“You can lose unwanted pounds. You can gain more muscle. You can feel fit and trim. You can look years younger. You can do it all in the next 30 days, without breaking a sweat, guaranteed. But you must act now. This is a limited-time offer. Have your credit card ready. Operators are standing by.” Almost every day there seems to be a new health and fitness product making incredible claims.
We smile and shake our heads at such claims. As much as we might like them to be true, we know the old saying, “if something sounds too good to be true . . . ” On a deeper level, we know that good nutrition and fitness require wise decisions. We know that our decisions, day by day, will either contribute to a healthier lifestyle, or they may hinder our long-term health and wellbeing. Wise decisions are the hallmark of a well-disciplined person.
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase well-disciplined?
Admittedly, the idea of discipline may not sound very attractive or appealing. When did you last see an infomercial or scan a glossy magazine ad that focused on your self-discipline? Maybe that’s why so many succumb to the latest fitness fad or health gimmick!
We may chaff at the idea of being well-disciplined. Yet, we also know that a measure of discipline is important and even necessary. Webster defines discipline as “training that produces orderliness, obedience, self-control”.1 Tell me, how has your training gone lately? Are you running well or running ragged?
When it comes to health and fitness, I suspect that you and I will always benefit from encouraging words and constructive coaching. We can always gain inspiration from those who have trained and competed successfully in the past. But imagine, if you will, the greatest runner of all time extending a personal invitation to you to train under his wise coaching. Imagine this great runner promising to guide you on path that leads to greater satisfaction and accomplishment than you could ever achieve on your own. Would you begin training with him?
Suddenly that matter of discipline sounds pretty worthwhile. The truth is that Jesus – the Greatest Runner – makes this very offer.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (
In his engaging and informative book, Bill Rodgers’ Lifetime Running Plan, the four-time New York and Boston marathon champion confesses that the advice he seeks to offer beginning runners is the same advice that he offers veteran runners who have been at it for over thirty years like himself. According to Bill Rodgers, whatever your experience or ability level, you must approach your running with a commitment to “consistency, a sane approach, moderation, and making your running an enjoyable rather than dreaded part of your life.2
Few of us will ever log road miles with a world-class runner like Bill Rodgers, or benefit from some of the legendary coaches of the sport. But each of us will benefit from the lessons and legacies of spiritual leaders who have gone before us. Each of us can seek out spiritual mentors and fellow believers who will encourage us in our faith journeys day by day. Most importantly, as Christians, each of us is given the awesome privilege of running with the Greatest Runner.
Do you realize that many of the preparatory steps needed to begin or to resume your lifetime physical fitness plan are required to develop or strengthen your lifetime spiritual fitness plan? In terms of our race of faith, we have godly men and women who have gone before us, referred to as a “great cloud of witnesses” (
This cloud of witnesses is not like a cheering crowd of spectators in the stands, nor are they comparable to coaches who critique and suggest ways to improve our running. Rather, they are witnesses in the sense that they themselves have run the race and kept the faith. Their lives and legacies are still bearing witness and testimony to us today about how to run well, trusting the promises of God which are fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Great Runner. It is not a matter of them looking at us; rather, we are to look at them in order to gain insight and inspiration. These forerunners testify to the power and presence of the Lord who enabled them to run the race of faith. Now each of them are receiving their reward and rejoicing at having run well.
What can we learn from these faithful forerunners? To reflect on their lives tells us a great deal about their priorities, patience and perseverance. We are challenged by their spiritual and physical endurance. But in terms of our own preparation to run well, we need to pay close attention to the counsel offered in
First, we are urged to “throw off everything that hinders” us. That is, we are to set aside and be done with those hindrances that have kept us from running or from running well in the past. Can you think of things that have hindered you from physical exercise? Is it too hard to get going? Do you have too little time? Are you often too tired? Do you see yourself as too un-athletic?
I’ve felt hindered by all of these excuses. Even though I’ve logged over 5,000 miles of running during the past five years, I still find the first quarter mile of every run to be the hardest. Sometimes I wonder if life wouldn’t be easier by not getting up at 5:15 a.m. in order to run. But like many other early morning runners, I’ve discovered that that hour or two on the roads every other morning is essential for prayer, planning and gaining perspective.
The Greek word for hindrance means “weight, burden or impediment”.3 Naturally, the more body weight we carry the greater likelihood that our running will be hindered. With excess bulk we also place ourselves at greater risk for certain injuries. Similarly, our spiritual running is impeded when we lose sight of the Great Runner’s presence and His priorities for our running. We may engage in many good things, but if we run apart from Him we can miss the best things. We can quickly be diverted and drawn away from the goals He desires for us!
Second, we are told to throw off “the sin which so easily entangles.” Experienced runners are careful about wearing lightweight and comfortably fitting running gear. Today’s microfiber singlets, shirts, jackets, shorts, pants and socks wick-away moisture and perspiration, unlike yesterday’s sweat-laden cotton or nylon gear which commonly clung to the long distance runner. In the journey of faith, as spiritual athletes, we are cautioned not to let sin ensnare and entangle our running. Far more devastating than sweat, sin causes us to falter and fall, distracting us and disqualifying us from running.
Third, we are called to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” The Greek word translated race is agon, from which we get our English word “agony”.4 It suggests an athletic endeavor that demands great mental determination and physical discipline. How can we be better prepared to run the race of faith? We are to develop our perseverance, which refers to our patient and steadfast endurance.5
The story is told of a high school freshman runner who was elevated to the varsity track team when two all-conference senior runners had to be scratched from an important late season meet due to injuries. The coach expected nothing from the untested freshman, asking only that he give it his best in the 3200 meter run. The gun sounded and the field was off in a flash. The lead runners maintained a strong and steady pace through the first 400, 800, 1200 meters.
By the halfway point at 1600 meters, the field had spread considerably. But none was so far behind as that lone freshman. The leaders lapped him while he had over 1200 meters to go, then all the other runners lapped him and finished before he reached his final 400 meters. Still the freshman runner, clearly exhausted but ever determined, struggled on. When he finally trudged across the finish line, he fell to his knees dehydrated and gasping for breath. One track official came to give aid and asked, “Son, when you fell so far behind, why didn’t you just quit?”
The boy replied, “Mister, our two best runners got hurt. Coach asked me to run. I ran. Coach asked me to give it my best. I gave it my best. Coach didn’t ask me to quit.” That’s running the race with perseverance!
Before focusing on the “how-to” matters of running, Bill Rodgers encourages beginning runners to consider the “why” and “what” issues. Why do you want to run? What do you hope to accomplish? These are goal-oriented questions. As Rodgers notes, “There are infinite reasons to start running, but you’ll increase your chances of sticking with it if, at the outset, you can determine what your short-term and long-term goals are.”6
At this point you may be thinking, “Running goals? That’s easy for Bill Rodgers to talk about. As for me, right now, I doubt that I could run around the block without getting winded.” That may be true. But did you know that before Bill Rodgers resumed his running career in the early 1970’s, after not running for a few years following college, Rodgers also struggled? He had become a smoker and his initial goals during those first weeks of winded, short distance effort involved walking, jogging, walking, jogging and smoking fewer cigarettes. However with good preparation and proper goals, with exceptional discipline and expert coaching, in April 1975 Bill Rodgers won the prestigious Boston Marathon.
Few of us will train to attain the stringent qualifying standards required of those who run this world-renown 26.2 mile race. However, each of us is given the privilege and opportunity to run the race of faith every day. Each of us will be more apt to progress in our Christian faith and service if we are striving to reach particular goals, than if we are running aimlessly. Paul referred to his own running by “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (
Veteran coach Jack Daniels works with athletes ranging from beginning fitness runners to Olympic contenders. He may recommend a variety of training techniques depending on the runner. However, Coach Daniels trains all of his athletes to concentrate. Why concentrate? Most runners will admit that they let their minds drift during long training runs. Coach Daniels argues that without proper concentration a runner will not achieve peak performance. He notes, “You can’t run your best unless you focus on what you’re doing.”7
The same holds true in the Christian life. To run the race of faith and to run it well requires that we keep the main thing the main thing. We must keep our focus on the Lord. In the first part of verse 2 we read, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith . . . ” When did you last watch an artisan at work? Just as a painter will carefully concentrates on the object to be depicted in her painting, and just as a sculptor focuses on the model he is sculpting, we must fix our eyes on the model and mentor of our faith.8
To become peak performers in the race of faith, we must fix our eyes on the Greatest Runner. He is the “author” of our faith because he is the originator, founder and pioneer.9 He is also the “perfecter” of our faith, for he is the victorious first-place finisher. Not only does Jesus call us to follow in his steps, he also runs with us by his indwelling Spirit, and he will greet us at the finish line when we victoriously complete our race of faith.
Of course, some may wonder why Jesus would run his race if he knew it would result in a death march up Mount Calvary. Perhaps the second part of verse 2 tells us why. It refers to the Greatest Runner, ” . . . who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Do we realize that what motivated Jesus was the joy set before him – a future joy he would share with countless fellow runners to come?
Joy awaited him in eternity in heaven. But his love for each of us led him to trudge up that hard-packed, rocky trail on Mount Calvary one Friday noon. Jesus was willing to endure excruciating and unspeakable suffering, even death on the cross. Further, he scorned its shame, meaning that the humiliation and horror of the cross would not deter his decision. In his view, his pain was inconsequential compared to our gain. The Greatest Runner conquered Mount Calvary. He fulfilled his ultimate goal. Today he beckons us to train hard, to run well and to finish strong. He proclaims, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (
For most of us, when we begin a running program, things go well at first. But inevitably other things happen – things that can derail our desire or discipline. What are these “things”? Boredom. Plateaus. Soreness. Injuries. These and more will test our patience and perseverance to stay the course. Here is where an encouraging mentor and fellow runner can help keep us on track.
As Christians, we must also seek a balance in both our physical – and spiritual – running. It’s fine to enjoy the quiet solitude of running solo. But it’s equally important to be encouraged and, at times, challenged by running with one or more friends. When we lack the latter, we can easily be discouraged by pain or problems that come our way and we simply quit. I know. Unlike that persevering freshman runner, when I ran a season of high school cross country I felt dissatisfied and discouraged by my lack of progress. Without goals or much guidance, I quit running altogether for over a quarter-century.
Just as beginning runners need fellow runners who will encourage them, we need mentors and models as we run the race of faith. Perhaps that is why the writer of Hebrews counsels us, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (
Why are we called to consider the Greatest Runner? The second part of verse 3 explains, ” . . . so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” The promise is that we will not become depleted and discouraged if we realize and remember what the Lord has already accomplished on our behalf. Louis Evans observes that the Greek term for lose heart can also mean to unstring a bow, to quit or to let down.11
In the 1981 Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire, British sprinter Harold Abrams confided that he ran on sheer emotion and raw nerves with a burst of energy. This approach may work well for world-class sprinters, but it does not work well for running the race of faith. Those who try to power their Christian life on emotional intensity may be able to maintain a spiritual high for a while, but soon they burnout. Such runners in the journey of discipleship are illprepared for the long, arduous, often lonely and difficult stretches of road ahead.
Most of us know that the Christian life is more like an ultra-marathon run over winding, obstacle-laden mountainous trails, than like a 100-meter sprint run on a smooth, straight synthetic track. Jesus said, “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” (
Harold Abrams was the 100 meter gold-medalist at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. However, months before the Olympic trials he agonized over his defeat at the hands of Eric Liddell. In his despair Abrams nearly quit running. But then he acquired a personal trainer who helped him regain his confidence and coached him to Olympic gold.
In running the race of faith, troubles, trials and testing are bound to come. Sometimes we can lose our direction, desire and discipline. That is why the writer of Hebrews challenges us to consider the Greatest Runner. We have been personally invited to train with him. He wants us to run the race of faith with his presence and power. He helps us to run well and finish strong. With an opportunity like that, what are we waiting for?
Gary Bruland is Pastor of First Baptist Church in Howell, MI.
1 Webster’s Dictionary & Thesaurus, (New York: Book Essentials, 1988), p. 123.
2 Rodgers, Bill and Douglas, Scott. Bill Rodgers’ Lifetime Running Plan, (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), p. 3.
3 Kubo, Sakae, A Reader’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), p. 232.
4 Kubo, p. 232.
5 Kubo, p. 232.
6 Rodgers and Douglas, p. 4.
7 Higdon, Hal and Daniels, Jack. “Training Secrets of the World’s Best Coach”. Runner’s World (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, December 1996), p. 44.
8 Bruce, F.F. The Epistle to the Hebrews, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 321, note 190.
9 Kubo, p. 232.
10 Evans, Louis H. The Communicator’s Commentary – Hebrews, (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1985), p. 223.
11 Evans, p. 223.