I enjoy running, and I took part in the SAFRA Army Half Marathon last month. On the morning of the big race, I was very excited and out of bed at 3am in order to make my way to the race venue in time for the 5am start. Whatever a runner’s level of fitness and experience, the bottom-line goal is the same for all runners — some might have personal aims of attaining a certain rank or bettering a certain time, but at the very least, we all aim to finish the race, thereby getting the finisher’s medal and t-shirt.
I was reminded, not for the first time, that our Christian life is like a long-distance run, something that the writer of Hebrews noted:
“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. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1–3 NIV)
How are we to run the Christian race, ensure that we reach the finish line and in our Master’s presence receive his commendation, “well done, good and faithful servant”?
My race illustrated four biblical truths for me.
1. Run with others
I ran the 21-km race with Chang Zhong and Valencia. We arranged to go together to the starting point, and we began the race together. Throughout the race I was running with thousands of other runners. The thrill of running with other runners spurred me on to do my best compared to if I were just doing a solo run where it would have been very easy for me to quit half way — no one would know! The Christian life is like that. We’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, to encourage us along the way, to help us grow in our godliness and to hold us accountable so we don’t give up when the going gets tough.
2. Throw off anything that hinders
Because I was aiming to finish well, I had to ‘travel light’, with only my handphone, flat key, money, Easylink card and credit card. A bag would have slowed me down. Even the rest of my bulky wallet had to be left at home. The writer of Hebrews mentions throwing off anything that can impede our Christian journey. The Greek word translated as “hinders” describes excessive physical weight as well as burdensome load. Sin is a glaring obstacle, but while we can easily spot murder, adultery and other sins, we must also beware of sins we tend to tolerate, such as greed, envy, jealousy, anger, pride, unthankfulness and many others. All sins equally erode our trust in God and our relationships with one another. Besides sins, we should be on the look out for more ‘innocent’ things that may also hinder our walk with God. For instance, relegating God to second place to focus on our work, studies or leisure pursuits might not seem such a big deal — we can often rationalise our decisions — but it is actually no less than idolatry.
3. Fix your eyes on the finish line
I really enjoyed the run as it took me past many iconic sights — Marina Bay Waterfront, National Stadium, the city skyline, and others. At each stage I was tempted to just stop and take in the beautiful landmarks, but I wanted to finish the race so I kept focused on the finish line. We also must have the right focus in our Christian life. We must fix our eyes unwaveringly on Jesus. Turning aside from the distractions that inevitably come along, we must deliberately choose to focus on him, not only at the start of the race but throughout, so that we conserve energy, the distractions become dim and our feet remain on the right path — thus we do not “grow weary and lose heart”.
4. Persevere till the end
Normally, the closer we are to the finish line, the harder it gets to keep going, because tiredness sets in, but runners must grit their teeth and press on and persevere till the end. That’s also how we’re to run in Jesus’ footsteps. We may face persecution when we live Jesus’ way. Our current series of messages and Bible studies on Distinctives teaches us that living Jesus’ way will be very different from the world and we will be tempted to just follow the world. But we must resist and persevere in the faith. Furthermore, there will be times when we backslide and fall into sin. When that happens we must remember that there is forgiveness. We must seek restoration and continue to persevere.
Confident to finish?
Yet even as we focus on these four things, we can have confidence because in running, the most important thing happens not during the race itself but before. The weeks of training for the race — building up strength so we have speed on the day, and increasing stamina so we have enough energy to finish the race.
But here is where the illustration breaks down, because in the Christian life we have more than just our training regimen. The reason we’re able to complete the race by running it with others, throwing off everything that hinders, fixing our eyes on Jesus, persevering all the way to the end is ultimately not because of our own work but because God enables us. Jesus Christ by his Spirit is the one who sustains our perseverance. He is holding on to us, making sure that as we race towards the finish, we finish the race. This is how the apostle John puts it:
“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” (John 10:28–29 NIV)
So dear Living Praise, let’s continue to persevere in running the Christian race, being thankful and confident that as we do so, God will enable us to finish it.
Your brother, pastor and friend,