Life is a Marathon
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” Last week, Hebrews gave us a Wikipedia summary of the Old Testament’s greatest heroes, who endured hardship because they had faith and hope in God, even though they did not see faith’s reward in their own lifetimes. Hebrews calls ours ancestors, from Abel and Abraham down to our departed parents… a “great cloud of witnesses.” “Great cloud” meaning a swarm so dense you cannot count the total. “Witnesses” meaning less onlookers and more courtroom witnesses who testify as to what they’ve seen. The ancient Greek word “witnesses” here is martus, from which we get the word “martyr,” because ancient Christians believed those who suffered but endured for their faith were like courtroom witnesses testifying about God’s power and love. So because we are surrounded by this dense crowd of spiritual ancestors who testify to God’s grace in life and still now in death… therefore, “let us lay aside every weight” like marathoners taking off ankle training weights on the day of the race. And let us “lay aside the sin that clings so closely,” a phrase that could also read “the sin that easily ensnares or distracts” like debris cluttering up a racetrack. And at last “let us run with perseverance the race set before us…” not the race we picked but the race we have, not in short bursts of energy but with sustained perseverance that paces itself. “And let us run this race looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Pioneer meaning the one who completed this race first, and perfecter meaning the one who ran it perfectly. Run your own life’s race looking to Jesus, since he blazed life’s path and ran it best.
Fifteen years ago, I was a competitive distance runner for my high school. I mostly raced 5ks but sometimes did the 800m or 400m. My track coach told me most of us can only sprint about 300m. Anything 300m or under was more a test of pure speed than endurance. But for the 400m and up? You had to decide when to start sprinting and how hard, because those who sprinted too soon would lose in the final stretch. You needed sprinter-like speed but also stamina, so you could persevere until the time was right to sprint. You had to strategize mid-race about when to zip past rivals or uphill and when to pace yourself, drafting behind others for easier speed. Life is the same way: sometimes you need speed, energy, and drive to zip into place. But most of life, especially the life of faith, requires patience, awareness, foresight, and endurance. My best 5k race times were not won in the final sprint: my best races were won in the first two miles and merely confirmed by the final sprint.
After our varsity boy’s races were over, however, our job was not over. Our coach then spaced us finished racers along the course to cheer on the varsity girls and JV teams. We’d strategically wait before the finish line to cheer on that final burst of speed. We’d stand at the bottom and top of difficult hills to encourage them to keep steady speed going uphill. We’d lurk near turns obscured by trees and buildings, yelling to sprint while rivals couldn’t see them so they could shake off pursuers. When my coach wasn’t looking, I’d even hide battery-powered speakers around the course so we could blast the Rocky theme song. We didn’t get to cheer others on until our own race was over: until you yourself crossed the finish line, you had to focus on your own race. But afterwards? We were a great cloud of cheerers. We witnessed firsthand the difficulty and witnessed to our teammates that they could do it. We urged them to endure, to set aside distractions, to pace themselves for the long-haul. That is what Hebrews says every believer’s life is like: you run your life of faith hard, wisely, with endurance, focused more on attaining holiness yourself than on chastising others for being less holy. And when you cross the finish line at the end of life, you join the great cloud of every ancestor in the presence of God, as we celebrate every runner coming in and cheer on the others to endure in their own earthly race. The running of life is hard, yes. By the end of every good race in high school I nearly collapsed. No teammate said running was easy. They just told me to keep on running. The Bible never says life will be easy. We just have to race through life as faithfully we can.
I’ll end with one final point from this chapter. Why does Hebrews use all this racing language to encourage Christians to hold on? Because, again, its original readers were on the verge of giving up on Christianity and going back to the better-respected, better-established religion they converted from. So Hebrews invites them and us to view our hard times—not as hardship only—but as opportunities to train and strengthen ourselves to better run life’s race. Hebrews says, “Endure trials for the sake of discipline.” “Discipline” doesn’t mean abuse or punishment. The ancient Greek word for “punishment” shows up in a quote used by today’s scripture, but Hebrews ignores it. Instead, the word applied to you and me is “discipline,” which means to teach or train. “Discipline” in ancient Greek can still mean correction. But it’s less correction-as-punishment and more correction-as-teaching-how-to-do-it-right-next-time. Abraham’s desert wanderings, David’s battles, Christ’s suffering on the cross: these hardships were not punishments for wrongdoing but opportunities to demonstrate how a Godly person behaves in crisis, to train our spiritual muscles to rely on the Lord so that we can run our life’s race faithfully and wisely. Because Hebrews says, God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” It’s not that hardship means we’re being punished because we’re bad… but rather hardship is something we can use to train ourselves like athletes lifting weights at a gym, so that we may have hearts strong with compassion, wisdom, hope, and faith.
This is not to say that every bad thing in life is sent by God directly. The Lord did not force the Romans to nail Jesus to a cross, did not force Moses to give up his royal rights to instead live among the Hebrew slaves. The Lord did not cause those hardships directly. But like a judo master or wrestling champion using an opponent’s weight against them, the Lord took those hard, painful things… and flipped them against the devil, turning difficulties that might drag us down… instead into strength training that helps us run our spiritual race all the better. Hebrews is inviting its readers, back then and us today, to see our own lives the same way. It’s not that God specifically decreed every abuse the ancient Christians suffered. But as persecution happened, God took something meant for evil… and turned it into a blessing instead, something that could strengthen believers instead of weaken them, something that empowered believers to still greater acts of holiness, love, and compassion. God can do this with all hard things. Because the goal of our lives is not to have it easy. Our goal is to be more like Jesus Christ. And so God offers to transform the things that might drag us down… into trainings to be more like Jesus.
There’s a lot of trials and hardships in the world right now. We’re having to find new ways of doing our jobs, of doing school, of doing family time. Some of us are dealing with unemployment or underemployment. Many of us are dealing with medical concerns, grief, and worse. Life is pretty hard right now for us all, myself included. And so Hebrews invites us to change our perspectives. See this era of pandemic not only as a tragedy, though it is a tragedy for sure. But see it also as a chance for discipline, that is to say a chance to train yourself to be more loving and compassionate like Jesus. And remember that this current crisis… is merely one stretch of a much larger marathon, so pace yourself, don’t burn out, keep your eyes on the real goal. And remember all who have gone before us, who endured times like these yet still found it in their hearts to be faithful to God and kind to neighbors. And as Hebrews says: “Let us run with perseverance the race of life set before us, looking to Jesus the trailblazer and perfect example of faith.” In all our hardships, may we find Jesus running alongside us. May we see those hardships as chances to become more like Christ. And may we run through this life, trusting that God is waiting at the finish line, cheering for us alongside all who have gone before. Amen.