerusalem, where he knew imprisonment awaited. He shared this with them, and said, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Acts 20:24.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.Hebrews 12:1-2
Paul saw the steep hill ahead of him more clearly than most of us will, yet he recognized that it was part of the course God had marked out for him to run. He did not shrink from it; he faced it head on. Believers like to take Paul’s race analogy and say, “Life is a marathon and not a sprint.” This is our way of saying that we need to pace ourselves and keep some energy in reserve, so we don’t tire. Really, I think it’s an excuse to not give everything we have to the race, every day. This does not align with Scripture.
The first problem is that we don’t actually know our course. The finish line could be right around the next corner. We are supposed to run tirelessly and not aimlessly. Sprinters and marathon runners both train vigorously. The training is different, but both competitors need strict discipline so that their bodies can perform optimally. In the same way, believers need to make a commitment to “train [themselves] for godliness.” (1 Tim. 4:7) A daily commitment is the only way to follow in the footsteps of Christ while running the race of life.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,Isaiah 40:30-31
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
The bad news is that life is actually a middle-distance race; we need both speed and endurance! If we let up on our pace, we will fall back. If we assume there is enough distance left to catch up, we will soon find ourselves passed by. If we don’t stay in the Word of the Race Director, we will end up off the course and out of the race. God isn’t calling us to be lukewarm joggers; He wants our commitment to persevere even when we have a stitch or a cramp.
The good news is that God gives us the strength that we need to keep up with the pace He sets for us. He whose “yoke is easy” and “burden is light,” (Matt. 11:30) will not run His children into the ground! Another source of our endurance is our reason for running. I had a clear goal in mind running up that hill, years ago. In the same way, as we run the race of life we need to stay focused on the goal: at the finish line we will be with Jesus and “receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (Jam. 1:12) I want to run in such a way as to win!