If you had told me five years ago that I would not only run 4-5 days a week, but that I would also enjoy it, I would have laughed at you. Given the choice of things to do, I would have watched a movie, read a book, or enjoyed a conversation with a friend. I would not have picked running. Up until the age of 24, I had never even run a mile in my life. When we had to run a mile in P.E. in high school I walked it, instead choosing to take the grade deduction. So shortly after turning 24 my friends decided to help me run a mile, even dubbing it the “Courtney Marathon.” It’s pathetic now that I think about it. I mean, I practiced for it, slowly building my way up to a mile. But I really hated running. I hated all physical exertion. If my heart rate got too high or I felt any sort of pain, I would simply quit.
And now that I’m a runner, I see that my response to running all these years (and all physical activity) is actually a parallel to how I respond to difficulty in the Christian life. I can think of a number of occasions when I’ve been tempted to give up in ministry, in work, in life, in relationships, in parenting, and even in marriage when it gets hard. I don’t like pain. I don’t like hard work. But the Christian life is fraught with pain. In fact, it is only through pain and suffering that we get to the glory that we all long for. Too often, I want a shortcut to the good life, when God reminds me in his word that I can’t have the prize without first running the painful race set before me (1 Cor. 9:24; Phil. 3:14).
There is a reason why the Christian life is compared to a race (Heb. 12:1-3). Running requires endurance that takes time to build up. When I first started running, I did a walk/run combo. I considered a mile to be a long distance. Eventually I built up to more mileage, but early on it was slow going. The Christian life is the same way. My natural bent is to give up when things get hard. All throughout my life I have stories of sports I tried only for a few months before quitting. I joined dance and gymnastics and quit shortly after. I even took guitar lessons, but quit when my fingers hurt too badly. The general pattern of my life has been to quit before it gets too unbearable, too hard. But as I’ve grown to love running, I’ve seen that I will never progress beyond my current pace and distance if I don’t put in the work to build endurance. The same is true for the Christian life. I won’t grow in endurance in suffering if I never endure through any suffering.
Running well, like the Christian life, takes work. Perhaps we could slowly jog our way through a race, never working ourselves up too much. But we will never get faster or stronger if we don’t work hard. Lately, I’ve become increasingly discontent with my pace, especially since Daniel has started running again and is already faster than me. So I’ve introduced some things to improve my speed. The problem is, I’m learning, is that I don’t like hill repeats or intervals. Give me a long run any day, but the heavy breathing that comes with running up a hill as fast as I can is something I can live without. But I won’t get faster if I don’t do the work. My body won’t learn endurance if I don’t work at it. And like my response to any difficulty in the Christian life, I would rather avoid the hill repeats than put in the work. But avoidance isn’t an option if I want to see results. Pain brought on by running hills will produce faster times eventually. Pain brought on by suffering in the Christian life will also bear fruit eventually. I simply need the patience and the eyes to see that my work is taking me somewhere that is for my good.
I am helped both in running, and the Christian life, when I remember that the purpose is beyond what I’m doing in that moment. On a hill I feel much more confident when I see the end is coming. When I’m tired on a long run, I am fueled to keep going when I hear my Runkeeper app tell me that I’m over halfway complete. The end goal is to get faster, stronger, and more capable for the next run. The Christian life, like a painful hill or a long run, also has an end in mind. We know that the end is coming if we only open our Bible’s and read to the end. We have confidence to persevere because the same God who has always been working is still working. A hard hill ends. So does this pain-filled life.
But like my quitting spirit in every other area of my life, I feel the same urge when this life gets hard, when things don’t go my way. Rather than trust that God will finish the work he started, I would rather retreat, quit mid-run even. Running has been a helpful analogy for me in discerning my own sinful temptation to quit. An end is coming to the hard, painful road races of our life. Our pain is never for naught. It’s always working good in our life, even when we can’t see it. One day the urge to quit will be over, because we will have finished the race, held firm to the end by our Savior.