April 1, 2012

Running the Good Race

Paul the Apostle knew that succeeding in the Gospel would require discipline and self-sacrifice, and he frequently communicated this truth to the Early Church in his epistles. In the Book of 1 Corinthians, he did so by referring to a scene familiar to his readers—the ancient Grecian footraces, where athletes trained and competed against one another.

We, too, are familiar with footraces. There are no shortages of such events in the Portland area. On the first day of 2012, the Twenty 12 Resolution Run was held. Runners were invited to participate in the Spring Marathon Training Run on Saturday, January 14. A week later, in Salem, there was the MLK Celebration Stride Toward Freedom Run. There are 3K, 5K, and 8K runs. There are runs to fund cancer research, scholarships, clean water in Africa, and all sorts of other causes. However, races like the ones held in Portland are not the kinds of races that the Apostle was talking about. Paul was using a physical race to illustrate the concept of the spiritual race.

Some physical races are just one hundred yards or one hundred meters in length, and those who are fast can run them in a matter of seconds. Other races take minutes or even hours. However, the race Paul was referring to demands our attention for more than just a brief span of time, whether a few seconds or a few hours. The spiritual race lasts a lifetime.

Some races limit the number of competitors. That is certainly not true of the Christian race. There is no limit to how many can participate; God encourages everyone to sign up.

The end result is different as well. Those who compete in physical races are striving for a temporal prize or earthly recognition. However, as Christians we are striving for an eternal reward. Paul points out, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Corinthians 9:24). There is a prize awaiting those who finish this race victoriously, and we want to obtain it.

Let us look at six aspects of running a successful Christian race.

Get the right start

Not everyone starts off right in a physical race. I read that in a recent Chicago Marathon there were more than 30,000 competitors, but 250 were disqualified for cheating. In many competitions there are electronic devices which measure the runner’s progress throughout the race in order to prove that he or she did indeed run the whole course. There have been instances where individuals tried to get in toward the end of a long race, and perhaps were even temporarily awarded the prize, only to be required to forfeit it when it was discovered that they did not really run the whole race. They did not start at the right point, so they were stripped of their awards.

A definite experience of salvation is the starting point for running the Christian race.

Those who participate in the Christian race must have the right start. We do not casually adopt the name “Christian.” We must repent—feel true godly sorrow for sin. It takes the Spirit of the Lord to draw us to that point, but God’s Spirit is faithful. Godly sorrow for sin leads to salvation. And a definite experience of salvation is the starting point for running the Christian race. Without that start, all of our efforts to live a good life or behave as a Christian will be ineffective in terms of gaining the spiritual prize.

Be disciplined

The second aspect of success in the Christian race is to be disciplined during the time between the start and the finish. The Greek athletes of Paul’s day underwent a period of intense training that lasted many months. It was important to maintain fitness.

The rigors of training pay off, and those who compete in any type of athletic event understand that. For a period of time in high school I was a wrestler. During the time I participated, I realized that those who competed took very seriously what weight bracket they were in. Even a few pounds could make a significant difference. They knew that at a certain weight, they would be in a lower weight category, and would have an advantage over someone at the lower end of that category. The wrestlers tried to maintain a weight just below that critical point so they could qualify for the lower bracket. That required discipline.

Paul referenced the need for discipline in our spiritual lives. He said, “Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25). He made this point to stress that Christians should be moderate in all things—not only refraining from the spiritually harmful, but even from that which is not “expedient” although it is lawful. If an athlete can be disciplined in order to receive a “corruptible crown,” we can be disciplined as we strive for that “incorruptible” or eternal reward. The prize we will gain will be more than the wreath the Greek runners received, which soon faded. It will be more than a blue ribbon or seeing our names in the paper. Our names will be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life!

Stay focused on the goal

The fourth thing we can do to ensure success is to keep focused on the goal. Runners look ahead to that point where they will cross the finish line. In a track meet, the first one whose chest hits the tape marking the end of the race is the winner. The beautiful thing about the spiritual race is that we can all be winners, every one of us. It would be disheartening to be in competition against those around us, knowing that if we won, our brother or sister would lose. That is not the case in this spiritual race. Everyone can be a winner; we only compete against the enemy of our souls.

Still, we must keep that goal before us, particularly when the demands are high. The challenges we face may at times cause us to nearly faint, but if we “faint not,” we will be rewarded. We may come to some bumps in the road, but we know that God’s grace is stronger than any trial in our path. To triumph in spite of it all we must consider the reward. One of these days the Trumpet of the Lord will sound and then every effort we have made will be worthwhile.

Maintain our confidence

The fifth thing we must do to be successful in our race is to maintain our confidence. Paul said he did not run uncertainly, or “as one that beateth the air.” He was confident, and so are we. The Christian race is not without hardship, but we do not have to be fearful about what we face.

The prophet Jeremiah was one who experienced times of hardship, and he expressed his hope to be relieved of what he was going through. But the Word of the Lord came to him: “If thou hast run with the footmen, and they have wearied thee, then how canst thou contend with horses?” (Jeremiah 12:5). In effect, God was telling the prophet, “Jeremiah, this is not the worst thing you are going to go through.”

We too must have determination and confidence. No matter what we face, Christ is beside us. In Romans 8:37, Paul asserts, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” We will face challenges in many forms, but we must keep our confidence strong in the Lord.

Master self

To be successful in this race, we must master self. Paul said, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27). The phrase “bring it into subjection” means to “lead captive.” Paul was accustomed to being in prison; he knew what captivity meant. In this passage, he declared that he had captured himself—had imprisoned himself, or controlled himself to that degree.

While success in the Christian race is not simply a matter of willpower, we do not minimize its importance. We know that we must exert some effort. God relies upon us to make decisions along the way that are conducive to a walk of sacrifice. What if only the strongest or the smartest or the most talented could qualify? Perhaps that would rule out most of us. But Solomon said the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. This Christian race is not about being clever or talented or fast. It is about being teachable. It is about being hungry for guidance, and doing our best to subject ourselves to God, and being willing and obedient. Every one of us can qualify in that aspect.

Finish the race

The final aspect of a successful Christian race is to still be running at the finish. It is not those who start that are rewarded, it is those who start and then finish. We must keep running! Many times those who get off to a fast start fade in time. Sadly, the Christian “course” is littered with those who had a good start but did not keep going. Paul challenged those in the church at Galatia, saying, “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you” (Galatians 5:7-8).

We appreciate those who started in this Christian race before us and just continually, consistently, steadily kept running.

We appreciate those who started in this Christian race before us and just continually, consistently, steadily kept running and eventually finished the course. Others were running when we got saved, and they are still running now. We must determine to keep going until the end of the race. There will be distractions and challenges from time to time. There will be those along the way who disappoint us, but we will be rewarded if we remain steadfast to the end.

Some people choose to run a different race. They want a way where there is no hardship, no price to pay, no discipline, no subjection. Those ways do exist. In fact, we were all on that type of course before we were saved. However, there is no joyous reward at the end of that race. We have the best way because it ends in Heaven!

We know what a one-hundred-yard dash is and how many miles a marathon covers, but we do not know how long our Christian race will last. We only know where it ends, and we know we want to be running when it ends.

Paul got to that end. Shortly before his death, he wrote, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). He went on to make it clear that this glorious finish was not for him alone, but for all those who love the Lord’s appearing. That can include you and me! We want to fight this good fight, we want to keep the faith, and we want to finish the course.

If you have not yet started in this Christian race, we encourage you to do so today. Offer your life to the Lord. Kneel before God, repenting of the sins in your life, and subject yourself unreservedly to Him. He will give you the start that you need to get going in this Christian race.

If you have already begun the race, then keep on running. Keep forging ahead. Ask God to help you to be steady, to be consistent, to have endurance, and to keep your eyes focused on that goal. If you do so, one day you will be rewarded in Heaven! That is our hope and what keeps us motivated in running this good race.

apostolic faith magazine