Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it…
1 Cor. 9:24
On more than one occasion in the New Testament the Apostle Paul refers to our spiritual journey as a race, a race to run and obtain the prize and a race to finish. It’s not clear if Paul was formerly an athlete in the tradition of the Roman Games or merely a spectator, but he knew enough about the races and the rules of the races to make analogies for us to follow and aspire to.
As a Three Year Letterman in track I know something about competing in races. I know that at my age I no longer enjoy running, for one. But back in the day it was quite a different story. I was not into cross country competition, nor did I run the mile or two mile. And before you ask, yes, when I ran the distances were still measured in yards and miles, not meters and kilometers. I was a sprinter, preferring to run the 100, 220 and 440 yard dashes. This might explain my impatience in life now-endurance is not one of my gifts. I want it now please.
I learned a few things in my training as a sprinter that have served me well in my Christian walk, that is when I remember to apply them. One of the most important aspects of a sprint is the start-getting out of the blocks. You push off of the blocks at the sound of the starter’s gun. The blocks need to be set, secure and in proper alignment with the lane you’re in. If the blocks shift or are not anchored, you will “stumble coming out of the blocks” as the old adage goes. I know this to be true as our races were first run on loose cinder tracks.
Psalm 143 say “may your gracious spirit lead me forward on a firm footing. None of us are born theologians, nor do we become such upon our conversion. It is only through Bible study, memorization and application that we can develop this firm foundation needed to get out of the blocks, making our first strides sure so we can more quickly reach our full pace. Our lives must be in line (in lane) with the Word so we are not guilty of lane infractions that would disqualify us or nullify our finish.
I also learned quickly that a sprinter should never look back. Sprinting is all about form-the best sprinters know how important it is to keep form. When you look to the left, the right or behind you in a sprint, your running form is broken, even temporarily, and your momentum is decreased. It really is true that you can’t run forward if you are looking backward. Jesus said in Luke 9:62: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
What causes us to look back? We may be looking to see how we are progressing compared to others like us in our walks. Every person’s race is different and our progress should not be determined by that of others in different circumstances. We may look back to see if our past is catching up to us. Many in the faith, especially new converts, have a difficult time comprehending God’s promise and ability to completely forgive our past and remove our sins from us by the dispensation of grace. We run but we are constantly looking over our shoulders, breaking form, losing momentum.
Another mistake sprinters can make is giving up once the possibility of a top finish seems unlikely. I will never forget competing in the city wide meet in the 440 yard dash. The best in the entire city were there based on their recorded times throughout the season. At the sound of the starter’s gun we were off. I had one of my best starts ever and quickly went to the lead. I held that lead all the way down the back stretch. I rounded the final turn and I’m seeing a shiny blue ribbon just 100 yards away when suddenly this freight train comes roaring past me out of nowhere-four runners glued to each other like a team of horses. I was devastated and couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. No Blue Ribbon, or Red or White for that matter. What else could I do but fall in right behind them and catch their draft and momentum. I finished a disappointing fifth but ran my personal best time and it remained a school record for several years.
It is easy in our spiritual journey to feel like we are in stride, setting a good pace and out in clean air when life comes rushing by like a flood. And it happens to all of us-divorce, severe illness, loss of a close relative, financial crisis, failed businesses-all distractions that are very real and that can cause us to want to give up and stop competing for the prize. The overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair of not finishing as high as we thought we would, if finishing at all, sets in and takes residence in our hearts and minds and become real, tangible stumbling blocks that block our running lanes. I suppose it’s then that we learn to become hurdlers!
Acts 20:24 puts it this way: “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”
The best way we can testify to the Good News of God’s grace is to keep our footing, come out strong, don’t look back and finish your own race regardless of the runners around you running their own races, or the obstacles placed in your lanes to hinder you or cause you to fall.
I love Paul’s words in Phil. 3 as he compares once again our lives to a race;
No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead,I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
Runners to your marks-set, FINISH!