Run Your Own Race
This last week I ran in the Houston Half Marathon. I was surrounded by 27,000 people with a similar goal in mind: run 13.1 (or 26.2) miles as quickly as possible. For many of these runners it was the culmination of months of training and hard work. Many had watched their calories, counted their miles, and put themselves through countless workouts, speed drills, long runs, and cross-training sessions. Today was the celebration their achievement. As I was running, however, I couldn’t help comparing my own efforts to those around me. I wasn’t as fit as some of those individuals. My friends were far out ahead of me in the race; some of them were even braving the full marathon. That woman just sprinted past me looking calm and collected. I ran four or five miles with the guy in the yellow shorts up there; why is he speeding up and I can’t? The guy just 20 or so seconds behind me was in his 70s, for crying out loud! Why can’t I seem to go any faster?
I also began comparing myself to my past efforts. Well, you know, two years ago you ran more than a minute faster per mile! You obviously haven’t been training enough. You won’t ever get back to that speed again. You know, if you just trained a little harder you might have been able to do a little better. Or, You know, you’ve let yourself go since high school. You used to run a constant six minute mile … now you struggle to do consistent nines. What’s wrong with you?
As I was approaching the finish line of my half marathon I got passed … by the man who was winning the full marathon. Which started a whole comparison game again. That guy literally just ran more than twice as fast as I did!
There is a statement passed around in running circles: “Run your own race.” It is similar to a hiking mantra I’ve heard constantly: “Hike your own hike.” The goal is to simply focus on your own efforts and achievements and not worry about what others around you are doing. Do what you can do, push yourself, and that is enough. If we are honest with ourselves, however, that is easier say than to do. We are taught from an early age to compare ourselves to others. This takes place in the classroom, on the sports field, walking through the mall, and in countless other areas of life. “Run your own race” sounds nice as a bumper sticker, but life tells us, “Grade yourself against others … and always try to come out on top.” The comparison game might inspire us to greater heights, but it often leads to envy, coveting, pride, and hatred along the way.
I’ve noticed this same mentality often plays out in ministry. A few years ago I was looking to move into a new form of ministry, and I was interviewing in a number of different congregations. Time and time again I came in second or was turned down. Sometimes it was for being too young; other times it was not having enough education or experience; one church turned me down for having too much education. My favorite response was, “We love how you teach and preach; we love the way you connect with people. If you were ten years older we’d hire you right now.” Meanwhile, I had friends and classmates moving into prominent ministry roles in large congregations, and I was having trouble simply landing with a church. I was filled with frustration, hurt, and anger.
At various points in my ministry I have had to deal with the problem of envy. Some of my friends have been “promoted” to “bigger and better” churches, often seen as the hallmark of success. Others are asked to headline at conferences. Some have books published or have obtained professorships at great universities. Although I am content with my life and ministry, I also carry on with the comparisons: What do they have that I don’t? Why am I not succeeding like they are? Why can’t I simply be like ______?
Now, we know we aren’t supposed to envy. I mean, Paul tells us that true love isn’t envious (1 Cor 13:4) and that Christians are called “to do nothing out of selfish envy or vain conceit” but, instead, to “value others above yourselves” (Phil 2:3). The Teacher reminds us that envying others is “meaningless” or “vanity” (Ecc 4:4). Envy is the enemy of peace and rots away our bones (Prov 14:30). I think we get it in our heads, but it is difficult to translate to our hearts. It is ingrained in us that we always need to be looking ahead, trying to improve, moving up in the world, or going on to bigger and better things, or you simply are squandering your life and talent. And, frankly, it makes us feel important when we can compare ourselves to others and see ourselves “winning.”
Here’s what is striking to me. The Christian life IS about comparison … but not to one another. Instead, we are called to compare ourselves to Christ. Jesus told his disciples, “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters” (Matt 10:24-25). The only comparison to make is to our teacher and master. Are we being true to our calling? Are we ministering faithfully in Jesus’s name to God’s glory? Are we proclaiming good news through our words and our actions? Are we sharing the love of Christ where we are? If so, then let’s give glory to God that we are able to do that where we are, and not worry about the places where we aren’t.
“Run your own race.” I am still working on that, both in my running life and in my ministry. While running this “race” I want to keep my eyes on Jesus, and only look to my fellow runners to encourage and inspire, not to compare and criticize (whether them or myself).
May God bless us all as we minister for his glory, to make his name known (and not ours).