Let Us (Not) Run the Race

This one was written by Grace Leuenberger. Last month I joined more than 20,000 people […]

This one was written by Grace Leuenberger.

Last month I joined more than 20,000 people on the starting line of the Pittsburgh Marathon and Half Marathon. With about eight minutes before the start of the race, I pushed my way through the masses to the front of Corral A to join the group that would be running the pace of my goal finish time. Getting stuck behind slower runners would have compromised my goals, and I had worked too hard to let that (and them) mess me up. I had prepared for this day for months, logging 600 miles and dedicating dozens of hours in my training cycle to ensure that I could run my best race. Forcing my way through hundreds of already-sweaty, anxious, and antsy runners earned me many dirty looks (and a couple of curses), but it was the final necessary step to set myself up for success.

Once the race began, I kept up with the pace group for the first five miles…and then the hill came. “This hill isn’t bad!” the lead pacer shouted. “Isn’t bad?!” I thought. My legs felt terrible. I slowed my speed and watched the group pull away. I finished the race, but about three minutes slower and with a much poorer attitude than I had intended. I stumbled across the finish line, legs shaking and toes cramping from exertion. “I’m fine!” I assured the volunteer who was accompanying me down the chute after clearly seeing that I was, in fact, not fine. As the volunteer walked me to the end of the chute, I began thinking of how I could bounce back from this. If I trained right, I could recover from this race and run another one in two weeks. That way, I could get the time I was really capable of, have the performance I really wanted.

I didn’t end up running that other race (those exorbitant race fees!), but on that day, I was insistent that the right choice was to keep pushing. Keep pushing to the front of the crowd to get the best start spot. Keep pushing the first miles of the race even though I knew I was going out way too fast. And when I was physically unable to keep pushing, my mind pushed. How could I redeem my poor performance? I must try again. I wish I could say this pattern of pursuing, pushing, and persevering only emerges in my athletic pursuits, but that is far from the truth.

This spring, I decided it was time to try to buy a house. I got all my financial documents in order, created an array of Google spreadsheets, found a realtor, was preapproved for a mortgage, and subscribed to the email alerts for every time a house was listed in my budget. I got close to making an offer on a home in a neighborhood I really liked, but as I sat at the kitchen table talking to my mom about it on the phone, I became almost panicky. My palms got sweaty and I ended up crying by the end of the conversation. I couldn’t go through with it. “What is wrong with me? Why does this scare me so much? Maybe I just need to push past the discomfort. I am capable of this,” I thought. As my body began to show signs of fatigue just as it had at the finish of my half marathon, my mind argued back, “You’re FINE!”

Perseverance is one of the greatest American virtues, and much of the time, it feels like the eleventh commandment. Thou shalt persevere. “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” reads Hebrews 12:11. Time and time again, my “Christian walk” has looked like the race I thought Paul was describing in his letter — pursuing, pushing, persevering. Isn’t active pursuit better than laziness? Isn’t pushing ourselves to a better place a necessary training step? Isn’t perseverance what Christ wants from us? I’ve practiced. I’ve prepared. Isn’t that what God wants from me?

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes: “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good.” For years and years, I have tried to be good. I have tried to train well, sleep eight hours a night, eat my vegetables, exercise, apply for the job, make the move, meet new people, remember people’s birthdays, go to the Bible study, make good decisions. Just this week, I snapped at my mom after she suggested I slow my life down a bit and allow myself time to relax, recover, and have space to process what has been happening in my life lately. “I’m trying to make the best out of all of this!” I yelled at her from the alleyway outside of my office, picking at the peeling paint of the exterior of our building. As our phone conversation continued, I stared at the brick façade, the top coat of paint peeling off in sheets to reveal a crumbling structure in great need of repair. In that wall, I saw myself — no matter how much I try to cover it up, underneath you will find my soul in need of great repair.

For years I have been surrounded by Gospel-proclaiming, Gospel-living parents, pastors, and peers, yet each morning when I rise to run this race set before me, it seems I am struck with amnesia. I was recently reading Acts 27, a passage that helped me realize this spiritual condition is not unique to me. As Paul is sailing to Rome, conditions become worse and worse, and everyone on board realizes they’ve made a poor choice in continuing their voyage. But Paul delivers these words of encouragement to his shipmates:

“But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.”

But within a few verses, night falls and the crew forgets Paul’s encouragement. We read this about them:

“Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow.”

Paul sees what the crew is doing and tells them to stop and to come and eat. “Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head,” he says. The men do stop, cut the ropes to the lifeboats they were lowering, let them drift away, and then pause to break their fast with bread that Paul has prayed over. In the chaos of it all, Paul tells them to stop their pursuing, their pushing, their persevering and instead invites them to pause, to rest, to eat and be encouraged by partaking in the elemental.

Most all of the time, I am just like Paul’s crew. I do not pursue, push, persevere because I do not know the Gospel or I haven’t received words of encouragement amidst difficulty; I do those things because I do not trust God and his promises. So I elbow my way through crowds. I yell at people who try to help me when I’m hurting. I insist that I’m not afraid. I tell everyone I’m fine, that I’m just trying to be a responsible adult. I make nearly all decisions and conclusions as if it is a race and I am competing for a prize. I sign up for the next race before I’ve even recovered from the trauma of the last one. I can’t identify what the prize is that I’m competing for, but that sure doesn’t slow me down. I hear the Good News, but drop the anchors and lower the lifeboats just in case. I make plans to save myself when really what I need is to rest in my Redeemer—to pause and partake.

As a follower of Christ, I have the assurance that though I pursue and push and persevere, all I need is the Prince of Peace:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I will deny this truth three times over, but He forgives seventy times seven. So as I toe the starting line of each new day, I know that just as the race set before me will be marked with disappointment, dissent, and even death, it is also marked with forgiveness, with grace, with promises kept, with bread broken and offered to a soul and body in great need of nourishment, in great need of repair. In a time and age that rewards the winners, praises the resilient, upholds the industrious, I am reminded that striving is not how I am saved. That is not a race I must run, for one has already run it.

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2 responses to “Let Us (Not) Run the Race”

  1. Juliette says:

    Thank you, I really needed to hear this today.

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