I have been intrigued by the marathon most of my life.
I remember hearing about the barefoot runner from Ethiopia who won the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome. Then in Tokyo, 40 days after having acute appendicitis, Abebe Bikila also won the 1964 Olympic marathon with another record time!
Stories of tenacity like his have made an impression on me, so when my daughter Erica wanted to run a marathon this past May, I decided to run it too. I wanted to cross the marathon off my bucket list!
So why am I writing about this? Because the Bible describes our spiritual life as a race. In essence we are all running a spiritual marathon! And I hope some of the things I experienced while preparing for and running the marathon—and especially the biblical principles they brought to mind—can help us all as we run our races with endurance.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 the apostle Paul compares our Christian life with a race. Athletes make a tremendous commitment to give it their all. They train hard and avoid eating or drinking too much. They push themselves and discipline themselves to beat everyone else—since only one is the winner.
Paul is not saying that only one Christian will “win” salvation—just that we should put in as much, if not more, commitment, training, temperance, endurance and self-discipline as these athletes. The ancient Greek athletes received a crown of olive wreaths, but we are promised the most incredible eternal crown—to be kings and priests in the Kingdom of God (Revelation 1:6)!
My first step in preparing for the 26.2-mile race was making a commitment to a 17-week training program.
For our spiritual race, we also have to count the cost and commit to God’s training program. This training takes self-discipline. It takes moderation. Prayer, Bible study, meditation, fasting and fellowship are spiritual disciplines that help us grow.
It was also important to me to figure out how to avoid carrying any extra weight. I bought lightweight shoes and socks and chose not to take a water bottle (they have water stations every mile) or even my glasses.
The spiritual analogy is found in Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us.”
What are the spiritual weights that make it hard to run? Jesus talked about several of these dangers in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:22.
The deceitfulness of riches can really distract us. The cares of this life can be even harder to control, because we all do have cares and worries and things we have to do. But Jesus showed where our focus should be—on the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
What about the sins that ensnare us?
There are many different kinds of traps, and we should study the Bible to be aware of all the devices the devil uses against us. Obeying God keeps us from being entangled in the traps of sin (2 Timothy 2:4-5). Repentance is also necessary for us to escape Satan’s clutches.
Hebrews 10:35-39 is another key passage to me. God knows we need endurance! It is not easy or fun to develop it, but it has a sure reward. Jesus Christ is coming back, and He will not tarry (even though it can seem like He has delayed). We must not draw back or quit! We must endure and finish the race and receive the incredible gift of salvation!
The Bible also tells us the motivation for endurance. Love suffers long—it’s patient (1 Corinthians 13:4). Love endures all things and never fails (verses 7-8). God, who is love personified, has certainly suffered long with us and endured all that we have done against Him. He wants us to become like Him. He wants us to endure all things out of love.
What must we do to endure? In a marathon it is important to set the right pace. There’s a tendency to let the adrenaline that is released at the beginning of the race get you into sprinting and darting around other people. But I know that if I get winded in the first half mile, already struggling for oxygen and fighting muscle cramps, I will have a much harder time enduring to the end.
Keeping a constant pace throughout the race becomes a rhythm, a habit, and you don’t have to fight with yourself at every step. Having a regular, daily habit of prayer and Bible study is vital to enduring in our spiritual race.
We need to encourage and be encouraged through regularly attending church and through fellowship with God’s people (Hebrews 10:24-25). The Church and godly fellowship are major gifts from God in helping us to run the race with endurance.
To run the marathon with endurance, I also had to mentally prepare for the hills. The hills of the Christian race are our trials (1 Peter 1:6-9). Peter describes the mind-set we need to face the fiery trials of life. We have to recognize that these tests are necessary and that God will help us through them, and that there is an amazingly wonderful finish line ahead—one we can look forward to with “joy inexpressible”!
Jesus Christ is the real key to dealing with the weariness and discouragement. He is our Leader, setting the pace. He has endured everything we have and more.
An article on Runner’sWorld.com describes “hitting the wall” this way: “You’re in the middle of a run when things start to fall apart. Your legs feel like concrete, your breathing grows labored, your strides turn into a shuffle. Negative thoughts flood your mind, and the urge to quit becomes overwhelming.”
I hit the wall at mile 20, and the last 6.2 miles were agonizing.
So, what should we do when we “hit the wall” spiritually?
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Jesus Christ is the real key to dealing with the weariness and discouragement. He is our Leader, setting the pace. He has endured everything we have and more.
Consider His example in Luke 22:39-46. After 3½ years of constant preaching and serving and hardships, marred by verbal attacks, death threats and mocking, Jesus knew that His time of trial was at hand. He knew the vile insults, the vicious beatings and scourgings and the terrible crucifixion He was about to face.
So “He knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done’” (Luke 22:41-42).
We also can talk to God in our times of severe trial. He will hear and He cares deeply! Jesus Christ has been through such trials and understands! We must not let “hitting the wall” cause us to avoid talking to God, for in our trials we need the lifeline to Him more than ever.
We must also follow Christ’s example of recommitting to do God’s will—to stick to His plan. We might wish that there were an easier way, but we must look to Jesus, who set the perfect example by fully submitting to the Father’s perfect will.
God is the One who can and will help us up when we fall. He is also the One who will help us when we are weak and weary (Isaiah 40:28-31).
God is the One who will never forsake us (Hebrews 13:5-6).
And God is the One who remembers our commitment and service (Hebrews 6:9-12).
God does not forget our labor of love. He does not give up on us. God is ready and willing to help us when we hit the wall.
Hebrews 12:2 also says that Jesus “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross.” We also must refocus on the goal, on the finish line.
As I got perhaps a half mile from the end, Erica, who had already finished the marathon, actually came to run that last bit again with me! I didn’t have my glasses on, so I kept asking, “Can you see the finish line yet?”
We also don’t know how soon we will see the finish line, but we must have the vision of that joy firmly in mind to motivate us, as it motivated Jesus Christ (Hebrews 11:13-16; Revelation 21:1-7).
Fellow runners, let’s train and prepare well. Let’s endure to the end. And let’s keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and the finisher of our race and our faith.
Then when we cross the finish line, we can hear these wonderful words: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (Matthew 25:21).
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