Running the Race

I am NOT a runner. If you ever see me running, I’ve either just encountered a snake, or there’s a wild animal chasing me. So I don’t know a lot about running a marathon, or even a 5-or 10-K race. Even in my daily life as a Christian, I prefer to use the term “Christian Walk!” But the Bible uses the imagery of a race to describe the Christian life. In our pursuit of Christ-likeness, including our pursuit of prayer, we need to think like a runner.

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For those of us who don’t run, this may pose a bit of a challenge, but the Bible gives us clear principles that provide good guidance.

  • Keep moving forward: “12-14 I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.” (Philippians 3:12-14 The Message) Runners don’t worry about what is behind them. They are focused on the goal– reaching the finish line. We need to stop focusing on our past, or the anxieties about the road ahead, and keep our focus on the ultimate goal.
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  • Travel light/Get rid of the baggage: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, 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..” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV) What is weighing me down, that I need to let go of, if I want to keep running with endurance? I wrote earlier this month about the expectations attached to the “model” woman in Proverbs 31. Expectations, guilt, unforgiveness, shame, wanting to please other people, even our own self-talk can weigh us down, slow us down, and wear us out. It’s time to let go!
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  • Run with the pack: Running alone can be good for meditation, but we need the challenge and the encouragement of others if we want to train and grow stronger. Reconsider the passage I quoted above in its larger context: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, 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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3 NIV–emphasis added) We need to surround ourselves with companions, role models, teachers, friends, and others who can encourage, sharpen, comfort, and help us in our pursuit. And we need to remember that NO challenge or opposition we face is unknown to Christ. He is our ultimate role model, and, along with the Holy Spirit, our greatest coach!
  • Run/train with purpose: “25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” (1 Corinthians 9:25-26 NIV) I know many people who “know” a lot about the Bible; they’ve grown up in the church or attended seminary; they’ve memorized scripture or studied theology– only to leave the church and their faith. I know many others who have a “faith” that bears little resemblance to the Bible’s teaching– it is based mostly on their “feelings” about God and a “truth” that is relative to their circumstances and changing emotions. Pursuing the Christian life involves discipline– being a disciple–and that involves all areas of life– studying the Bible, and putting it into practice. It’s not enough to “know” about doctrine or to “feel” like a Christian. We must pursue Christ-likeness in our words, prayers, habits, relationships, etc..
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  • Don’t run on “no fuel.” “29 He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength. 30 Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, 31 But those who wait on 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.” (Isaiah 40:29-31 NKJV). It is tempting to run on an empty stomach (see traveling light above), or to start running without stretching or warming up. Anything we do in our own wisdom and power– even “good” things like prayer and Bible study, can leave us empty and worn out. We need to come back to our source of wisdom and power–(See Hebrews 12: 2-3 again!)
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Running a race isn’t easy. Walking through life is a challenge, too. Pursuing Christ-likeness in our habits, including our prayer life, takes dedication, discipline, guidance, and endurance. But God is faithful to provide all that we need to finish the race and gain the prize!

Armchair Olympians

24 Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. 25 Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown. 26 So I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. 27 Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 CSB

I must confess, I haven’t been watching much of the Olympic games currently taking place in Tokyo. Over the years, I’ve spent hours glued to the television, watching the competitions, gobbling up the emotional stories of various athletes and their struggles to qualify and chase their dreams. In fact, I used to get so involved in watching the Olympics, that I would fall behind in my housework, social obligations, and sleep! It can be very inspiring to watch as various athletes from around the world challenge themselves (and their competitors) to go faster, reach farther, and climb higher. And many of the stories and names have stayed with me over the years.

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There is nothing wrong with watching sports, and cheering on those who have worked so hard. And I love the pageantry and good will of the Olympic games, where I find myself cheering for athletes and sports I would never know otherwise–those who have overcome tragedy and incredible obstacles just to participate; those whose achievements have set new standards and inspired others to greater heights. But as Christians, we should consider our OWN level of achievement. Not in a competitive sense, and not in the sense of “earning” God’s salvation or approval, but in the sense of growth and development of self-discipline.

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We admire athletes, not only for their natural abilities, but for their discipline and spirit. They train for years, undergoing rigorous drills, keeping tight schedules, pushing their bodies– often to the point of injury–to get a little more speed or distance or strength. They prepare for the stress of competition and the pressure of expectation. They learn to leave behind the failures and the victories of yesterday as they get ready for tomorrow. We watch them, and we talk about being inspired. But inspired to do what? I have never developed the level of self-discipline to rise every day at 6 a.m. to run or stretch, let alone train for a race or a swimming meet. I briefly flirted with becoming a gymnast after watching Nadia Comaneci score a perfect 10.0 in the Montreal Olympics of 1976, but I quit after only one weekend!

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The Apostle Paul calls us to follow his example and “run the race” as we live for Christ–we are to develop our character and practice spiritual discipline in the same way that an athlete develops her body and practices physical and mental discipline. And our motivation is not a gold medal or a world record that will eventually be broken, but eternal victory over Sin and Death!

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I’m ashamed to say that I have not always followed this example. I’ve been an “armchair Olympian”– content to watch others do the hard work, and enjoy the vicarious feeling of victory when they cross the finish line. I cheer for those Christians who are called to foreign missions–I’ve even traveled on “short term” mission trips– but I don’t always see my everyday life as a “mission.” But that’s exactly what it is. Jesus didn’t watch the disciples heal the sick or preach about the Kingdom of God as He sat on the sidelines. And He certainly didn’t spend time analyzing and dissecting the “performances” of the prophets and patriarchs of old. He didn’t even tell the disciples to analyze His miracles or study His sermons. He simply said, “Follow Me!” “Walk with Me.” Christianity is not passively cultivating a feeling of victory in Jesus. It is living victoriously THROUGH Jesus.

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Our character won’t be changed by sitting on the couch or in an armchair, watching others do the hard training and running their race. Cheering from the sidelines isn’t going to increase our patience, or develop our faith, or make us more Christlike. Listening to Christian Radio or watching sermons on television won’t automatically translate into a life of integrity and peace. Even reading the Bible, or keeping a prayer journal, or writing a blog about spiritual things won’t teach us humility, gentleness, or love for others. We need to make the effort. And we need to seek the wisdom and discipline of the Holy Spirit– our “coach”– as we follow the example of Christ. It starts with small decisions– daily habits–and learning to be consistent. It also takes a willingness to repent and get back on track when we fail. And we will fail in our own efforts!

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We can admire earthly athletes. But we shouldn’t worship them. And we shouldn’t let them become idols that substitute for the kind of work WE need to be doing to learn discipline and faithfulness. I want to reach the finish line, knowing that I’ve run my best race for the King!

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I Just Want Them to Be Happy…

..but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3b-5 ESV via biblegateway.com
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I once had to drop out of a thread on social media. (Actually, I’ve had to drop out of a number of threads, but that is neither here nor there…) The thread was about parenting, and priorities. The main thrust was that, as a parent, one’s top priority was to make one’s children “happy.” If your child wanted a particular toy for her/his birthday, you would certainly do whatever you could to get “that” toy. If your child wanted the latest fashion in shoes, you would certainly try to buy them. If your child wanted to be successful, you would do whatever you could to see that he/she got into the “best” schools and had the “best” opportunities in life. And if they wanted to do something of which you disapproved, you would still encourage them to follow their dream– if it would make them happy. Of course, this didn’t include letting your child abuse drugs or become a criminal. But in general, it meant sacrificing and taking a back seat to your child’s emotional well-being.

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On the surface, this seems like good parenting. Of course, I don’t “want” my child to be miserable, or unsuccessful, or “left out.” And I don’t want to impose my dreams and wishes onto my child, or live my life through him/her. I would not wish hardship and suffering to come to anyone, especially those I love. Except…I want them to develop endurance, and character, and hope, and compassion, and wisdom, and humility, and faith. And all these things come from suffering, losing, and learning from difficult experiences.

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I dropped out of the thread for a couple of reasons: I have learned that whenever the subject of parenting comes up, my experience (or lack thereof) makes my opinion “invalid” to those who disagree. “You’ve never had children. You don’t know what it’s like.” But I know what it was like to BE a child, and to have parents. I’ve observed the results of parenting by others, both good and bad. I know that even good parenting can’t guarantee “happy” teenagers! And even “bad” parenting can produce children who break the cycle and become adults of integrity and joy. The other reason I held back was that, in my experience, those who post such threads only want their own opinions confirmed. The people posting on this thread were not “bad” parents–in fact, they probably would agree with me if we had the time to sit down and talk through the issue. But one of the downfalls of social media is that we want short, pithy advice, instead of long and serious discussions. We don’t want nuances; we want comfortable “likes.”

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I don’t want my family members– my step-children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and cousins, etc.–to be defeated by suffering. I don’t want them to be overwhelmed by depression and anxiety. I don’t pray for them to be hurt or frustrated, because “it’s for their own good.” But I do pray that they will learn strength and courage, faith and trust, hope and joy as they overcome struggles, conquer fears, fight life’s battles, and walk in obedience to the One who has won the final victory. I don’t “just” want them to be happy. I want them to find the lasting joy that comes from developing a Godly character. That may bring me to tears when I see them fighting illness and hardship, persecution, depression, and other setbacks. But it also keeps me on my knees and reaching out as they understand that I’m there whether they’re sad, or angry, or hurting– and so is the God who loves them forever!

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The Season’s Not Over, Yet!

Last Friday, I attended a high school football game in my home town.  It was homecoming, complete with floats and balloons, face paint, and screaming fans (myself included).

My hometown team is having a fantastic season so far– their record is 6 and 0, and they are winning by wide margins each week.  I’m a little biased, not only since this is my home town, but because I have a nephew and a cousin on the team!  They have already qualified for a spot in the playoffs for their division, and they have dreams of becoming state champions.

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I hope they make it.  I pray that they will play their best; that they will stay safe and healthy, too.  I want them to win, and I think they have a good chance.  But the season’s not over yet.  They still have to play a couple of tough teams in the regular season, and they will face stiff competition in the playoffs.

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As good as they have been so far, the teammates and coaches will still drill, train, and learn how to adjust the way they play based on whatever the next game throw at them.  Next week’s team may be better at passing, or rushing.  Their players may be bigger, or more agile, or more experienced than others.  The weather conditions may play a bigger role next week.

All that to say that we all go through seasons– sometimes even “winning” seasons– and each one requires that we prepare, work, train, and persevere until the season is over.  Some of us are facing a season of trials and losses–we’re waiting and hoping for the season to end.  And it will.  But the season’s not over yet.  Stay in the game– keep praying, keep training, and keep believing that there will be a new season of hope.  Some of us are in a season of victory!  That’s great, but the season’s not over yet.  Stay focused– keep training and preparing, and learning, knowing that there will come a season of trial.  Some of us are watching others in their success–but the season’s not over yet.  Stop comparing– reach out and connect.  Show respect; show compassion.

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This is true in all areas of life– there are seasons in our education, seasons in parenting and relationships, seasons in our careers and service, seasons in politics, economics, and even in our faith walk.  And in every season, God is there.  Like a proud parent or an ardent fan, He is cheering you on; like a great coach, He gives guidance and instruction; like a cherished teammate, He has your back.  In all of this, God roots for all His children– not that some will “win” and others will “lose”, but that all will learn to play their very best and become “victors”.

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No matter what kind of season we are in, or where we are in our season, we should remember a few things:

  • Life is both an individual and a team activity.  None of us can “win” on our own, nor can we expect the team to “carry” us to victory without any effort on our part.
  • We can’t see the end from the beginning (or even the middle).  But God can.  And we can trust His guidance and His timing, even if we don’t see the whole picture.
  • God goes not see “winning” and “losing” in the same way the world judges it.  What looks like “winning” to us may be superficial and false.  What feels like losing may be building a Godly character that will overshadow the temporary struggles of this season.
  • Seasons come and go, but not everyone experiences them the same way or at the same time.  In other words, don’t compare your winning swim season to someone else’s losing soccer season, or your dry summer to someone else’s monsoon season.  Instead, focus on your own season and your own growth.  Don’t close yourself off to others– you may have an opportunity to give or accept help, advice, training, and encouragement along the way–but don’t let others become more powerful (or less worthy of respect) than they really are.
  • At the end of the “season”, if we know Jesus Christ, we will share in the ultimate victory.  The celebration that occurs over each person who comes to Christ makes any celebration here on earth seem dull and timid–no amount of parade floats, lights, fireworks, screaming fans, balloons, or other excitement can compare to the joy of welcoming a lost soul into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Prayer in the “Off-Season”

World Cup fever is at a high this week.  England was stunned by Croatia in the semi-finals–Croatia will face France in the finals on Sunday.  Teams have played hard all season to make it to the World Cup– most of them will go home disappointed (at least a little).  Fans will have to wait until next season to see their favorite team make another attempt at winning it all.

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In the meantime, the players will be in the “off-season.”  Some will take well-earned vacations, and spend more time with their families.  Some will spend time with doctors and physical therapists to work on injuries sustained during the regular season.  Some will be working with coaches and trainers to develop in areas where they feel they need extra help.  Others will cut back on their training schedule.  Still others will spend time with agents trying to get traded to another team (or avoid being traded to another team).

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People who study sports often say that what happens in the “off-season” can be as important to players and teams as what happens during the intense training of the regular season.  Habits form, attitudes develop, team chemistry alters– any or all of these factors can change for better or for worse.

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The same is true in our prayer lives.  When we are facing struggles or heartaches, we pray with intensity and passion.  But when things are going smoothly, sometimes we let our prayer lives “take a break.”  We pray with less frequency, less intensity, and less focus.  I’m guilty of this; even though I know it can happen, bad habits creep in, and suddenly, my prayer life is haphazard and lackluster.  Using a journal helps, in that I have a focus for each day already written in, and a place to write in new requests, and even answers.

However, a major part of staying on course is to commit to the discipline of prayer.  “Discipline” sounds boring and constrained–something I do out of obligation and not out of love.  But that’s not true of all discipline.  Athletes are disciplined– because they love their sport, and they want to develop and play at the best of their ability.  Musicians are disciplined– because they love music, and they want to develop their art.  Professional athletes and musicians often have a contractual commitment to stay in practice and develop their talents.  When athletes are part of a team, or musicians are part of a band, orchestra, or chamber group, they have an additional reason to be disciplined– to play more effectively with others.

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In my personal life, there are disciplines– hygiene, sleep habits, diet, and exercise, that I practice, not because I love saying, “NO” to that piece of chocolate cake or walking that extra mile, but because I want to stay healthy, clean, and active.  Prayer is no different– except that it is for my spiritual health– and it is part of my relationship with God.

Instead of slacking off during the “off-season”, many athletes and musicians will use this time to step back and look at what they have learned, what they would like to do better, and how they can develop their skills.  I think this offers a great opportunity in prayer, as well.  After a season of grief, struggle, doubt, or testing, it is good to take some time to make some assessments.  Sometimes we don’t know all the reasons for the times of testing or trial we have just faced.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look back and see whether we have grown, or if we need to make some adjustments, or if we have developed new habits or skills (good or bad).  It is a good time to “count our blessings”, “pray without ceasing”, “ask, seek, and knock”, and look at the ways God has been faithful (and hopefully ways that we have been faithful!) over the years.

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Some of us are in the struggle of a busy, harsh, or painful season.  Let’s not let that struggle go to waste.  Some of us will be facing trials next week, or next month–spending time training in the “off-season” will make us stronger for the fight!  And the best news– we already know the outcome!  Let’s pray harder– pray stronger–and go for the win!

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