Self-Improvement Stew: Understanding Spiritual Endurance as We Run the Marathon of Life
For those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ we are on a journey that started when we invited Christ to be the Savior and leader of our lives. The journey winds through the many curves and hills or construction zones and traffic jams of our earthly life until we reach our destination, which is Heaven (our eternal home). The end result is being with Jesus Christ and enjoying life as he fully designed it to be enjoyed.
What we need to be prepared for is the length of the journey. Though none of us knows the duration of our days, we do know that the finish line is at the end of our earthly life, not any place short of it. We need to be ready to go the distance. That is the message the author of the New Testament book Hebrews passionately delivered to his readers. He exhorted them and us (his present day readers) to “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” (Hebrews 12:1, ESV).
This athletic imagery of running a race powerfully pictures the reality of living the Christian life. Running indicates it will take exertion and effort on our part. We aren’t going to coast downhill to Heaven in a life of ease. That’s not to say all of our journey will be difficult or unpleasant, but like any long journey, expect that life will have its moments you would very much like to do without.
Spiritually, we are urged to run with endurance, which suggests that we are in a marathon race not a sprint. It will take sustained effort to go the distance. It’s not about starting the race; it’s about finishing the race.
What requires endurance is “the race” (a metaphor for our earthly life that stretches in front of us). In the original language of the New Testament this word “race” is “agōn” from which we get “agony” or “agonize.” This word was used to describe an athletic contest. And so our life is seen as a contest. Not a contest in the sense of competing or battling with others, but in the sense of being a struggle. It’s not an easy road we are walking or in this case running. Now that’s not to say that our life is all “agony” but we are to expect that it will have its agonizing moments.
In the Boston Marathon there is a legendary obstacle called Heartbreak Hill. Starting at mile 13 of the 26 mile boston race course, there are a number of hills, climaxing at mile 13 with Heartbreak Hill. It’s the longest, steepest hill in the race. What makes this hill even worse is that world-class runners “hit the wall” around mile eighteen or nineteen. That is, their bodies have depleted the glycogen stored in the muscles. That glycogen has been replaced with lactic acid. Their muscles are scramming for oxygen. And when you hit the wall, you just feel like you’re going to die. Heartbreak Hill tests runners to the very core of their determination and their strength.1
We have spiritual Heartbreak Hills of our own. We get discouraged at the obstacles, setbacks, hurdles, misunderstandings, and relational fractures we face in our own personal life journey. We scream questions at God about why He doesn’t spare us the agony, or prevent certain things from happening, or make us happy all the time. And in the midst of our discouragement, our weariness, and our fearfulness our pre-Christian lifestyle calls out to us offering a form of relief. It seems like a kind of immediate comfort from the stresses, strains, and sorrows of life. It just seems easier to give-it-up.
That is a dangerous spot. Giving up is not the answer. Turning away spiritually occassionally yields false temporary relief, but trusting God fully means eternal relief. Comitted Christians complete the course and are rewarded with peace. Christians don’t turn around. There are no u-turns. We may face weariness and fearfulness but we endure. We learn the needed lessons for the journey home which are given to us in Hebrews (especially Hebrews 12:1-3). We complete the marathon because we are faithful, just as He is faithful to us. As a fellow runner, I encourage you to stay strong and even go the extra mile.
- Craig Brian Larson, “Heartbreak Hill,” Preaching Today, , accessed March 07, 2017, http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/1997/june/2449.html
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