Marathon runners don’t quit during the race. In fact, among the top marathons in the U.S., the completion rate is more than 95 percent. In incidents of conceding, the majority of marathon runners quit before the race even begins. The eight months I spent training for my first marathon provided context for a problem unique to our Americanized version of Christianity.
I’m living proof that any potato head can decide to run a marathon. Lots of people talk about running a marathon—as you read this, you could even decide to be a marathon runner. The potential is there, but it takes commitment. It takes training. It takes endurance. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross made an eternal relationship with God freely available. The relationship starts with a decision, but like running a marathon, that’s just the beginning.
Christians too often think of the moment of salvation as the finish line. Pastors, camp counselors, concerned friends and church programs place so much emphasis on that moment that everything else seems unimportant by comparison. Then we wonder why so many people treat Jesus like fire insurance. If we present salvation as the finish line, how can we act surprised when people feel like they can take it easy after that? Many people think, “I followed all the rules. I said a prayer. I’m good. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and wait for Jesus to come back.”
The flaw in that approach is that it’s not reflected anywhere in scripture. Nowhere do you see Jesus tell people to just say a prayer, say you’re sorry and go back to business as usual. Instead, he challenges us to leave everything behind, pick up a cross and daily walk with him. That’s because salvation isn’t the finish line. That moment, while vital, is just the beginning. Salvation is a free, instant gift from God that none of us can earn. But, anyone who sincerely accepts this gift will begin a life of discipleship that requires daily effort.
During my training, I often had to choose going for a run over spending time with my wife, playing with my kids or watching my favorite TV show. I realized early on that reaching the finish line was going to take much more than a commitment. I had to make sacrifices to train myself properly because dedication is worthless without preparation. I didn’t wake up one day and run 26.2 miles. I spent three months just getting in good enough shape that I could begin my training plan. Then I spent another four months training. During my training I made sure that I loaded up on carbs and drank lots of water. I got plenty of sleep. I traded ice cream for yogurt and Oreos for granola. I focused on what was beneficial and avoided what was detrimental. The only difference between distance running and discipleship is that rather than carbo-loading, we need to load up on Jesus. We need to immerse ourselves on the Son of God. Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, think on such things. Because when you hit the wall—and you will—Jesus is the only fuel that will keep you going.
There are few things in this world as rewarding as breaking through the wall, pushing yourself, challenging your body and mind to go further and faster than you think they are capable of. If we settle for what we can accomplish comfortably, we will never make an impact. It’s impossible to live a life dedicated to Christ, a life of Kingdom significance without going beyond your limit. But that doesn’t mean you are on your own.
Many people approach running as a solitary, isolated endeavor, one person versus the clock. But the ones that are the most successful have a support network. They train and compete in community. They have people in the trenches with them going through exactly what they go through. They train together, share secrets, tips and techniques. They celebrate the success of others almost as much as they do their own.
Like runners, Christians are designed for community. We are meant to be there to encourage, to lift up, to love and when necessary to correct. It’s our responsibility as those that are further down the course, more prepared, better trained to help the ones behind push themselves. We are to not only trying to reach the un-reached, but to mentor the immature. Knowing how to reach the finish line means nothing if we don’t share that knowledge with others. We are all working toward a common goal. Victory is so much sweeter when it comes as part of a group, a team, a body.
I don’t know what it will feel like to cross the finish line. I don’t know what Heaven will look like or what our new bodies will be like. I can’t even begin to comprehend what an existence without time will be like. But I know one thing. I am certain of this. Crossing that finish line, persevering till the end will be worth every minute of training, worth every sacrifice.
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