The Marathon of Faith: Exhausted Yet Pursuing
You are in a marathon — the long race of the Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, the Apostle Paul pictures you as an athlete running, not for the perishable wreath of the Hellenic games, but for an imperishable prize of unfading glory. And as a Christian, your race is not a dash to be finished in 9.58 seconds. It is a marathon, a drawn-out adventure of pain and glory that may leave you, like Gideon and his men, “exhausted yet pursuing” (Judges 8:4). In this marathon of faith, you may experience the endorphins of a runner’s high at the halfway point, but you may also find yourself weeping, rejoicing, and weeping again in pain as you make your way toward the finish.
My own experience in ministry throughout the years has been similarly two-sided. While serving as a missionary in northeast Africa years ago, I had the joy of preaching the good news in the local language of Tigrinya and of helping to start a congregation which included some Muslim converts. At times, our mission work even had standing-room-only evening worship services. But the mission faced all kinds of withering discouragements from within and from without, including having all its missionaries forced out of the country on several occasions. Today, no foreign missionaries are left in that country, its local churches are under persecution, and its people live in disastrous conditions.
Even as a pastor here in the U.S., it has been heart-rending for me to see persons harden themselves in sin, refuse to respond to the gospel, and ultimately undergo tragically necessary church discipline. Yet it has also been glorious to hear saints of all ages profess their faith and cling to the Lord with joy and confidence even amidst great difficulties.
THE LONG HAUL
We live in a profoundly quick-solution culture where immediate gratification and instant pain relief are taken for granted. But the Christian life does not always respond to quick fixes, and obstacles resist us at every point. This is why we are spurred on to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely,” and to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
At times we are “running well,” and at other times we are “hindered” (Galatians 5:7). Running experts will tell you it is not a question of whether you will be slowed by injury, but of when and for how long. And as a long-distance runner, I have had hip troubles, hamstring troubles, knee troubles, foot troubles, and repeated calf troubles to prove it. My heating pad is a regular fixture in my office. Ugh.
In the marathon of faith, long distance running is not an option but a requirement, despite all the obstacles, weaknesses, and troubles en route. Our progress will only come through strain and even agony, which is why the Apostle Paul sets his experience as our paradigm to follow — “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
HITTING THE WALL
“Hitting the wall” is what happens after you run about 20 consecutive miles. It is a graphic way of describing the onset of glycogen depletion — the agonizing moment during a marathon when burning 100 calories per mile completely depletes the 2,000 calories of stored energy in your muscles and liver. It is when your legs give out and despair sets in.
When I ran my first marathon in 2013, I had four miles to go and felt great. But a mere one mile later, a sudden wave of despair came over me. I had three miles to go but there was no gas in my tank. The following year I ran the same race, but this time finished some 18 minutes faster. Why? Two reasons. The first is I stuffed myself full with as much water and glucose as possible during the first half in preparation for the rest of the race. The second is, in God’s kind providence, I found myself running alongside a veteran marathoner for the last six miles of the race. She buoyantly engaged me in conversation (discussing even the gospel!) to such an extent that I was just able to hold on for dear life as we maintained a scarily fast pace through the finish.
My experience as a Christian has been similar. I must have the nourishment of the gospel or I will collapse. I must drink of the cup of my Lord or I will perish. I must attach myself to my brothers and sisters in Christ or I will not finish well.
THE FINISHER OF OUR FAITH
As we look to run the long marathon of faith with endurance, let us praise God that Jesus is not just the “founder” of our faith, but its “perfecter” or “finisher” (Hebrews 12:2). Thank God that our success does not ultimately depend on the intensity of our own efforts! Thank God that our success ultimately depends only on the intense efforts of Him, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” and “endured from sinners such hostility against himself,” so that we who run with Him ahead of us “may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:2-3). There is no opponent we face — whether personal, financial, spiritual, or biological — that can keep us from entering into the joy which Christ earned for us.
Of this truth Paul was acutely aware. As a Christian and a minister, he was able to make indefatigable efforts because he had such a sense of the grace that undergirded him. Confidently, the apostle could say, “I press on… because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:12, emphasis mine). And because we also have been made Christ’s own, it is a sure thing that we will finish our race, pass into the celestial Olympic stadium for our final victory lap, and have the crowds of Heaven cheer us on — because of Christ’s blood, His sweat, and His tears.
Whatever our specific callings in life, each of us can sing the old hymn by Philip Doddridge:
Awake, my soul, stretch ev’ry nerve,
and press with vigor on;
A heav’nly race demands your zeal,
and an immortal crown.
A cloud of witnesses around
hold you in full survey;
Forget the steps already trod,
and onward urge your way.
‘Tis God’s all animating voice
that calls you from on high;
‘Tis His own hand presents the prize
to your aspiring eye.
That prize, with peerless glories bright,
which shall new luster boast,
When victors’ wreaths and monarchs’ gems
shall blend in common dust.
Blest Savior, introduced by You,
have I my race begun;
And, crowned with vict’ry at Your feet,
I’ll lay my honors down.
Prof. Charles K. Telfer is Assistant Professor of Biblical Languages at WSC. He is an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and has served as a missionary in Northeast Africa and as a pastor in North Carolina and the Chicago area prior to joining the WSC faculty in 2011. Prof. Telfer and his wife, Rhonda, have four children.
You can view this article in the Fall 2014 issue of Update magazine here: http://wscal.edu/news-and-events/update-magazine/
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