As believers in the modern Western world, we often find that our spiritual endurance and hardiness leave something to be desired, so how do we change this?
Arguably, one of Paul’s most popular-to-quote-in-church verses is 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should” (NLT).
Paul was probably referring to the Greek’s well-known foot races. The most prestigious of these was about 200 meters.
That so much work went into winning such a short sprint for a perishable laurel crown and social glory was a perfect contrast for Paul when compared that effort to what Christians should put into their own lives.
Though it’s impossible to know, I wonder if Paul was also thinking of the legendary runner Pheidippides. According to stories, he was commissioned to run from the Greek town Marathon to Sparta to beg them for help in the face of a Persian invasion. The man then ran back to Marathon, saw the victory and finally ran to Athens. All told, his road was 300 miles long.
He breathlessly announced to the Greek leaders, “Nike! Nike! Nenikekiam!” (Victory! Victory! Rejoice, we conquer!) and then collapsed on the spot and died.
Never Our Natural Pace
Pheidippides’s herculean effort would’ve required physical training and mental fortitude far beyond that of any normal athlete’s.
New York Times bestselling author and ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes speculates that Pheidippides was probably a hemerodromos, a military messenger, trained to run through the night without sleep and often over mountainous terrain.
This grueling, multi-mile run is far more accurate to the Christian life than a quick Olympic sprint. The wartime urgency that motivated this legendary runner is also a good reminder of what our mindset should be as we move through life toward heaven.
So how do we do it?
I was dismayed to learn that running comes to us about as naturally as swimming. That is to say, it doesn’t really.
Everyone can figure out a basic doggy-paddle, but it’s not a particularly efficient way to swim. The same can be said of running. Take it from someone who used to run with the grace and panache a flat-footed giraffe until a trainer spent the time to instruct me in proper running form.
“Don’t feel bad,” my trainer said. “People never ‘naturally’ run well, so it won’t ever be something you don’t have to work at anymore.”
That’s gloomy news for a 21st century person accustomed to drive-through fast food.
A similar type of melancholy can grip believers when we realize following God will never be easily navigated or resistance-free. Too often, we shrink back without even realizing it, as Gary Wilkerson points out in a sermon.
“I have to ask: How did our knowledge of God’s wild-hearted greatness lead us to measured lives of moderation? How did the Bible become reduced to a mere rule book, a moral guideline, a spiritual ‘to do’ list? When did God’s fiery words get watered down into self-focused religious obligations?
“It happens whenever a Christian ‘settles,’ saying, ‘I don’t want to ask Jesus for too much.’”
Rather than trust God entirely, pray big prayers and learn how to run our Christian race well, we pull back and settle into a stumbling jog that often peters out into a walk.
Gearing Up for the Race
To-do lists are easy to check off. They’re quick. Small prayers, religious obligations and moderation are easy to fulfill on our own. They don’t require much waiting because we can achieve them ourselves if and when God fails to move fast enough for our taste.
Moderation in our spiritual lives is often born out of a desire for quick, easy solutions.
In the back corner of our heart, we tell ourselves, “If I only ask for a better prayer life instead of outright healing from this addiction, that can happen easily enough.”
We don’t want to have to grapple with God’s silence in addition to our request. We don’t want to ask for something big and then be convicted about pet sins that are holding us back from receiving an answer.
“There is the basic problem for a lot of Christians: They’re missing desire,” Gary explains. “They think things like passion and dreams are flesh-centered, not God-centered. What they don’t realize is there are consequences to not having a passionate vision. If you’re purposeless with no direction for your life, you have no need of discipline.
“You don’t work toward anything; your energy isn’t spent toward a dream. In that case, what’s the point of anything?”
If we’ve operated in this mode for long enough, it may be difficult to even imagine what goal or dream or prayer we could have that would require this much from our spirits and relationship with God.
The Drive of Urgency
Like preparing for your first marathon, you’re probably not going to be able to launch straight into this new lifestyle any more than you could jump off the couch and run 26 miles. It’s well worthwhile at this point to pray seriously about what God may have in store for us.
We may not even get an answer right away, but we can start down the path that he has in store for us to make us ready for the dream when its unveiled. The next thing we can do is to sit down with someone more experienced in praying big prayers and dreaming big with the Spirit. They can help us take stock of areas where we need to develop better discipline.
With the hubbub of life, it’s very easy to forget that I am essentially a hemerodromos, a military messenger with a desperately urgent message to deliver to the world. A war is raging, an invasion has begun, even if I don’t physically see the forces raging around me.
I loaf along, distracted by the butterflies and the view, and forget that other people’s lives are on the line.
I have to earnestly seek God’s plans for my life, pray boldly for my Lord to move, remember that I am a foot soldier in an ongoing war and then sternly discipline myself in preparation for the series of marathons ahead of me.
To run hard, we have to keep our goal in mind and let urgency to drive us.