Running and Discipleship

This morning my youngest son and I participated in a 10 kilometer run. The pain in my joints, the inclines, the declines, the turns, and the inflexible pavement got me thinking about how running is used as a visualization of Christian discipleship in the New Testament. For example:
  • “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).
  •  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2) .
  •  “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:23-27).
Though the Scriptures use other metaphors, like martial arts (boxing) and soldering (2 Timothy 2.3), yet running sticks in my mind as a significant picture. The question I asked and mulled over as I ground through the run was “Why?”

Distance: In running there is no room for instant gratification. Whether you race 100 meters or slog a Marathon, there is distance. It’s not over right when you begin; instead there is a track, there are waypoints, there is a beginning and middle and end. I know it may be unpopular for a society nurtured on “everyone’s a winner for just showing up,” but the reality is that Christian discipleship is very much a distance run. You begin, push through, look for smaller goals that tell you you’re getting a little closer and that you’ve gone a little further, and so forth. To steal the title of a Eugene Peterson book (which he lifted from Nietzsche), it’s the long obedience in the same direction. Discipleship has lots to do with going the distance (Philippians 3.12-14).

Persistence: Anyone who has ever run knows that there are times when you feel like giving up. Sometimes, to keep from quitting, you simply focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Or you listen for the rhythm of your gait and concentrate only on that. At other times you watch the runners in front of you and listen for those behind you so you can better set your pace and push up that hill, or down that long stretch. When your knees and hips scream out, “Enough!” you remind yourself that the only way you’ll finish is to just keep at it. There are days when discipleship is so exhausting that you’re heart gasps, “Give up!”; and so the disciple has to remind themselves of what they’re about and why (Hebrews 12.1-2). There are seasons when the only thing you can do is return to the Gospel and fall into the arms of Jesus!

Finish: Finally, there’s the finish line. This keeps popping up, surfacing in the imagination and can help fuel persistence as you go the distance. At the finish line it’s over, you’re done, you’re “rewarded” with satisfaction, rest, refreshment and maybe a medal. The finish line looks good, especially when you can glimpse it from a distance, and brings you to lean into completing the run. Notice that in all three of these passages the finish line crops up as the applauding cheerleader and climactic ambition. But there’s one other thing to see, when you arrive at the finish line it will become clear that Jesus, who ran the race before us and is at the finish applauding us, also has hold on us drawing us to the line, “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3.12)! The disciple, the apprentice, will finish because the journeyman, the gold-medal winner has his hand on us bringing us to the end!

It seems to me that those are at least three of the reasons the New Testament picked running as the representation of Christian discipleship. And so, brothers and sisters, run with your eyes on the goal line. Run with Jesus clearly in mind. Run recognizing that through the distance and persistence it is Christ Jesus who has already made you his own and will draw you over the line. Run!



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