CAMPBELLTON, New Brunswick, May 1, 2023 – No-one could ever accuse Jesus of living a glamorous life while on Earth. Even during his ministry years, when his fame grew to the point where it threatened the status quo of the powers-that-be in Jerusalem, Jesus lived a hard life characterized mainly by work, work, and more work. Sure, he spent occasional evenings at pubs or at hoity-toity dinners hosted by the local religious elite, but hanging out with people who either didn’t understand him or outright despised him and wanted him dead was hardly a night off. There was little if no room at all in Jesus’ social calendar for pleasure. And when he needed a break from work, he didn’t go out partying with the boys or head down to a Club Med; he went off by himself for a few days to a mountain to spend one-on-one time with God.
And note that he didn’t fly his private jet to the mountain. He walked.
Paul’s ministry years were much the same as those of Jesus. Paul wrote that being a Christian was like running a race to win, and he didn’t mean the 100-yard dash. After our rebirth, we run a marathon, not a sprint. And like running a marathon, our “run with God” has definitive and increasingly more difficult stages, all culminating in our final breathless collapse over the spiritual finish line, if we make it that far.
I mention the hard slogging aspect of being a born-again believer, because far too many Christians these days, influenced perhaps by prosperity preachers and feel-good ‘Christian movies’, have the impression that living the Christian life should be a cross between living la vida loca and living la dolce vita. If their life doesn’t look like that, they are (according to those preachers) missing out on all that God wants to give them while they’re here on Earth.
But the truth of the matter is that living the Christian life is a cross, full stop.
Jesus told us to pick up our cross and follow him, not pick up a 2-4 of Coors and a couple of chicks and meet him at the beach.
Christian life is hard slogging. Like running a marathon, it starts out with a burst of energy and enthusiasm. This euphoric stage is followed by a long period of ups and downs and increasingly hard work. But unlike athletes running a marathon, born-again believers running a spiritual marathon do their training while running the race (not before it), and so make all of their mistakes during the race (not during practice). As a born-again believer, you only have one shot and one race, and if you don’t finish it God’s way and in God’s time, you lose.
That’s not to say that the ups and downs and hard slogging is unpleasant. It isn’t. I’ve lived as an adult atheist and I’ve lived as an adult born-again believer, and by far my life as a born-again believer has been immeasurably more enjoyable, thanks to the constant presence of God’s Holy Spirit. I’ve never once regretted being a Christian since my rebirth 24 years ago, even when I made some major boo-boos and suffered accordingly for them, including spending time on the street. No matter how bad things got, God and Jesus were always right there with me, helping me through it. As Paul wrote, “I’ve learned to rejoice whether I’m abased or abounding”. The only way to learn to rejoice while abased is to be abased. There’s no shortcut around that one. And you don’t have to purposely try to be abased; God will arrange it for you.
I don’t write these things to discourage you or to commiserate with you; I write them because it’s the boots-on-the-ground reality of what it means to live the Christian life. I cannot imagine living any other way and I do not want to live any other way. It’s how Jesus lived his life during his ministry years and how Paul lived his life during his ministry years, so clearly it’s how the Christian life should be. Our reward is not here, in this time and space, but in the hereafter, when we’ve finished our work. This makes sense to me. We’re not here for a good time (and hopefully also not for a long time); we’re here to get our work done and then to go Home.
Nothing else should matter to us.
There’s a dreaded stage in the marathon race called “hitting the wall”. That’s the point where the runner’s body has run out of its more easily obtainable energy source (glycogen) and has to start burning its fat instead. The fat-burning process takes longer than the glycogen-burning process, so the runner’s brain responds by telling him to slow down, in some cases to a crawl or even to a collapse. Once he’s hit the invisible wall, the runner’s legs (the source of his being as a runner) get torturously heavy and he feels like he’s wading through freshly poured concrete. All he wants to do is give up, quit, drop out, lay down and die – anything but keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Hitting the wall usually happens during the last quarter of the marathon. There are tactics a runner can use to mitigate it and get through it, but only sheer determination will get him to the finish line from that point onward. The negative physical and mental effects of hitting the wall stay with the runner for the rest of the race.
I am not a fan of vanity projects like running a marathon. Still, lessons can be learned from the stages most marathon runners claim to experience. I’ll detail these stages below so you can see if they resonate with your “run with God”.
The race starts with a burst of energy and euphoria that fuels the first few miles. Runners describe this stage as “effortless” and “floating”, and they claim to feel like they could run forever.
This initial stage is followed by a slow but steady decline in euphoria that lasts until around the thirteenth mile, which is the half-way point of the race (a marathon being 26.2 miles). During the come-down from the initial high, the runner stays focussed by reaffirming his pre-set goals, such as pacing, hydration, and in-race nutrition. Note that during this stage, the runner still feels relatively fresh and confident. He has no thoughts of dropping out or even of slowing down. There is only the steady rhythm of his footfalls, interspersed by occasional slacking in pace to grab a bottle of water or something to eat from the sidelines.
The confidence stage, however, is eventually followed by the beginnings of the sensation of mental and physical discomfort. This usually occurs as the runner enters the second half of the race. He may still be going strong, but it takes more of an effort to maintain his pace and stay on track with his pre-set goals. As the runner works through his increasing discomfort levels, pain points begin to be triggered. Old muscle and tendon injuries prickle and in some cases roar back. These issues aren’t enough in themselves to significantly slow the runner or cause him to drop out of the race, but they do make the prospect of running another 10 or more miles less and less appealing.
The next stage is apparently when thoughts of dropping out do start to surface in the runner’s mind. As the various triggered pain-points push past the tolerable threshold, dropping out not only starts to seem logical but also necessary for overall health. The runner has to counteract these thoughts by reminding himself of his goals and that thoughts of dropping out were anticipated during training and not to be given into.
Then, as the runner works through these increasingly laborious physical and mental challenges, somewhere between mile 18 and 22, he hits the wall. This is when the body switches from getting its energy from easily available stores in the liver to the more difficult task of converting it from fat stores. To accommodate this change-over, the brain essentially orders the body to stop moving until the switch from glycogen to fat is accomplished. Hitting the wall means the runner has to keep running against the forceful commands of his brain.
Runners describe the wall as either your legs feeling like bricks or wading through freshly poured concrete. It is quite literally will over mind over matter at this point, because your mind is screaming at your body to stop, so your will has to override your mind. Note that when most runners hit the wall, the finish line is still nowhere in sight.
The final miles of the marathon are torture for most runners. The will-over-mind-over-matter strategy is the only way they can make it to the end. The initial euphoria and confidence are long gone, and mild discomfort is but a distant rosy memory, replaced by full-body pain and exhaustion. To push through, the runner has to rely on emotional strategies rather than physical ones, like dedicating miles to his loved ones (“I’m running this mile for my son”, “I’m running this mile for my mother”, etc.). It’s no longer about the physical preparation and training, but about the force of sheer will.
Ultimately, it’s the runner’s sheer will that brings him over the finish line. But when he reaches the other side, he’s flooded with a euphoria that exceeds even the initial energy burst in the starting mile. Marathoners claim that nothing compares to those precious moments of victory at the finish line, regardless of their clocked time. At that point, it’s no longer about where they rank in the race, but only that they finished it.
All that matters is that they finished.
Considering the above, we can see why Paul compared the Christian life to running a marathon. We don’t win solely by being in the race and having a strong start or a confident middle; we win by continuing to run to the very end, even when everything inside us is screaming to give up and drop out. It’s not mentioned in the polite retellings of marathon sagas, but many of the runners in their final miles are vomiting, soiling themselves, and babbling or wailing incoherently. Yet even these extreme physical phenomena (and the very public humiliation that accompanies them) don’t stop the runners from continuing to aim for the finish line.
This superhuman display of willpower and focus is something we ourselves will likely need to emulate someday, so we should pay attention to how it’s done. Just because you feel you have nothing left to give doesn’t mean that you don’t still have something to offer. Just because your brain is screaming that you’re running on empty doesn’t mean there isn’t still a drop or two left in the tank. Marathoners prove time and time again that humans can go far above and beyond even what they perceive as being as their physical and mental limits. When they hit the wall, they don’t go around it; they pick the wall up and carry it with them to the end. The wall is the runner’s cross.
We all have a cross to carry in our Christian life, no matter what the prosperity preachers claim. Our cross grows increasingly heavy as we near our own personal finish line. Our tests won’t get easier, they’ll get harder. Think of what Jesus had to endure up to his last breath in his human body. He told us that what he went through, we’ll have to go through also.
But before we get there, we’ll most likely hit a point in our Christian life that is similar to the wall hit by marathon runners. We’ll be tempted to pull back, compromise, give in. We’ll be tempted to backslide to the ways of the world rather than stay the course and follow God’s Way. But that’s all these things are – temptations. They test us to see if we want what God is offering us or what the world is offering us. If we know this in advance (and we should know it, we need to know it), we can stay the course, no matter how hard things get. We need to know that things will get hard and prepare accordingly (spiritually), the same way that marathon racers prepare their minds to reject the temptation to give up when they hit the wall.
Prosperity preachers do their flocks a grave disservice by not preparing them for the difficulties that surely lie ahead in their cross walk. It’s easy to get discouraged when you encounter troubles seemingly out of nowhere and don’t have an anchor to keep you from drifting away. Your anchor, in these situations, is the knowledge and understanding that difficulties and tests are part and parcel of the Christian life, and that if God didn’t love you and want you to come Home, he wouldn’t be refining you like gold is refined, to burn off the impurities.
Recall that the very first marathoner promptly died upon reaching Athens with the joyous news of the victory at Marathon. He was motivated not by money or fame, but by doing his job as a messenger and herald. He delivered the message that was entrusted to him, completing the task to the best of his ability. That his efforts ultimately killed him was of little consequence to him. The important thing was that he finished the task and delivered the message.
This is what it means to live the Christian life.