Running Well

Single-mindedness and tunnel-focus: Are these beneficial or burdensome qualities that competition can develop in a Christian?

[This post is part of a longish series exploring sport, competition, and Christianity. If you’re new here, perhaps start by checking out the introductory post.]

The Context

Hebrews was written to encourage Christians who were experiencing immense persecution. In an effort to encourage them to persevere, the author focuses on the unparalleled greatness of Jesus—the ultimate motivation. 

The Text

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, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:1–2).

The description is one of a long footrace; a grueling test of endurance that for which only those prepared prevail. The runners making their way along the course are actually the readers of this epistle (including you and I!). 

Lining the streets of the course are those that have competed before but have since retired from competition. The presence of these race veterans testifies to the fact that this run, in spite of its difficulty, can be finished and that the rewards are worth the effort.

This cloud of witnesses now watch with knowing smiles and empathetic cheers, imploring the runners to lay aside every weight and get rid of the sin that clings so closely. “Re-focus! Examine yourself! Is there any way to ease your effort?” Each runner must decide for themselves what it is that may be slowing them down and then cast it aside. 

The race described is a metaphor for life. Ray Stedman has suggested, “Since it is God who gives us life, it is also God who starts us in this race. We are all here for a purpose, and that purpose is to live our lives in fulfillment of God’s intent for us. This requires not only faith in God’s revelation … but also perseverance and endurance.” 

In addition to the encouragement of the on-lookers, the author of Hebrews mentions our Pace Rabbit. 

A common practice for modern race organizers is to hire a number of experienced runners who are committed to completing the course in a specific time and have them run amidst the competitors. For example, for a 10km race, the organizers enlist runners committed to completing the course in 35-minutes, another in 45-minutes, another in 60, and so on. These “pace rabbits” are clearly marked so that competitors can gauge their own pace by their proximity to these rabbits. 

Jesus Christ, being the founder and perfecter of our faith is the supreme Pace Rabbit for the race that is the Christian life. By keeping eyes locked on Jesus and the way in which He ran the race, believers can better ensure a successful, God-pleasing, and faithful run.

The Principle

Living Christianly demands recognizing and removing hindrances, persevering along the proper course, and focusing on Jesus.

The Application

The idea of looking to Jesus during competition is often used today in Christian athletic organizations as a picture of proper perspective for modern Christian competitors. The rationale is that if an athlete focuses on Jesus while training and competing, their motivation can remain pure rather than idolatrous. 

In Hebrews, however, the author’s athletic metaphor is being used to describe the Christian life, not necessarily the athletic life of a Christian. This passage no more applies to the athletic arena than it does to the business office. The “race” transcends where we decide to “run” and the point is to run well and uninhibited, to be faithful, and to focus on Christ as the example. 

It’s possible that the every weight, and sin which clings so closely to a believer actually includes the culture of sport. As some may use this Hebrews passage to justify athletic competition, it must be conceded that, at least in some instances, it is the athletic competition itself that is an aspect of the believer’s life that is preventing them from running well.

The Christian life is daunting and difficult. It is going to require huge amounts of endurance, intentionality, and struggle with distractions and hindrances. 

However, it does not have to be discouraging. Many saints have gone before us and faithfully finished their courses. It can be done! We would be wise to study their game plans, see how they accomplished what they accomplished, and, most importantly keep our gaze fixed upon the perfect competitor, Jesus Christ.