4 Good Ways to Run the Christian Race Well
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. (Hebrews 12:1-2a)
The above is one of my all-time favorite passages in Scripture. Indeed, in numerous places in Scripture the Christian life is compared to the effort and exertion of a race (1 Cor. 9:24; 2 Tim. 4:7). These few words from Hebrews teach us four things about what it means to run the Christian's race well.
1. Run the race well by finding your motivator to run.
These verses begin with laying out some of the motivation we have to run our Christian race well. That motivation is the example of those who have run it before us. Remember, this verse follows immediately on the heels of the "Hall of Faith" in chapter 11. There the author describes a whole host of committed believers who have run their race well. They are to be our examples (for instance: “let us also lay aside...” that is, we should run the same way they have).
More than being our examples, they are also our cheerleaders! In chapter 12 they are now referred to as “a cloud of witnesses.” Picture running a race on a track and the stands on every side filled with people who are cheering for you. Though we can't see it, that's what's going on in the Christian life. We are surrounded by the saints who have gone on before, and that is meant to encourage us to run well.
If you have ever run a race or sat on the sidelines and watched one, you know the power of hearing people cheer one another on. Someone who is winded and barely able to lift their feet suddenly hears the voices of supporters rallying them on, and just like that they have renewed vigor and motivation to keep going! As we run our race, we must remember the example and encouragement set by all believers who have run before us, not just pillars of the faith, like Abraham and Moses (although certainly them). We should also remember others whom God has graciously placed in our lives: parents, siblings, pastors, teachers, friends, and mentors. Let their godly example motivate us to run well.
My wife recently completed a half marathon, and she explained to me the importance of finding another runner who can be your pacesetter—someone whose speed will challenge your own. You make it your goal to stick behind them during the race. This illustrates a biblical principle. The apostle Paul said,
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Phil. 3:17; emphasis added)
So, who in your life can be your “pacesetter”? Who will you join in imitating their Christian life? Who will be your example and encouragement? Who will motivate you to run that race that is before you? Answering that question is the first step in running well.
2. Run the race well by casting off your weights.
Second, we see that in order to run well we must cast off our weights. Lighter means faster. If runners want to perform their very best, they will make sure they are not weighed down by a cumbersome load. In this context, the word "weight" could refer to extra layers of clothes that slow us down or get in the way. Flowing robes aren't the attire for running. The analogy to the spiritual is explained in the next clause: “and sin which clings so closely.” Trying to run the Christian race with sin clinging to us is like trying to run a marathon in a ballroom gown while carrying a backpack filled with bricks.
Sin is a weight that ties us down and prevents us from serving Jesus to the best of our ability. Remember Levi the tax collector? His profession was rife with corruption, and it kept him from following after the Savior; but when he was called by Christ, we read that he "left everything" (Luke 5:28). We need to have that same sort of determination.
We cannot afford to be hindered in a race that has such important consequences, so we must cast sin off from us. In your life, what sins might be impeding your progress? There can be some very "sticky" sins—the kind that Hebrews says cling so closely. Part of the reason some sins are so stubborn is because we don't recognize them as being sins at all. Or at least we don't recognize them as being very serious sins. Thus, we excuse certain behaviors such as grumpiness, discontent, gossip, envy, judgmentalism, and swearing.
Yet these seemingly "less serious" sins are the ones that will easily trip us up. They are the ones that weigh us down and prevent us from reaching the heights that sanctification offers us. So, just as a hot air balloon operator will toss ballast overboard to soar higher, we must toss overboard any and all sin in order to attain "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). What a foolish thing to take sin lightly when it's the heaviest thing there is.
3. Run the race well with endurance.
The writer of Hebrews says that once we find our motivation and cast off our weights, we need to “run with endurance the race set before us.” Endurance implies that the Christian life is better compared to a marathon than a sprint. It is something that takes work, commitment, and fortitude. It can't be completed without preparation or practice—otherwise we will burn out in no time at all. Think about it: you would not run a marathon without any preparation. You don’t just show up the day of the race and expect to do well. Rather, you sign up months ahead, sometimes a year ahead. You learn what kind of course it is, if it will be hilly or flat, hot or cold, and so on.
So too in the Christian life we must prepare ourselves for what lies ahead. This is what it means to "count the cost" of following Christ. There's a price to be paid. It won't be easy. Discipleship requires endurance. Following Jesus will mean trial and tribulations, but we can't allow those hindrances to cause us to give up. And indeed, if we are expecting them and are prepared for them, by the Spirit's power we won't give up. Thus, Peter and John both exhort us: “do not be surprised” or "do not be caught off guard" at the race we must run (1 Pet. 4:12, 1 John 3:13). When we see the course that is set before us, we will not be surprised. We will be ready to run, come what may.
In Luke 9 one eager would-be disciple approaches Jesus and proclaims, “I will follow you wherever you go” (Luke 9:57). But then Jesus explained to him the nature of the course before him: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Jesus was telling him this is the kind of life he would be signing up for if he wanted to follow the Son of Man. In other words, Jesus was explaining it wasn't an easy stroll, nor a quick sprint. It was a grueling marathon that would take endurance. The implication in the passage is that, upon hearing this, the man gives up on Christ. He wasn't ready to run with endurance.
Are you prepared for the race set before you? It will be a long one—indeed, a lifelong one. It will take endurance. But the good news is that the endurance comes from God himself. God strengthens us for whatever he calls us to do. Paul reminds us of this in Colossians. He says that we as Christians are "being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy" (Col. 1:11; emphasis added) Similarly, Paul says later on that this alone is what keeps him going in ministry. He can't do it on his own, but he can do it “with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (1:29).
4. Run the race well with your eyes on the prize.
Finally, we want to consider the most important aspect of running our Christian race well: keeping our eyes on the prize.Yes, we need proper motivation and encouragement to run, we need to rid ourselves of things that would encumber our progress, we need to prepare for the long haul. But none of this matters if we don’t keep our eyes on the prize. In this case, that doesn't mean a trophy or a finish line. It means “looking to Jesus.”
This implies we have already begun our race, and now that we have we must continually keep our gaze fixed forward (or upward) as opposed to backward. We are not to look back on the things that we have left behind, or the weight of sin that we have cast off. They are in the dirt and dust where they belong, whereas we are headed for glory. Colossians offers similar advice for the Christian life:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (3:1–3)
The point that Paul is making here is quite plain: your final destination is in the heavenly places, where even now you are spiritually raised with Christ. And if that's your ultimate destination, keep your focus on the things that are above. You belong above in heaven, not below on earth. Jesus himself says the same thing in Luke 9: “‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’” (v. 62).
Running a race well can never entail looking back. Looking back implies our heart and our desires and our loves are all still back at the starting line, and not in the kingdom of God. When we look back we reveal that we actually belong with the world and the things of the world, and not with the world to come. And if we belong to the world, what will eventually become of us? (Hint: read the story about Lot's wife—it's a scary thing to look back!)
Let us run toward heaven by keeping the eyes of our heart fixed on the one who is already there. The one who has already run the race and come in first. The one who stands victorious in the heavenly places and is waiting to share that victory with us. Let us keep our minds and hearts fixated on Christ, who holds the prize at the finish line—and he is the prize.
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