The race metaphor for the Christian life seems to have endless applications. I keep thinking of more, or hearing friends make comparisons I hadn’t thought of. Most recently, it hit me that if I had tried to run those two marathons at someone else’s level of fitness and training, I would never have finished. There’s a lesson in that for my wretched little heart.
Both race days, a lot of people started one or three corrals ahead of me — the “elite” runners pawing the grown up front in corral A, and me way down the road, corral D, just ahead of the walkers. At a pace of 12-13 minutes per mile, there was no way I could have run a race like corral A runners. Nor even like the people in C! If I had pushed myself too hard and too fast, I wouldn’t even have made it to mile 5.
I had to run my own race.
Everyone else had to run theirs.
What did that mean for me? I had to stop and stretch when my body needed it, to eat what worked for me without upsetting my stomach, and most counter-intuitively, to walk for one minute every two minutes.
As a Christian I am in a race. As a sinner I often try to run it like people who aren’t me — usually those I envy in some way. But if it’s true that God sanctifies each of us in His own time, with a unique set of disciplines, trials, and gifts, why would I place on myself the expectation to be just like them?
Let me make an important distinction here: there is a difference between what I’m trying to describe and seeking to imitate those whose Christianity you admire. We are commanded to disciple one another, following the examples of more mature believers and being an example to others in turn.
The key is to look around and choose from those who are running ahead of you, and follow. However this doesn’t mean our experience of the race will be the same as theirs. Yes, we are to imitate Christ, and Jesus did say “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) But we don’t do that by expecting perfection of ourselves the first day of training. Or the 50th, or the 232nd day. We don’t do that by wishing we had the sames gifts as our best friend, or resenting the discipline and trials God has chosen for us and longing for someone else’s “easier” life.
If God has put us in the race, then He has also provided the body and the tools with which He wants us to run it. He commands us to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us” (Hebrews 12:1b). Sometimes that weight is crippling perfectionism, sinful envy, or mistrust of God’s wisdom.
Distance racing has “pacers” — one person in each corral wearing a bright colored vest and a carrying a tall narrow sign with the time in which they will race. They’re chosen as pacers for being remarkably consistent, it’s amazing. Runners who wish to keep that pace make an effort to stick near them. This might represent those we desire to follow in our Christian race. Personally if I try to follow the 4 hour pacer, I’m dead meat in 20 minutes. I don’t have the gifts they have. I haven’t trained to that level. Yet. It’s a good goal! So, work toward it in training. But in the heat of the race, in the heat of trials, I have to give myself grace to run with what God has given me.
Okay, so it’s a limited metaphor after all. But I hope it’s clear enough what I’m getting at; in our God-pleasing efforts to be more holy, more obedient, more like those who are more like Christ, beware of perfectionism and envy.
Yes, we pursue excellence, we exercise the spiritual disciplines and work hard to make progress. God-willing someday we will be running at a whole new level! In training we do have goals. Just remember it takes time to get there. Time, patience, and attention to what God has given us to work with.
The rest of Hebrews 12:1 says “and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
I love that word, endurance. It assumes hardship. Jesus promised hardship. “In this life you will have trouble.” (John 16:33)
I can and must seek to run with as much endurance as those whose examples God wants me to follow, but I mustn’t forget He is working in each of us differently, to endure different things. We must run our own race, thanking Him for the perfect wisdom that decrees its path.