The Christian Race
By sis Jacqueline Wee
In about a month’s time, we will have the XXXII Summer Olympics. During these few weeks or so, it's crunch time for the athletes as well as the organizers. The world will have their eyes on the finest, strongest athletes. It is estimated that 3.2 billion viewers from all over the world will have their television sets tuned in to 35 different sports and over 400 events.
I'm a big fan of the Olympics. It is the time when one can witness discipline, focus, self-denial and humility at its finest, highest levels. I thought apostle Paul hit the nail on the head when he wrote in Hebrews 12:1-2 that the Christian earthly journey is akin to a race - "let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith,"
Why would Paul regard the Christian life as a race? And what is a race without endurance? Biographies of elite sports personalities often give a glimpse into the level of endurance they put themselves through for their passion. It is common for athletes to train 363 out of 365 days a year. Ask any elite athlete about their accomplishments and they will tell you about their pain, injuries, sacrifices and failures. One of the world's best basketball player, Michael Jordan, once spoke about how trying his career had been - "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Have our lives as Christians been a bed of roses? Or have we tried, or are still trying to make our choices as comfortable as possible? If God proves us, does it mean that He doesn't shelter us from storms or that He didn't fulfil His part of the contract? I often remind my children that my job as their mother is not to pave the way for them to make sure they lead comfortable lives, but rather to prepare them to endure and not give up when the going gets hard. It's because "If it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you" - Fred Devito.
Shouldn’t we then pray more often for the strength which enables us to do all things - because “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13) – bearing in mind that “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” (1 Cor 10:13)
Self –denial is probably one of the pre-requisites that an athlete has to possess when a coach makes a selection for one to take the elite pathway of competitive sports. For coaches, attitude triumphs over talent because “Hard work will always overcome natural talent when natural talent does not work hard enough.” – Alex Ferguson.
Many stop what they are doing because it is just too tough. It is hard to ignore pain when you are experiencing it; it is even harder to continue doing the exact thing that causes the pain. It is hard to conceive of the idea of persisting to do the same thing that causes pain or discomfort, especially when the world tells you to do what makes you feel good and that we all should do what makes us feel good because we deserve it. But, what do we really deserve anyway? Do we deserve a place in heaven without giving up a significant part of ourselves?
Back in the days of my youth, I remember being injured and worn-out from long practice sessions. My shins would hurt so badly from all the pounding and landings that the sport demanded, I refused X-rays because I was afraid the doctor would ask me to take a break from practice. My friends called me “insane” but my teammates cheered harder for me, because we all understood the journey of giving up a part of ourselves in order to achieve our dreams. Do some of the verses from the bible sound too harsh and demanding for us? Do we tell God that we are ready to follow Jesus without considering that some of us may have to “hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life,” in order to be Christ’s disciple (Luke 14:26)? Do we really understand what apostle John is saying when he wrote “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15)? If we truly understand that self-denial is not optional in Christianity, we would no longer find ourselves tangled in dilemmas with many aspects of Christian living. Whether it’s about forgiving someone, giving up a worldly pleasure or a minor habit, if we truly understand that how we feel no longer matters but rather, what matters is what God wants, the choice to forsake the things of the world becomes more straightforward and less negotiable.
“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” – William A. Ward.
Many world records were set in disadvantageous weathers, unfavorable wind directions, and among hostile opponents. To be unaffected by antagonistic surroundings and succeed requires a high level of focus. Athletes have an incredible level of focus, yet having focus is not a talent. Focus is taught, practiced and reinforced, consistently. Athletes are often taught to focus on the things that they have control over and everything else has to be put aside.
Nehemiah and his brethren displayed an admirable level of focus in their task of rebuilding the house of God and they did it in record time - fifty-two days- in far from favorable conditions. Nehemiah 4:6 reads “So we built the wall, and the entire wall was joined together up to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” Enemies conspired against Nehemiah. They schemed, lied and threatened but Nehemiah’s reply in chapter 6:3 was: “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” His enemies sent him the same message four times, and Nehemiah answered them in the same manner.
There are many reasons to get distracted. The devil is crafty because he can get us distracted by something seemingly pure and harmless but each one of us can unknowingly fall victim to our own expectations. Whenever I’m overwhelmed or struggling, I have to remind myself what my life is all about – not my hopes, my dreams or expectations but to “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecc 12:13). It’s hard to stay focused when the world tells you “YOLO, so enjoy the ride” but our race has started. We need to stay focused and “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). The most dreadful thing one can hear from God when this life ends is: "You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?" (Galatians 5:7). Running well is not good enough for God. He expects us to finish the race well.
Do we deserve heaven if we don’t fight for it? Being a Christian involves striving to be a better version of ourselves every day, so that we can be useful to God and also glorify Him. This is often a self-denying, trying and tiring process. We may cry, doubt, fear or fail but at least we can tell God at the end that "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7).