The Spiritual Marathon
I’ve been an off-and-on runner since high school. I ran for fun in college, but due to some health issues, gained a bunch of weight and gave it up for the next 10 years. My weight and blood pressure increased, and my overall health plummeted.
In the fall of 2013 we discovered my wife was pregnant with our first child, and I suddenly faced a decision to get healthy. So I went back to what I knew. I started running. And it was … MISERABLE.
I could barely shuffle four blocks before pulling up winded and walking it out. But I started, I persevered, and slowly I started going farther and farther. Just over a year later, I ran my first half marathon. My wife and daughter cheered me on. Since then I have run 10 more half marathons, numerous relays and other events, and I am looking into a marathon for 2020.
After all this time, all those miles, so many lessons learned and achievements reached, I want you to know this truth: RUNNING SUCKS.
There, I said it. I’m being honest. I love it, but running hurts. It isn’t fun. It is work. Teaching your body to push harder and faster is exhausting. Dealing with constant low-level soreness is no cake-walk. (Sometimes I’d rather just walk to get some cake!) I’ve heard of this elusive “runner’s high”—that feeling of exhilaration you get in which the miles are effortless, the time flies, and you feel like you can run forever. Yeah, I’ve never experienced that, and neither have any of my friends! In short, running is hard. But we are meant to do hard things.
Running takes discipline. Many days I don’t feel like lacing up my shoes and getting out there. I’m tired, I’m sore, and there’s no trophy when I reach the end. No one cares whether I get out there, cut my run short, or take the day off and eat a tub of ice cream instead. The only person who can make me put in the work is me.
Running takes perseverance. You don’t see great gains overnight. Indeed, if I want to run a faster 5K, I spend months training, running drills, going through stretches, and pushing myself just a little bit faster each time. The last time I went through all that work, I actually ran five seconds slower than the last one I had done. (It was a hot day and had been a long week!) That doesn’t mean the work wasn’t worth it. I learned a lot and had better long-term results. But if I was simply in it for the immediate fix, I was in for disappointment.
Running takes self-examination and introspection. You have to take stock honestly of where you are and where you want to be. If you want to improve, you have to know what’s holding you back. Do you sabotage your running by sleeping only four hours a night? Or by eating sweets twice a day? Your actions need to match your desires.
And for most of us, running holds no glory. I’ll (probably) never win a race. I am a wholly average runner. I’m not going to suddenly get called to the Olympics. I’m never going to have a shoe contract or apparel deal. The only fame I’ll get for running is from my kids, my wife, and my friends.
Yet there have been so many benefits. Running has improved my health. It has changed my mood and improved my outlook. I have been able to achieve a few dreams because I started running: finishing my first half, joining the military, finishing in the top three in my age group. My wife has started running, and both of our daughters enjoy “marathoning” with their daddy. So is it worth it? Absolutely.
For me, running is a lot like my spiritual life. Indeed, it is a favorite metaphor in the New Testament.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor. 9:24-27) *
Following Jesus takes discipline. It isn’t easy to practice denying ourselves and taking up our cross. Some days we don’t feel like putting God first or loving others. Putting in the time to read, pray, and meditate is a lot more difficult than binging Netflix.
Following Jesus takes perseverance. It isn’t always easy, and things don’t always go smoothly. We aren’t promised “pie in the sky, sweet by and by” or “blue skies and rainbows.” We still suffer; we experience heartache and loss, death and disease. Sometimes people malign or hate us for what we believe. Sometimes we have to speak up when it is easier to remain silent. Yes, it builds character and hope, and we believe that doesn’t disappoint (Rom. 5:3-5). But it can be difficult in the moment.
Following Jesus takes self-examination and introspection. You have to take stock honestly of where you are and where you want to be. If I want to fully follow Jesus, what might be holding me back? Sin, selfishness, anger, addiction, fear? Ultimately, I need to figure out where I need to let God work because I want my actions to match my desires.
Following Jesus holds no glory. I will (probably) never be declared “saint of the year.” My church won’t wind up on lists of the “fastest growing churches,” and I’ll never be declared one of the “top 50 preachers in the country.” The only fame I might have is that my family, my friends, my congregants, and my community might grow closer to God and be more faithful in part because of my ministry.
My spiritual life is more like a marathon than a sprint. It has good parts, difficult parts, and parts that are just plain terrible. Is following Jesus worth it? My sins have been forgiven. I am witnessing changed lives all around me. I have hope. I have purpose and a new trajectory. I believe that God loves all people and calls me to love them, too, and that has brought numerous blessings and benefits into my life. God has changed my heart, my life, and my desires.
So don’t grow weary and lose heart.
* Also check out Matt. 6:23, Phil. 2:16, and Heb. 12:1.