Our Leg of the Race

Endurance, Focus, Hebrews

I don’t think running is all that strenuous of an activity. It is continuing to run that is challenging! To run “every once in a while” for a short period (like 5 steps) isn’t hard. To run a marathon takes diligent training (or a loose screw in your head!).

Walking with Jesus is a similar experience. It is easy to be a follower of Christ once a week or even a few times a month (even though one could persuasively argue that such a person is more of a pretender than an actual follower) but it is much more difficult to follow the Lord on a daily basis.

Hebrews 12 starts with an exhortation to run with endurance the race God has set before us. This is the application to his discussion of all the examples of faith that were listed in Hebrews 11 (we know this from the “therefore”).

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up.

Running by yourself can be a lonely experience. You find yourself thinking about how tired you are and it is hard to keep going. However, (I am told), during a race, you are energized by the crowd cheering around you. You focus more on responding to the cheers than your own personal fatigue.

It is always easier to run (or diet, or exercise, hike, bike ride, witness, serve, etc) with someone else. When you do things with another you can spur each other on. You hold each other accountable.

In a sense this is what the saints of old do for us. As we read their stories we are encouraged. We see that these are people like us who dared to truly trust God. Their experience fuels our experience. There is a sense in which they are in Heaven cheering us on in this great endeavor.

What we see from the cheering saints of Hebrews 11 are a couple of things.

We Need to Get Rid of Things that Weigh Us Down

If you watch someone who runs or swims competitively you will notice that they have done everything they can to minimize drag as they run or swim. Some of them actually train with backpacks or swim with drag suits so they build up endurance and then take all of that stuff off for the actual race. Their clothes fit tight. Some shave their heads (or wear a swimming cap). They work to eliminate all unnecessary aspects of their stroke or step. They understand that the people who excel take time to eliminate what is holding them back.

This is what we are being told to do in this passage. We are to strip off every weight or distraction that slows us down. That is especially true of sin. When we ignore God’s commands, when we wander from His pathway we are going to have much more difficulty running the race of life. Though it is true that we are not saved by good works or kept from eternal life because of sin . . . our fruitfulness in life; our enjoyment of life; and our blessing in life is impacted by how well we stick to the path the Lord has set out for us.

Let’s say you set your GPS to a particular destination. It tells you that the fastest route is to take a highway route that seems indirect. You decide that the straighter path through the country is certainly better than traveling the highway. And generally what happens? You find that the 2 hour trip takes 3 hours. The GPS had data from many sources that it could evaluate to give you the fastest route. Instead you believed what you could see. Every time we ignore God’s direction we do the same thing; we are weighing ourselves down and making the race that much more difficult.

When we refuse to trust what God tells us we fall back into that miserable state of trying to save ourselves. We are acting like we know better than the Lord. When we sin we show that we are in some way dissatisfied with Christ.

But it is not just the sin we need to throw aside. We are to strip off every weight that slows us down. Even something that is good (or at least not bad) can become a problem if it keeps us from doing what is better. Let me give you some examples,

  • We can be so concerned about “enjoying life” that we neglect the spiritual disciplines that take some work.
  • We can be so wrapped up in pursuing material things that we have nothing left to invest in God’s work.
  • We can be so wrapped up in the extracurricular activities of our children that we neglect worship and personal times of prayer.
  • We can so love watching TV, movies, or playing video games that we have no time to devote to growth in our spiritual understanding and no time to give of ourselves to others.
  • We can be so focused on physical exercise that we have nothing left to devote to spiritual growth and training.
  • We can be so concerned about doing worship “correctly” that our heart never engages with God.

I hope you see the point. Good things can crowd out better things. If you find yourself saying you wish “you had time to devote yourself more fully to the Lord” there is a good chance that you are caught up with some things that are weighing you down. The command is to do an inventory of our lives to see if we are pursuing the best things and if not, to get rid of the things holding us back.

We are to Run with Endurance

There is a second exhortation in this text,

And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.

 This is certainly easier said than done. Endurance must be built up over time. No one suddenly says, “I think I will run a marathon today” (and actually does it). Unless you have been training you will not have the endurance to survive a marathon. We must train our bodies.

In the same way we must train ourselves to endure in our faith. Paul told Timothy

“Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.”

We need to train ourselves not to panic when trials and difficulties come into our lives. Jesus warned us that we would have tribulation (John 16:33). Paul told us that “all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted”. (2 Timothy 3:12 NIV). In the early church the disciples rejoiced to be able to suffer for/with Christ.

Some teachers teach that if we are doing everything right then God will make our life easy. We will be healthy, wealthy, and happy. And the flip side of this teaching is: if things are not going well in your life then there is something wrong in what you are doing and God is “mad” at you. (This is the very same argument used by Job’s friends and God told them they would have been giving better counsel if they kept their mouth shut!)

The Bible tells us that the best way to develop endurance is not to look at our experience . . . it is to keep our eyes on Jesus. Philip Yancey used the illustration of a magnifying glass. He says his giant magnifying glass keeps what is in the center crisp and clear but around the edges focus becomes progressively distorted. He says,

In an exact parallel, Jesus has become the focal point of my faith, and increasingly I am learning to keep the magnifying glass of my faith focused on Jesus. In my spiritual journey as well as in my writing career I have long lingered in the margins, pondering unanswerable questions about the problem of pain, the conundrums of prayer, providence versus free will, and other such matters. When I do so, everything becomes fuzzy. Looking at Jesus, however, restores clarity. (Yancey, Grace Notes – January 2)

When we look at Jesus we see something important. He endured the cross, He endured shame, He endured the antagonists and doubters, and He even endured the dullness of His own disciples. How was He able to do that? The Bible tells us He kept focused on the joy that was awaiting Him.

Jesus knew where He was headed. He knew that the trials He faced were going to make it possible for Him to redeem His creation. He knew that this life was just a temporary journey. His eternal resting place was with the Lord. As long as He kept focused on where He was headed He was able to endure and overcome any obstacle.

Imagine if you knew your child was in some kind of danger. Nothing would stop you from getting to your child as quickly as possible. Parents have rushed into burning buildings, they have battled tornados, floods and fought powerful enemies all to save the life of their child. That is the kind of focus Jesus had. He wanted more than anything to be faithful to the Father. NOTHING was going to stand in the way of that faithfulness.

You and I would benefit greatly from that same kind of focus. We must continually remind ourselves that the treasures of this world are going to rot and rust. The toys and awards will be boxed up and sold or thrown away. The annoyances of life will eventually pass. The only thing that will endure at the end of life is what we have invested in the Kingdom of God. That reality can help us endure whatever life throws at us. We must keep our focus on the goal.

Anyone who has run track knows that you aren’t supposed to look around at other runners . . . you are instead to focus on pressing toward the finish line. This is true with other sports as well. You have to remember where you are headed. Most coaches will tell you to focus on the championship. If we focus on personal achievements or let down our guard after a stirring victory (or even a devastating defeat) we lose sight of the goal. Once we “break eye contact” with the goal we will be easily distracted.

We must continually remind ourselves that the Lord is faithful. He has promised to see us through every situation. He promises that He will NEVER leave us or forsake us. He has told us that NO ONE can snatch us from His Hand. He told us that He has done EVERYTHING necessary for our salvation. As long as we hold on to His promises we can run with endurance.

I have shared this many times but just in case you missed it . . . when I took Rick to college I was a wreck on the way home. Consequently I worked to prepare myself for Rachel’s departure which I knew would be even more difficult.

The entire drive up to St. Ambrose every time I would feel anxiety growing, every time I would begin to feel the terror of leaving my daughter in this foreign place, I asked this question to myself: “Do you trust Him, or don’t you?” You see, in that time of trial I tried to fix my eyes on Jesus. I reminded myself that He was able to care for my children much better than I ever could. He loves them more than I do.

I have asked that question of myself thousands of times since then. Whenever life became difficult and I felt I was overmatched by the circumstances of life I have reminded myself that He is trustworthy. Even though I may not know where the road is headed . . . He does. I keep my eyes on Jesus by simply asking, “Do you trust Him or don’t you?”

There is one more statement in verse 4:

After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against

It sounds a little like the person who counsels you in a crisis by saying, “Well, it could be worse!” I know I don’t find that particularly helpful . . . even when it is true. But this is not a trite phrase.

The point is that Jesus faced and overcame trials that were far greater than anything we have been called to endure yet. He knows the way through the struggle better than we do. His example should inspire us. When we remember what He endured for us that should spur us on to do whatever we need to do to follow Him.

The challenge is to reach for what is the best rather than settling for the trinkets of the world. Max Lucado writes,

God rewards those who seek him. Not those who seek doctrine or religion or systems or creeds. Many settle for these lesser passions, but the reward goes to those who settle for nothing less than Jesus himself. And what is the reward? What awaits those who seek Jesus? Nothing short of the heart of Jesus. “And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him” (2 Cor. 3:18 tlb).

Can you think of a greater gift than to be like Jesus? Christ felt no guilt; God wants to banish yours. Jesus had no bad habits; God wants to remove yours. Jesus had no fear of death; God wants you to be fearless. Jesus had kindness for the diseased and mercy for the rebellious and courage for the challenges. God wants you to have the same.[1]

If we truly want what is best in our lives then we will fix our eyes and our hearts on the Lord because HE is what we are looking for. He gives us every good and perfect gift and the greatest of these gifts is His own love and presence.

Conclusions

We spent a good deal of time in Hebrews 11 looking at the examples of faith. We didn’t do this so you could answer Bible trivia questions. We looked at these accounts as a way of encouraging us to trust God. Common men and women put their trust in the Lord and He did great things through them.

These people did not give up when life got hard. We shouldn’t give up on life and we shouldn’t give up on the Lord. God is working even when it feels like He is far away. He is never confused or surprised by the things that happen in life. He is constantly working in circumstances to bring us to Him.

It is now our turn to run the race of faith. Each generation must choose whether or not they will run the race and whether they will run it well. If we choose to run we need to do be focused. There will be hills and valleys, there will be good times and bad times. There will be people cheering and people criticizing and attacking. All these things are part of the race.

The thing we need to remember is what is at the finish line. As you travel for a family vacation what keeps you going is remembering the destination: (the mountains, Disneyworld, a cruise ship etc.) What we need to remember is that we are headed toward a forever with our Lord. At the finish line of this race Jesus will be waiting for us. His arms will be open and as He wraps them around us we will hear Him say, “Welcome Home”. And standing around us will be friends, family, and the saints of old who have been cheering us on throughout the struggles of our lives. At that moment every struggle will seem as nothing compared to the joy that is now present.

If we remember that picture, if we keep that goal in our head, if we are diligent as we run this all important race and remind ourselves that we are running for the One who has loved us from before the creation of the world, We will be able to throw off those things that weigh us down. We will eventually find that singleness of purpose that helps us to run freely and run well. And when the race is over we will hear the cheers and we will leave a path for those who follow us . . . our friends and our family. And then it will be our turn to cheer for them.

[1] Max Lucado, Just like Jesus (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998), 172–173.

Scripture:

Hebrews 12:1-4