I recently have tried to start consistently running again. It is something I have always enjoyed, but in the past few years fell by the wayside as other things took more of my time. When I went out and ran for a few days in a row for the first time in a while, I was surprised by two things. One was how slow I was, and the second was how short the distance was I could run before I became exhausted.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but when I looked down at my watch and saw that I had only been a couple miles and how long it had taken me to run those couple miles, I became discouraged. What had happened to me? Why did I feel like I’d run a marathon, when in reality only a couple miles had passed?
Since I began, I have improved. My exhaustion level has stretched a little further, and I am a LITTLE faster. If I continue to stick to it, I know I will improve some more, but I also know that the gains will be slow and incremental. I am not going to go from struggling, slow guy to Olympian in a week, month, or even year.
As I was on one of my depressingly slow runs recently, I was thinking on the similarities between running and the Christian life. The Bible actually uses running and race imagery quite often when speaking to the Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul writes about running to win the prize, and discipling and training his body for the life set before him by God. He talks about finishing the race of the Christian life well in Acts 20, and how he did that in 2 Timothy.
I think we can become quickly discouraged as Christians, much how I was when I looked at my watch and saw my slow time and short distance covered. We are a people of instant gratification – we want to see big results immediately. This is why so many of us start and stop diets; why we join a new gym and start working out, only to stop shortly thereafter. When we don’t see immediate results we get discouraged.
The same holds true in our Christian journey. We start a Bible reading plan, but never make it past March. We start reading a new Christian book, but never finish it. We grit our teeth to fight a persisting sin in our lives, only to feel like we continually turn back to it in the weeks and months that follow. The problem is our hearts – we want immediate and big results, or we tend to become discouraged and give up.
We need to remember that the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint.
We are called to take the long view when looking at our sanctification. Emily Schankweiler writes, “The Christian life is not a sprint – it is a marathon. Training for one is far different from the rigors of preparing for the other.” It’s true. In high school, I could never beat the sprinters on our track team in a one lap race. They trained to run short distances fast. But I could beat all of them in a four lap (mile) race. I had trained to run longer distances. We are not sprinters as Christians; we are called to be marathoners.
Eugene Peterson has described the Christian life as “a long obedience in the same direction.” Each day, as a follower of Jesus, our goal is to continue to take small, incremental steps toward Jesus, and away from the sin that still so easily entangles us. Most days will be small steps, but they are steps nonetheless.
A week, month, or even year from today you may feel like you have made just tiny strides in your walk with Christ. But strides have been made! Say you started today, and each day, just took one step from your house. Just one. At the end of a month you probably wouldn’t even be to the end of your driveway. At the end of a year, you would only be 365 steps away. But if you did that for 50 years, one step each day, you would be over 18,000 steps away from your house (or about 10 miles). At the end of your journey you could look back and see you had covered over 10 miles, if each day you only took one step.
The Christian life is built this way by God, I believe, for two reasons:
1. Humility: Our growth in holiness is something that is Spirit-driven and we are reliant upon God for. If each day we made huge strides, we would be prone to forget God and neglect to rely upon Him for our growth. However, when the pattern is slow and steady growth, we remember that even our best days are fully a measure of God’s grace in our lives and how much we need Him each day to follow Jesus just that day. In this humble view of growth, God gets the glory for our killing of sin and walking with Him that day.
2. Hope: The Christian life produces hope; hope that over the course of our lives, we WILL grow. We will, by God’s grace, be closer to Jesus at the end of our journey than we were at the beginning. That is a promise from Scripture (see Philippians 1:6). But we also know that we will never have a day where we don’t struggle with sin. Even in our best seasons of life, we will recognize how sinful we are. We will recognize sin in our lives as we grow with Christ that we didn’t even know was sin years before. So, the Christian life produces hope for the future as well; hope that we can look forward to a day where we will stand before Jesus and he will make us new. He will glorify us, and the desire for sin and rebellion are taken away. We will be in a perfect place with a perfect Savior who will make us perfect.
Take delight today in the small steps of obedience you take toward Christ. Enjoy the humility the Christian life produces in you as you recognize the daily need we have for Christ. Live in light of the hope that you have that one day you will be made perfect and new, and that your struggle with sin will be done. Be a marathoner, not a sprinter!