Running the Race of Faith
A Sermon by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 1/29/95
The Bible is full of images that help us to understand the Christian life: we are part of the army of God, engaged in battle; we are part of the body of Christ; we are Christ's ambassadors, his envoys, representing him in this world; we are a building, being built up into Christlikeness; we are branches, Christ is the vine; we are the bride of Christ; we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. All of these analogies are rich and useful.
My favorite analogy, however, compares the Christian life to running a race. This analogy is not common throughout the Bible, but Paul loves it, as he uses the running and racing image at least nine times in his epistles. In addition, the author of Hebrews uses the analogy once.
The analogy is particularly rich for me because I am a creature of the running boom. I grew up during a period when mile world records would make the front page of the Sports section; when an American set two of those world records; when 100,000 fans filled a stadium to witness a track meet between the US and the Soviet Union. In 1972 as a 16 year old who had been running competitively for less than two years, I watched Jim Ryun, my boyhood hero, fall in an Olympic games heat; I watched Steve Prefontaine, an American runner only five years my senior, make a game effort to win Olympic gold in the 5k; and, most importantly, I watched Frank Shorter demolish the field to win the Olympic marathon. After those Olympics, millions of Americans began running, many hoping to run a marathon. Every teenage boy in the country who was already running competitively began to dream of mile world records and marathon victories. I was no exception.
I remember at that time searching the Bible for references to running, and especially recall encountering 1 Timothy 6:12, which I underlined in my Good News New Testament:
Run your best in the race of faith, and win eternal life for yourself.
This morning I would like to elaborate on this running image, supplementing the scriptural material with analogies I have drawn while training for marathons and road races. I apologize up front for the personal nature of this sermon -- uncharacteristically, I will range rather far from the day's text. I believe, however, that the image of running is not only a personal favorite but also is full of vivid parallels with our Christian walk. So I encourage you to think deeply about this image, and search the Scriptures to see if these things are true.
Recall that we have reached the third verse of 2 Timothy chapter 2. Paul has been exhorting Timothy to fan his gift into flame, to suffer hardship together with Paul. He has mentioned those who have fallen away, who were unwilling to suffer hardship for the gospel; he has mentioned his own endurance through suffering; and he has mentioned the good example of Onesiphorus, who evidently died in the service of the gospel. Let us begin reading in verse one of chapter two:
1 You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. 2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. 3 Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs-- he wants to please his commanding officer. 5 Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules. 6 The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. 7 Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.
8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God's word is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will disow us. If we arefaithless, he remains faithful, for he canot disown himself.
So how is competitive training and racing comparable to living the Christian life? What insights can we gain into living the Christian life from my own experience of running, and from the Scriptures that develop this image? In this sermon, I will draw seven parallels, four from training and three from racing. Since we must always train before we race if we hope to have any success, let's start with training:
(1) Be Consistent
Our training must be consistent if we are to fulfill our potential. After Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon, we High School runners devoured all the books and articles about him we could find. So we all discovered that Frank had run every day -- for seven years. Not one missed day in seven years. We all learned that to be a great runner, we had to train consistently.
One coach puts it this way:
[A runner may say,] "Surely to miss training just this once will not matter? After all, there is a long season of it lying ahead." But to miss training once is to open a breach in the wall of routine. And a single breach will almost certainly be followed by others, to the point where there is no routine left. And then, bang! -- there goes your ambition to be a runner.
The runner's statement actually is true; to miss one day is no big thing, but missing days develops a bad habit, changes one's perception of what one is about. When I was training seriously, I found this to be true. I figured that running five days a week was sufficient to accomplish my goals -- and it was. But if I started the week thinking, "Oh, I can take off any two days I wish, whichever two are most inconvenient for running," I would invariably miss more than two days. Running became not something I was doing because that was who I was -- running became something I did when it was convenient.
One of the giants of American track and field, Ken Doherty, put it this way: "Run until the question of not running just never arises."
Most young runners struggle with this problem: Are they running because it is fun and convenient, or to impress someone else? Or are they running to achieve excellence, to become all that they are capable of being? Are they runners at heart?
Paul brings out this idea of consistency in verse 5, where he says no one wins the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules. For the ancient Olympic games, the rules governed not only the competition but also the preparation. Athletes had to train rigorously for ten months -- or they were not allowed even to compete for the prize. In training, consistency is everything. Without consistency, you will never fulfill your potential.
The analogy with the Christian life is rich. Sometimes the Christian life is presented to us as a one-time conversion, followed by a joyful life of walking with Christ ever after. Well, that's not my experience and that was not Timothy's experience either. Paul's exhortations to Timothy again and again emphasize persistence, making a continuous effort: He tells him to "keep on fanning into flame" the gift that is within him, "keep on being strong in the Lord." Later in this letter he will tell him to "continue in the things you know and have become convinced of."
Timothy was tempted to inconsistency, he was tempted to give up, he was tempted to abandon the hard work of living the Christian life. So am I. So are you. We don't live happily ever after following our receiving Christ. Instead, day after day, hour after hour we are presented with the option: Are we going to follow Christ, or are we going to follow the world? Are we going to believe Satan's lie when he says, "Just this once! Just this once! You can be a Christian tomorrow; one day makes no difference!" Or are we going to be consistent in our training, consistent in our devotional life, consistent in our resisting temptation, consistent in our pursuit of righteousness, faith, love, and peace?
Take the Ken Doherty quote and apply it to your Christian life: Read the Bible until the question of not reading just never arises; pray until the question of not praying just never arises; resist temptation until the question of not resisting temptation just never arises.
You see, much as we hate to admit it, we are creatures of habit. What we do today influences what we do tomorrow. When we are inconsistent today, we make it that much more likely that we will be inconsistent tomorrow. And when we pursue righteousness today, we make it that much more likely that we will pursue righteousness tomorrow.
So remember: No athlete receives the victor's crown unless his training is consistent. Be consistent!
(2) Be Disciplined
I'm using the term "discipline" to refer to parts of our life other than running. For training to reap its maximum benefit, an athlete must discipline his entire life, not just his time on the track. A well-trained athlete must avoid distractions, must eat well, must get sufficient rest, and must avoid engaging in activities that could result in injury. A coach may put together a perfect training program, and an athlete may follow that training program to the letter -- but if he is not eating well, he will never fulfill his potential.
I had a college teammate who exemplified this. Let's call him by a pseudonym, Tom. Tom was an exceptionally talented athlete, and he trained hard. But Tom was completely lost when trying to manage his time. He routinely stayed up until all hours of the night finishing papers, or reading for class. The most notorious example of this was when 10 of us were running a 24 hour relay -- a crazy event in which a team of 10 carries a baton around the track for a full day, with each person running a mile, then handing off to the next person. This race is easy for the first few hours -- you're only running 1 mile about every 50 to 60 minutes. But, of course, it becomes impossible to sleep, and in the wee hours of the morning, your legs become tight as rocks.
Tom showed up for our 24-hour relay having stayed up all night writing a paper. While, if fresh, he was probably capable of running 2nd or 3rd fastest on the team, by midnight he was hopeless, hardly able to make it around the track. He dropped out -- and the nine of us who were left had 5-6 minutes less rest between each mile. Our total distance covered suffered badly.
As Christians, we too must discipline ourselves in all parts of our lives, not only in those that are specifically spiritual. Paul tells Timothy to flee the evil desires of youth & pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace. We have to flee these negative areas if we are to pursue the positive. Similarly, Paul in today's text says that the good soldier does not entangle himself in civilian affairs; his focus instead is on pleasing his commanding officer.
Runners are faced with many distractions, many enjoyable or pressing activities that can divert them from the pursuit of excellence. Similarly, we as Christians face many possible diversions. The author of Hebrews uses a running analogy to make this point to us Christians when he writes, "Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." If we're running, we don't want extra weight on our backs, we don't want our feet entangled with diversions. We need to avoid all that, and focus on our goal. We as Christians must do the same.
(3) Work Through the Pain
A good coach tries to make workouts enjoyable, but workouts can never be all fun and games. In order to achieve one's potential, hard work is necessary, and that, at times, is painful.
One necessary part of any distance runner's training is interval work. When running intervals, athletes run for a particular distance -- say one lap, 1/4 of a mile -- then rest for about 90 seconds, then run again. This allows the body to run a cumulative distance of, say, two miles much faster than would be possible by running with no rest. But about halfway through a workout like this, if you are running hard, lactic acid begins to build up in your muscles, legs begin to get stiff, and maintaining pace becomes difficult -- and, at times, painful. This is the whole point of the workout -- teaching your body to run well in race conditions, when your muscles begin to get stiff and tired. Completing the workout is key to reaping its benefits.
Interval work at sea level is tough, but it is even tougher at altitude, where each gasp of air provides less oxygen. When I was teaching high school in Kenya in 1977, I coached track and cross country. Our school was at an elevation of 5000'. I well remember a workout one hot afternoon, when I had scheduled seven intervals of 330 yards for my athletes. After they finished the sixth, I could tell they were tiring, so I encouraged them: "Good job! You're doing great! Just one more, and we'll be done for the day!" An athlete replied, addressing me by the Swahili word for teacher: "No, Mwalimu, we are too tired, we can run no more." I responded, "Yes, Joseph, you are tired -- it's almost the end of the workout, you're supposed to be tired. Running when you're tired makes you stronger!" "No, no, Mwalimu," Joseph replied, "running when we're tired doesn't make us stronger. Running when we're tired only makes us more tired."
Have you ever felt that way as a Christian? Have you complained to God, "Oh, Lord, I'm tired, I can't finish this! Give me a break, let me rest! This is too much for me! And it's all so pointless. All this effort yields no results. I believe in you -- isn't that enough?"
God intends to use trials and difficulties in our lives to tax our spiritual muscles, stimulating growth, stimulating dependence on him. As James tells us, persevering through trials makes us perfect and complete, lacking nothing. But God is training us to be champions, to be like Jesus -- he's not training us to be joggers. And this type of training is tough; it is bound to be painful at times.
Paul tells Timothy, "Endure hardship with me." He reminds him that he is like a soldier, who doesn't worry about his personal comfort but is set on pleasing his commanding officer. He says we are to be like hardworking farmers, who must suffer through backbreaking work, day in and day out, whether they feel like it or not, if they are to reap a harvest. In chapter 3 he tells Timothy to expect persecution also. He makes no promises that the Christian life will be easy -- rather, he explicitly promises that the Christian life will be tough. The promise, instead of the absence of difficulties, is that through all these difficulties, God himself will provide the energy to overcome, and we will grow more Christlike in the process. That's the goal: Becoming like him!
So endure hardship! Be willing to put up with pain, knowing what it produces!
(4) Enjoy the Training
The fourth lesson from training is that we must enjoy it. That seems contradictory; we've just mentioned the need for discipline, consistency, and hard work; we've highlighted that productive training always includes an element of pain. So how can we enjoy it?
An athlete may try to muster up his will and say, "OK, I'm committed, I'm going to be disciplined, I'll be consistent, I'll work hard, working through the pain." But if that athlete is only goal oriented, he may achieve some objectives but will not come back year after year after year. Herb Elliott was Olympic champion at the metric mile in 1960; in his entire career he never lost a mile or 1500m race; and he held the world records for both events. He probably trained harder than any miler up to that time. But Elliott retired when he was only 22. He achieved his goals, and then quit.
Now, we can't fault him for retiring. But as Christians we are training not only to achieve a goal, but to become like Christ in the process of living in this world. We are training not only for heaven, but for the rest of our life on earth. And we must learn to be thankful for our trials, to rest in God in the midst of those trials, and, yes, to enjoy the process, to "consider it pure joy" when we're faced with trials.
As a high school and college athlete, I always hated interval workouts. Weaker runners would beat me in those workouts; the pain was too great. So, although I ran a lot after graduating from college, I generally avoided track intervals. After moving to Williamstown, however, although there are few opportunities for track races, I've ended up running a lot of intervals with the college track team. Last season, one of the college athletes asked me, "Coty, why are you doing this? Are you pointing to a particular race?" And the answer was no. I run intervals now because I love it. I love to feel my body grow tired, I love to focus on maintaining speed and effort despite tightness and pain, I love to work through all that, to be mentally tough and complete a hard workout. There's no real goal now -- just enjoyment of the work. The process has become the goal.
The Christian life is closely parallel. If our being a Christian is solely a means to get to heaven and avoid hell, we've missed something vitally important. Eternal life begins now, we are in Christ Jesus now. We have his peace, his love, his presence, in the midst of whatever pain and suffering we encounter in this life. We need to rejoice in the Lord always, not only when things are going well; we need to focus on His presence, His joy, His overcoming of the world, even -- rather, especially -- when the world seems to be bearing down on us.
One of my favorite biblical examples of this is when are Paul and Silas in jail in Philippi. Their legs are in stocks, they can't move, the cell stinks, they can't sleep, they've been beaten -- and beaten illegally at that. And how do they react. Do they say, "Oh, Lord, how could you allow this to happen to us! We've worked so hard for you, and this is what results! God, this hurts so much! God, how unfair!" No, not at all. Instead, they rejoice. They sing. They praise God.
Are you rejoicing? Or are you simply bearing up under the pain, being stoic? If we are just bearing the pain, gritting our teeth, we're not really living the Christian life. We are to enjoy Christ's presence, whether we are in jail or in church, when the path is rough and when it is smooth.
So rejoice in tribulation! Rejoice that you belong to Christ! Enjoy your training!
Now, let's turn our thoughts to racing. An athlete who has trained consistently, who has disciplined all areas of his life so that the training has maximum impact, who has trained through the pain, and has enjoyed the process, is now prepared to race. But the race will not be successful unless he remembers certain key lessons:
(5) Stay focussed and alert
Roger Bannister is best known as the first man to break four minutes in the mile. But Bannister's finest hour came four months later, at the 1954 Commonwealth Games. In the interim, the Australian John Landy had broken Bannister's world record. This was the first meeting between two runners who had both broken four minutes in the mile.
Bannister was known for his fast kick, so Landy took the pace out hard at the beginning, passing halfway with a ten yard lead. Seeing the gap, many observers thought that Bannister was finished. Once one loses contact with the runner ahead in a track race, it is very difficult to close the gap. But listen to Bannister recall his thoughts at the time:
I quickened my stride, trying at the same time to stay relaxed. I won back the first yard, then each succeeding yard, until his lead was halved by the time we reached the back straight on the third lap. I had now connected myself to Landy again, though he was still 5 yards ahead. I tried to imagine myself attached to him by some invisible cord. With each stride I drew the cord tighter, and reduced his lead. I fixed myself to Landy like a shadow.
The result: Bannister ran by Landy in the final straightaway, setting a new world record and winning Commonwealth gold.
Note the terms he uses in his description of the race: he imagined a cord connecting him to Landy, he focussed on the runner ahead, and drew himself closer.
A related aspect of racing tactics caused me to lose our conference 5k when I was a senior in college. The 5 k was the last distance event. All the top runners had competed in another event either the day before or earlier that day. We were all tired. Halfway through the race, my legs were screaming at me because of the hard 10k the day before. Knowing that we were all hurting, one brave and smart runner substantially picked up the pace with about 1.5 miles to go -- even though he was as tired as the rest of us. I initially let him run by me, then -- too late -- realized that this move could make the race. So I went after him, moving into second place, but it was too late. He had broken contact and, though I thought of Bannister and his cord, I could never make up the ground.
I lost that race because, for a moment, I lost focus; I was not alert to what was happening around me. As Christians, we too need to keep our focus. We read part of Hebrews 12:1 earlier; let's keep reading:
let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus
Our eyes are to remain fixed on Jesus, looking straight ahead at him, not looking to the world around us, not looking at the problems that face us, not looking at our own past failures or accomplishments, but focussing only on our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Like Bannister peering at Landy, we must look straight ahead, not thinking of our pain, not thinking of our own effort, but looking at him, depending on him, becoming like him.
Focussing on Jesus can easily be the topic of an entire sermon, but let me just mention three aspects of this focus, and leave the details for another time. First, we focus on Christ in order to tap into his power within us. Second, we focus on Jesus as our pioneer, as our trailblazer, as the one who has gone before us maintaining his focus on the joy set before him, and succeeding. Third, we focus on the triumphant Christ who will return to earth and make all things new, who will right every wrong and wipe every tear from our eyes.
Jesus tells us this in Mark 13:33: Be on your guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come! So we must fix our eyes on him, and maintain our focus, despite all the distractions around us.
(6) Maintain your Form
In addition to keeping focus, a good racer must maintain his form throughout the race. As our bodies tire, the natural tendency is to tense up: our shoulders rise, our jaws tighten, we become worried and then get even tighter. And though this is natural, it is quite counterproductive; the tighter we become, the slower we go.
One of my high school teammates, Mark, was like this. In a close race, or a particularly fast race, Mark would start to lean his head backwards, making his strides shorter and shorter, inevitably making him slow more and more.
This is one of the hardest things to teach young runners. Much of training for running at the elite levels -- much of interval training -- is designed to teach the runner to always maintain good form, even when he is about to collapse.
What is the parallel for Christians? Paul brings this up in chapter four of 2 Timothy, when he looks back at his own life and says, "I have fought the good fight." The word "good" is not the word that means "morally upright" but instead a word that means "aesthetically pleasing." He fought a beautiful fight, he maintained his form, he looked good all the way through the end. He didn't flail his arms, tighten his jaw, or lean back with his head, but maintained good form even when the pressure was on. So he and Silas praised God in the Philippian jail; he was beaten and shipwrecked, but continued to be faithful to his calling; he proclaimed the gospel boldly even when he knew that would result in persecution. He was afflicted, persecuted, perplexed, and struck down, but never in despair. He never acted ashamed of the gospel, he never lashed back at his persecutors, he was never quarrelsome. He kept his good form, focussing on the Lord Jesus Christ, rejoicing in him, despite all the challenges the world could throw at him.
Such is our goal. Focus on your form! Run the good race!
(7) Relax When Racing
Here we have another apparent contradiction. When racing, we are trying to get every last tenth of a second out of our body, trying to use our last ounce of energy so that we can run our best. Yet all great coaches emphasize that one key to achieving greatness is learning how to relax while racing. Work hard -- yet relax.
Many of you have watched Olympic marathons or the Boston marathon on television. Don't those runners make it look easy? Their shoulders are relaxed, their cheeks bounce up and down -- they look almost like they're out for a pleasant jog around the block. But they are running fast! The average pace for an Olympic gold medallist in the marathon is about 73 seconds for each 440 yards. Go out to the track sometime and try running one lap. I would guess that no more than 15 people here this morning can even run one lap that fast -- the best marathoners run 105 laps that fast, without stopping -- yet they look completely relaxed!
Why is this? It is actually quite logical. If I am going to use every ounce of energy to achieve my goal, I must not waste any of that limited supply of energy on something irrelevant. Now, I don't run with my jaw, or my fists, or my shoulders. So those must all relax, they all must use no energy, so that all of my energy can be focussed on those parts of my body that must work hard if I am to run fast. To achieve the supreme physical effort, we must relax every part of our body not necessary to that effort.
We as Christians are called to something similar. The author of the book of Hebrews tells us to "make every effort to enter God's rest," that is, "work hard at resting." Paul says at the end of the first chapter of Colossians,
To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.
I am laboring, I am striving, I am working hard -- but it is with God's energy, not my own.
We've seen this earlier in 2 Timothy also. In chapter one, Paul gives Timothy several commands, but with each command he notes that God has enabled Timothy to keep the command: "Fan into flame the gift of God . . . for God has given us a spirit of power." "Join with me in suffering . . . by the power of God." "Guard the good deposit . . . with the help of the Holy Spirit." Indeed, one translation of 2 Timothy 2:1 brings out this thought quite clearly: "Keep in touch with the power that is yours in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." We are not called upon to be strong on our own, or to accomplish things for God through our own power. On the contrary, Jesus tells us "apart from me, you can do nothing." Instead, we are to rest in him, to relax in him, to allow him to work through us. Our job is to focus on him, to turn our thoughts to him, to pray to him, to depend on his word, to put on his armor -- then, and only then, can we succeed in the race of faith.
So examine yourself. How have you been running? How has your training been going? Are you consistent, day after day, hour after hour? Are you disciplining all parts of your life, so that you will grow in Christlikeness? Are you working hard, willing to endure suffering? Are you enjoying your relationship with Christ, in good times and bad? How is your focus? Are you ready and alert, keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus, expectantly awaiting his return? Are you maintaining your form, fighting the good fight, or are you complaining and feeling sorry for yourself? And are you relaxing in Christ, letting his energy do the work?
This is the race of faith -- the most important race of your life, the race whose goal is eternal life with Christ, made perfect in him. Run your best in this race.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 1/29/95.
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