Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,--Hebrews 12:1

Friday, December 23, 2011

How will you run your race?

What an awesome night! I was so very blessed to have been invited to give the message at Friendship Baptist Church's youth group Christmas dinner. And I consider it more than a coincidence that God began to lay the message on my heart two full days before the youth pastor asked me to speak.

On the three and a half hour drive back from the Fayetteville Half Marathon a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about the race when the idea came to me for this devotional. Over and over again the similarities between long distance running and life kept popping into my thoughts. I had an overwhelming urge to write.

Wednesday night, I had the opportunity to deliver it to a bunch of great kids gathered to worship God. Here's the message, "How will you run your race?"



About three years ago, I started running again to get into shape. I'd been teaching about three years, had gained considerable weight, and was really starting to feel like a slob. So I started running.

Off and on all through my life I had run. In the Marine Corps I ran more than any other time, but even as a civilian I would take up the habit every so often. Most of those times it didn't take long to get back into decent shape. But this time, I found it more difficult.

Age was the culprit. I had crossed the dreaded threshold of forty years on Earth. I've heard it said your metabolism dies at forty, and now I believe it. Not only was the running harder, but the weight wasn't coming off either!

I stuck with it though, determined to win the battle. It wasn't long before I entered my first 5K. My finish time wasn't impressive, but I crossed the line after completing the 3.1 miles. A few months later I ran the first 10K, then registered for my first half marathon. Just a couple of months ago, I finished my first full marathon!

Someone asked me what it was like to run the 26.2 miles. My answer was something to the effect of, "It's a sense of accomplishment that's impossible to describe accompanied by extreme pain." What was really amazing is that less than a year earlier I considered it an impossible dream to go the distance.

"With man this is impossible, but with God all things are
possible."
--Matthew 19:26

But God knew it was possible. In fact, He decided it was just the challenge I needed after Amanda was killed, and He gave me the idea for Running with Amanda to make it all mean something. I started running with a purpose, running for a reason, running for His glory and not mine.

After the Marine Corps Marathon and four half marathons, I've come to understand that long distance running is practically a metaphor for the time we spend here. After all, this life we're living is just one big, long race. And just like the way we run an endurance race determines how we finish, so does the way we live our life determine our end.

Before the Start

Running a marathon is more than just the 26.2 miles one covers on the course. In fact, the race starts long before the runner even approaches the starting line. You can't just decide to run a marathon, pay your entry fee, and take off on a 26.2 mile jaunt. At least most humans can't.

It takes months of training, well-planned training. Hours and hours and hundreds of miles, buckets of sweat, callouses, blisters, and several pairs of shoes go into the training for a marathon. That training can prepare you to run a good race, can injure you and knock you out of the race, or leave you unprepared and make for a less than pleasant race.

Just like the training period of an endurance race, early life experiences prepare you for the race ahead. What your parents teach you, what you learn in school, what you learn in church, and what you learn from other sources all work together to shape who you become as you step up to the starting line. Good parents, a good childhood, good role models, and good choices can prepare you and make your life easier. Going too far the other direction can lead to tragedy and end your life before you ever really get started. Then there's the middle ground. It doesn't really give you a good foundation, doesn't really prepare you well and leaves you struggling as you go through life.

Before the training, everyone starts out at the same point in life. Nobody is special, nobody is favored. Every single person is unprepared for what lies ahead. Not one deserves to run well, neither does he deserve to struggle.

"for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,"--Romans 3:23

We all begin as untrained, ill-prepared runners and we all begin as undeserving sinners in the eyes of God. So what makes the difference in how we train, how we run, and how we finish?

When I started running again, it was all for me. I wanted to get back into shape. I wanted to improve my times. I wanted people to ooh and aah and tell me how impressed they were that I was running 3 miles, 6 miles, or even 13 miles. (I still didn't believe I'd ever run a full marathon.) I was doing it for me and for my own vanity.

That didn't work out too well.

Oh it went okay for awhile, but then things went south. Suddenly, I began to hear a little voice inside my head telling me that I needed to find a way to glorify God with my running. I ignored it for a while, telling myself I didn't know how. Then, only five weeks before my first half marathon, I injured my foot. For the next five weeks, every time I tried to run, the pain shot through my foot and up my leg and stopped me in my tracks.

I decided there was no way I was going to let all the training I had done go to waste, so I ran the race. It was tough and I walked a lot of it. My foot hurt bad, but I was determined. I pushed through the pain and made it to the finish line. Not a great time, but I did manage to cross it.

A little discouraged but not willing to be defeated, I signed up for the next one. I had six months to train. It began to occur to me that maybe my previous injury was a hint from God that I needed to stop ignoring that previously mentioned voice and seek His glory instead of my own. I decided that maybe I could start signing up only for races that benefited some charity or another.

Maybe that would satisfy the Lord.

Things seemed to be going along fine once I started signing us up for charity races until two months before my second 13.1 mile race. Approaching the finish line of a 5K race, I decided to sprint to beat the clock out of a few seconds. Bad mistake! Just as soon as I tried to launch into my sprint, my left knee felt like it just blew up. The pain was unbelievable. I'd never felt anything like it!

I limped the 50 or so yards left and crossed the finish line (without beating the clock out of those cherished seconds) in crazy pain. It hurt so bad, I didn't know if I would be able to run the upcoming half marathon. But it also immediately came to mind that I hadn't yet found a satisfactory way to honor God's call. This was my second big hint and I knew I had to get thing right or there wouldn't be too many long races in my future.

I bought a brace for my knee and managed to keep running those two months before the race by cutting back on the weekly miles. But it was then I really started thinking about how to honor Jesus with my running. The ideas for Running with Amanda began to take shape, but without the honoring her memory because she was still with us then. I even started a blog similar to this one and began writing posts.

That blog didn't get much traction, but my knee began to heal and my training seemed to start going a lot better. I felt like I was finally on the right track. When Amanda was killed, those ideas merged with a pressing desire to honor her memory and Running with Amanda was born.

Since then my training has gone without hardly a hitch. I've been getting stronger and faster and even ran two half marathons and the Marine Corps Marathon without another injury. Once I started training for the right reasons, to honor God instead of myself, things just fell into place.

Training for life is a close parallel to training for a race.

I teach a lot of kids from a variety of backgrounds. I've had students whose parents are in prison, are alcoholics or drug addicts, are abusers, or are completely missing from their lives. One father even had his sons dealing drugs for him. Then there are the opposite extremes, kids with both birth parents in the home, respectable with good jobs, loving and kind, and involved in everything the kid does. You can guess which ones have the best chance, the ones whose training helps prepare them for the race ahead.

Then there's the kids' church life. Of those kids living out one of the above extremes or another, it's usually not the former who attend church and learn the lessons from the Bible. There are exceptions of course. Kids from the addicts, abusers, and cons somehow get involved in church, and others from the two responsible, loving, involved parents who seldom or never step foot inside a house of God.

And of course there are those in between the extremes. Their parents may share a few traits from the bad and a few from the good, in some combination or other. But one thing I see, without a doubt, those heavily involved in church tend to get in less trouble while they're in school and after they get out. They're more likely to study and be successful in college. As I watch them grow after they leave high school, it seems obvious their "training" has prepared them to be more successful than their counterparts without a solid upbringing in the church.

In life, proper training matters just like it does in preparing for a long distance race. Training for the race you build strength, endurance, and avoid injuries if you do it right. Training for life you build character, work ethic, and perseverance when you do it right. And all I've seen tells me there's a strong correlation between Jesus and the ones who get it right.

Any long distance race starts with the training, and so does life. Trust in Jesus. Bring your kids up with the Bible. Teach them morals and right and wrong according to Godly principles and you'll be doing them a huge favor. You'll get them to the starting line of the race in great shape and well-trained.

Running the Race

The runner well-trained for his race has a plan. He starts with a goal in mind and an idea of exactly how he will accomplish that goal. The race may not always go according to his plan, but his training and discipline will allow him to adapt on the go. Above all else, when the well-trained runner steps up to the starting line, he knows he can finish the race, knows he'll go the distance.

Just like good, disciplined training will get you to the starting line of the race aptly prepared, there are ways to give you an edge in life when you step up to run your race. Good grades in school, a good work ethic developed along the way, among others are things we can learn to help us be successful when we start our race. But the most important thing to have when you step up to the starting line of life is the confidence that you can get through it, that you can live it well. Having the confidence to know that you can overcome the obstacles life will throw your way is invaluable when you take that first step.

"Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved"--Acts 16:31

And the beauty is that confidence is available to all! You don't have to buy it. You don't have to jump through a bunch of hoops to get it. You don't have to know the right people to find it. The verse above tells exactly how to get it, how to have it. Believe and be saved!

That's it. Believe that Jesus, the One and Only Son of God, came to Earth, born of a virgin, lived a life without sin, died, and was resurrected so that He could pay the price for our sin. He died so we don't have to!

"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."--John 16:33

That's what Jesus said! Don't fear. Don't fret. Don't worry. You'll have bad times in life. Bad things will happen. Life won't always be a bed of roses for anybody, neither for the Christian nor the non-Christian. But as a Christian you have hope because Jesus has overcome all the bad in the world. He promises us that we can make it through life, we can make it to the finish, regardless what we encounter along the way.

We can know at the start that we will finish the race if we just believe in Him and are saved!

A long race covers a lot of distance and usually a variety of terrain. I ran a half marathon in Fayetteville, Arkansas the other day, 13.1 miles. Fayetteville is the home of the University of Arkansas and a place where it's hard to find a spot level enough to sit a full glass without it falling over. It's hilly!

The uphills and downhills in a race are like the ups and downs in life, the good times and the bad times.

Uphills

Going up a big, steep hill in a long distance race is tough. It hurts your legs, your lungs, and kills your pace. I've read and heard of different approaches for tackling the hills in a race. Some say keep running with a shorter stride and pumping your arms more, trying to maintain your pace. Others say slow down your pace, but keep running. Some think it helps to not look at the top of the hill, to only look a few feet in front of you all the way up.

On those hills that are slight enough I can still maintain my pace, I just keep running. I may have to dig a little deeper and push a little harder but I can get through it. Then there are hills that are so steep, I've found I can walk them almost as fast as I can run them. But I can walk them using far less energy, so I've learned not to fight the hills. They're going to come and they're just something you have to get through. So why fight, and fight, and fight, expending all your energy for very insignificant results. For me, it's better to slow down a little, walk the hills, and conserve my energy.

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."--Philippians 4:13

In life, the hard times are like the uphills in a race. We all have them. Jesus told us they're going to come in John 16:33 above. The Christian and the non-Christian alike are going to have struggles. But if you know Jesus, you can walk up those hills, you can persevere through those tough times knowing that He will bring you through them and better things await you at the top!

It took me a long time to figure that out. Whenever I'd come on to one of those tough times, I'd try to bull my way through it, attack it, try to conquer it! I was trying to get through it my way, using my strength, to get through without leaning on Jesus, without trusting Him. I stressed and I cussed and I was generally not a very pleasant person to be around during those times. Then I learned to trust Him.

I always believed in Jesus, but it took me a long time to trust Him. It was probably about the time I started teaching, or a little before, that I began to really trust Him to get me through the tough times. One of the first things I said to Courtney the night Amanda died was, "Don't hate God! God didn't do this!" Now, I've learned to call on Jesus when I find myself facing any struggle, and the difference is amazing. I rarely ever get angry these days. I seldom make irrational decisions that end in disastrous consequences. Most importantly, I feel calm and without stress, even as I face difficult things.

"So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you"--Isaiah 41:10

It's all because I trust Jesus, because I know that I can get through anything with Him! I just slow down now, and walk up the steep hills life throws at me, saving my energy for the better times that I know are coming. I know that these hills aren't to be feared, that God will strengthen me and get me to the top!

Downhills

The better times in life are like the downhill portions of a race. In Fayetteville, there was a long, straight, steep, downhill stretch that we had to run twice. Before, I would have thought it best to try to maintain a steady pace, even down such a steep grade. But it takes work to hold yourself back on really steep slopes. Gravity is working to pull you down, so you have to use valuable strength to slow yourself down. I've learned that, for me, it's best on these steep declines to just let gravity do its thing.

Both times when I came down that hill, I was passing people right and left. It looked like I was sprinting! I was flying, but it wasn't costing me anything energywise. I approach those hills now with a plan to let gravity take control. I want to run down them at a pace that minimizes the energy I'm expending. So even though I literally flew down that 3/4 mile stretch, I reached the bottom feeling almost rested! Rejuvenated, re-energized, and ready to start working hard again!

In our race called life it makes a big difference how we tackle those long, steep, downhill stretches too. These are the good times, the times when everything seems to go right for us. And it wasn't so long ago that I changed the way I approached these times too.

Instead of letting gravity take control, I let God take control. I realize now that these times aren't placed in my life for me to exploit, to attack and make the most of. They are placed there by God so that I can have an opportunity to rest up for the next big hill. So now, when things are going well, I still let go and let God have control.

Others, and I used to be one of them, will try to exploit the downhill stretches of life. They'll throw themselves fully into the hill trying to take every advantage and get as much out of it as they can. Others will try to hold themselves back, thinking that going slower will save energy and resources for the bad times that are sure to follow. In either case though, these runners through life reach the bottom far less rested than if they had just let God get them through, without trying to exploit it or reserve it.

Running as an Example

I've found, through the ups and downs in life, that it's better to just let go and let God have control. Since I began to really trust Him to get me through each day, I've been far less stressed and a much more pleasant person to be around. And that's important because how we run our race, how we live our life, influences how others do too.

"19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."--Matthew 28:19-20

As a Christian, it's my duty to live my life as a witness for Jesus. A large part of that is proselytizing, going out and actively sharing the Gospel with others. But living in such a way that you become an example others want to follow is also a big part of bringing people to Jesus. Especially when they see you making it up those hills of life, they want to know how you do it. As a Christian, how you run your race can either encourage or discourage people to follow Jesus.

"who [God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God."--2 Corinthians 1:4

When I'm running a race, I always wear a shirt with the bible verse Philippians 4:13 printed on the back. I can't tell you how many times people comment on that verse, telling me how it encouraged them just when they needed it. It's really amazing how such a simple thing as a bible verse printed on your shirt can comfort others. Who knows how many others are encouraged by it, believers and nonbelievers, and never say a word?

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."--Romans 8:18

The most important thing others need to see in you is that there is more waiting for us than what we have or what we do here on Earth, and why that is, how it is. They need to see us struggle and they need to see the joy in our hearts so they will want to know how we get through, what keeps us going. Our task is to run our race so that others will want to have what we have so they too can make it over the steep inclines in life with the knowledge that so much better awaits them at the finish. We should run our race not for our own glory, but to glorify Him, so that His glory is revealed through us!

Finish Line

"Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever."--1 Corinthians 9:25

At the end of every half marathon or marathon, finishers get a medal. It's a shiny piece of metal hooked to a ribbon that says you went the distance. It's what many runners compete for, the medal, the prize. So many people go through life the same way, trying to amass wealth, possessions, fame, and glory here on Earth. But once our days are over here, none of those things can we take with us to our final destination.

So when you run your race, when you go through life, don't do it for the prize that you can't take with you. Do it for the prize that will last forever. When you know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, that prize is eternal life. It's a promise that Heaven awaits, a place with no pain and suffering, no misery and agony, an eternity of singing and dancing and praising God. That's the prize I run for in my races and my life.

How will you run your race?



If you don't know Jesus as your personal savior, if you're missing the faith, hope, and love written about here, if you want the peace that we as Christians have in our lives, please visit our Got Jesus? page for step-by-step instructions on how to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.


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