I ran my very first 5K race on Monday. Don’t be impressed; “ran” is a relative term. I will admit to setting my personal best time, but I think riding the last mile in the ambulance may have helped. Overall it was a very positive experience and one I hope I can do again as soon as I get the feeling back in my legs.
As I was reflecting on the race, it dawned on me that what I experienced during those 3.1 miles is similar to what I experience in my own faith. As the race began and the runners left the starting line, I took off at a brisk trot, easily speeding by the runners pushing their kids in strollers and the guy in the cow costume (the run was sponsored by Chick-Fil-A). “This is easy!” I thought as I sped along.
We have moments of faith like that, don’t we? These are high points in our lives where Heaven feels so close we can touch it. I think of times like my wedding day, the birth of my children, or even a particularly moving worship service. At these times, praising God comes as natural to us as breathing.
Speaking of breathing, after a fast start I settled into a leisurely pace: not too fast but faster than the Chick-Fil-A Cow. So far so good. Things were moving along comfortably and I was feeling generally optimistic, much like when our lives are in their comfortable routines and no crises are looming. At those times, God can be a constant companion, walking along side us as we go through our day. We’re not in any great need to call on our faithful reserves but we’re also not floating on a spiritual high, either.
Sometimes, we face small setbacks. As I was running, I took a water cup from the volunteers at the one-mile mark. Two questions struck me: (1) how do you drink from a Dixie cup while you’re running? and (2) I’ve only gone one mile?!? I was able to get about 10% of the water in my mouth (the other 90% splashed down the front of my shirt) but was a bit disheartened by my distance. I felt like the finish line should be coming anytime now, but I was only one-third of the way home.
Our faith can be similarly tested, not in earth-shattering, life-changing ways, but in the small disappointments and frustrations that chip away at our spiritual resolve. A family illness, bad news on the job or the downsizing of a dream can cause us to start questioning what we believe and why we believe it. It’s not enough to make us quit running, but we can start to doubt our self-worth and ability to finish the race.
During these times, God often comes to us in the support of those around us. As the young man handed me my cup of water, he said, “Keep going, you’re doing great!” I wanted to say, “Really? The race officials are timing me with a calendar!” But I took his words to heart, and the seemingly genuine enthusiasm with which he expressed them buoyed my spirit and gave me to strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes that’s the best we can do.
I made it to the halfway point, which was at the end of a gently sloping hill that felt like running up Mt. Everest. As I can back by the volunteer table, I ordered a Banana Pudding Milkshake. Sadly, all I got was another cup of water that I knew I would be wearing until the finish line.
Right after I passed the two-mile mark, it hit me. “Don’t you want to stop? You’re close enough. No one will know. A good rest right now will help you finish strong.” From where did that voice come? My legs? My lungs? The place inside me (a place we all have) that says, “You’re not good enough?” We all hear that voice in our lives, don’t we? That voice that tells us we don’t need to go to church every Sunday (“You deserve a break”) or help out on a service project (“Someone else will do it”) or give our hard-earned money to the church (“That’s your money, not God’s”). And if we listen to and follow that voice, we eventually find ourselves farther away from God that we had ever planned to be. It’s always good to ask ourselves, “To what voice am I giving the most credence? God’s, or that other one?”
Finally, the finish line was in sight. I pushed through the pain, the ache and a cluster of eight-year-olds running in front of me to cross the line. I was exhausted, dehydrated (although my shirt had received plenty of water) and completely spent. But I finished. I pray that in whatever we do as Christians, we are able to, as Paul says, “Run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”