Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Tag: Perseverance

Run to Win!

At the most recent Summer Olympics (Tokyo in 2021), some 12,000 athletes competed for about 1,000 medals. Just 10% of the competitors took home medals.

One award that isn’t given is a Participation Medal. An award for just showing up. Every athlete I know would rather quit their sport than take home a participation trophy.

David McCullough said, “If everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.”

Athletes compete to win. Anything short of winning is a consolation prize.

Christians are exhorted to compete like Olympians (see Hebrews 12.1; 1 Corinthians 9.24-27; Philippians 2.16; 3.14; Galatians 2.2; 5.7; 2 Timothy 4.7). One passage even refers to ancient Olympic-style games. 1 Corinthians 9.24-27 says, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”

The apostle is taking about running a spiritual race, and he gives us four things to remember about running the race.

  1. PLAN TO WINYou won’t win a gold medal by accident, and you won’t get to heaven by accident. Be deliberate. Have a sense of purpose. Know the objective.
  2. DEVELOP SELF-CONTROLSometimes, self-control is the ability to tell yourself no. For athletes, it means saying no to an unhealthy diet. For Christians, it means saying no to distraction, temptation, and sin. Sometimes, self-control is the ability to develop good habits. For athletes it means getting up early and having a rigorous training routine. For Christians, it means a routine of prayer, Bible study, worship, and service to others.
  3. WPLAY BY THE RULESPaul warns against being disqualified. It’s one thing for an athlete to be defeated by a better athlete. It’s another thing when an athlete beats himself by breaking the rules, or by not preparing adequately. For Christians, it’s why we have the Bible: we can know the rules; we can know what to do and what not to do in our lives.
  4. WERE PROMISED A PRIZEPaul contrasted perishable and imperishable wreaths. In the ancient Olympic games, the winner received a crown woven from olive branches or evergreen or oak leaves. Over time, they would dry out and decay. Christians are competing for the crown of life: eternal life in the presence of an eternal God.

I’m not an athlete, but I am a child of God. I’ll never win a gold medal, but I’ve been promised a crown of life. I need to run, and I need to run hard. So do you. Run to win!

Perpetual Pain & Festering Wounds

American writer Flannery O’Connor had an aunt who thought the only good stories were ones that ended with someone getting shot or getting married. She liked tidy endings.

Unfortunately, real life is rarely tidy. For many people their dreams look more like nightmares. Even Christians may struggle for years with marital woes, illness, death, family feuds, financial problems, job frustrations, church problems, addictions, disappointments, and depression.

Chronic spiritual pain is nothing new. Six centuries before the time of Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah lamented, “Why has my pain been perpetual, and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (Jeremiah 15.18) He was struggling with deep spiritual pain and saw no relief in sight. 

Jeremiah’s life was anything but charmed. God called him as a teenager (Jeremiah 1.1-19), and he resisted (verse 6) because God promised him a hard road (verses 7-10, 18-19). His hometown wanted him dead (11.21). Priests and prophets (26.1-9), officials (38.1-6), and kings (32.1-5) persecuted and abused him. Not only that but God forbade him to marry, to attend family funerals or feasts (16.1-9). He even forbade Jeremiah to pray for his own people (11.14-17). Jeremiah saw the nation of Judah collapse, and his beloved city of Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians. He chose to live in the city with the refugees after its destruction (40.1-6) but was taken to Egypt against his will (chapter 39), and legend has it that he was stoned to death. 

There’s nothing in Jeremiah’s life or ministry that we’d call neat or tidy or cheerful. Still, he was a faithful prophet of God for almost half a century. He was even once compared to Jesus (Matthew 16.14). How did he manage?

Twice in Jeremiah’s prayers, he says something that I think is the key. 

  • Jeremiah 15.15b-16: “…do not, in view of your patience, take me away; know that for your sake I endure reproach. Your words were found and I ate them, and your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I have been called by your name, O Lord God of hosts.”
  • Jeremiah 20.8b-9: “…because for me the word of the Lord has resulted in reproach and derision all day long. But if I say ‘I will not remember him or speak anymore in his name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.”

For Jeremiah the word of the Lord was the center point of his life with God. The word of the Lord, with its commands, promises, warnings, and assurances. And so it is with us. We may suffer disappointment and pain, but God’s word and promises will never fail. “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1.5b). In the midst of our pain we have God.

Run With Horses

Horses are amazing creatures. No other animal so easily combines beauty and spirit, strength and speed. Horses can run as fast as 55 m.p.h. for a few seconds. In 1973, Secretariat ran the fastest Kentucky Derby ever, averaging over 37 m.p.h. What would it be like to run with horses?

In Jeremiah 12.5, the Lord asked the prophet, “If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, how will you do in the thicket of Jordan?” 

Jeremiah was complaining to the Lord about his troubles. He had just learned in the previous chapter that the people in his hometown of Anathoth – even some of this own family members – wanted him dead. So, he complained to the Lord (12.1-4). He complained that the unrighteous were prospering (12.1). He asked that the Lord punish the wicked (12.3), including those in his own family. He wondered how much more the country could endure (12.4). 

The Lord’s answer was a mild rebuke. The imagery was drawn from the military. He tells Jeremiah that if running with foot soldiers was tiresome, then what would he do if he had to run with cavalry horses? If marching on a wide, level plain was hard, what would happen when he had to traipse through a jungle? In other words, “Jeremiah, if you think your life has been hard up to this point, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” 

Indeed, Jeremiah lived to see the decline and demise of not only the nation of Judah, but also his beloved city Jerusalem. He was never permitted to marry; his own family rejected him; he had few friends and many, many enemies. Near the end of his life, he was taken against his will from Jerusalem to Egypt. As far as we know, he died in Egypt, a place he didn’t want to be.

Like Jeremiah, all of us have disappointments, hardships, and frustrations in life. Like Jeremiah, we’re sometimes tempted to just quit. Like Jeremiah, we complain to the Lord about how bad we have it. And as with Jeremiah, the Lord patiently hears our complaints, rebukes us for our impatience, and tells us to keep going, to keep trying.

But implicit in the Lord’s rebuke of Jeremiah was a glimmer of hope. Jeremiah faded early but finished strong. All because the Lord gave him a glimpse of what could be: “Jeremiah, you CAN run with horses. Quit worrying, quit complaining, and start trusting me.” 

What a thrilling thought – that we can run with horses as we serve the Lord! So, for today, get ready to run with the horses!

(This was inspired by the book Run With the Horses, by the late Eugene Peterson.)

A Long Obedience

Americans LOVE speed and convenience. We want things easy, and we want them now. 

  • We want gourmet meals at microwave speed
  • We want to lose 30 pounds before the next holiday
  • We want Olympian fitness in just 20 minutes a day
  • We want instant communications – cell phones, video conferencing, emails, texts, Facebook, news

All these things have their place and are amazingly useful. BUT the problem is that we often expect the same thing in our spiritual lives – we want instant and easy spiritual growth; instant and easy relationships; instant and easy conflict resolution; instant and easy Bible knowledge. However, the reality is that spiritual growth takes time. It takes persistence.

What does persistence look like?

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; whereby there results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”

A “long obedience in the same direction” is Biblical perseverance, endurance, or steadfastness. 

  • Jesus said – (Luke 8.15) “But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.”
  • The apostle Paul said – (Romans 5.3-5) “…tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint…”

Worthwhile things take time and effort and perseverance. They require “a long obedience in the same direction.” Whether it’s your career; or your marriage; or your relationship to your children; or your character; or your finances; or your spiritual life – these things take time, effort, and perseverance. They take this “long obedience in the same direction.”

One more thing: If persistence is this “long obedience in the same direction,” we must have a direction. But direction is determined by destination. If there’s no destination, we’re simply wandering aimlessly. For Christians, our destination is the Father, and Jesus provides the direction – “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14.6). 

Do you practice persistence? Do you have this “long obedience in the same direction?”

Stubborn Righteousness

Have you ever tried to get rid of a stubborn weed or a sapling or bush that has sprung up in the wrong place? No matter how hard you try, it seems to win. You pull it; it grows back. You cut it; it comes back. You spray it; next season, it’ll be back!

Why do weeds so often win? Simple. They have deep roots. If you don’t kill the roots, you won’t kill the plant, and if you don’t kill the plant, it’ll always come back. 

However, the same thing is true of desirable grasses and flowers and shrubs and trees. If they have well developed root systems, they’ll also persist. 

I want to apply this to our spiritual lives. Think about the following Scriptures and what they have in common with each other. 

  • “A man will not be established by wickedness, but the root of the righteous will not be moved” (Proverbs 12.3 NASB).
  • “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD and whose trust is the LORD. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought nor cease to yield fruit” (Jeremiah 17.7-8 NASB).
  • “Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude” (Colossians 2.6-7 NASB).

We all understand persistent, stubborn, relentless weeds. These passages are telling us that we need a persistent, stubborn, and relentless faith. Not an obstinate or self-willed faith, but a resolute and committed faith. Righteous people don’t give up easily because have laid deep roots. 

How do you grow deep spiritual roots? It’s by cultivating the habits of Bible study, Scripture meditation and memorization, prayer, corporate worship, spending time with fellow Christians, and serving others. Whenever we practice these disciplines, our spiritual roots grow ever deeper and stronger.

How deep is the root system of your faith? How well grounded is your righteousness?