The gravestone of one of my ancestors reads, “ I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7, KJV). This metaphor-filled declaration by Paul to Timothy came when the apostle neared death in prison. Now especially meaningful at the end of an Olympic year, finishing the race signifies the difference between endurance and despair.
Just what is this race we’re running? It’s not the rat race, not a “keeping up with the Joneses” lifestyle nor the struggle of keeping up appearances. No, the race the apostle Paul referred to represents following and serving Jesus Christ to the end, whether that end is death or Christ’s return, regardless what obstacles appear in the path.
Finishing the race requires endurance. But how do we keep going with so much to deter us? From church spats to the stress of daily life, from feeling so different from others to wondering just when will Jesus come; addictions, distractions, comparisons to others — all conspire to knock us out of the race.
Even our own perceived failures at such things as career or marriage can discourage us spiritually. The Tempter attempts to use our weaknesses as justification to quit — even temporarily, like the hare that raced against the tortoise in Aesop’s fable.
Who would ever think that a slow, short-legged creature in a constricting shell could finish a race ahead of a speedy rabbit? However, the tortoise demonstrated endurance in the face of slim odds. Endurance is not simply powered by positive thinking, such as the train engine that chugged, “I think I can, I think I can” up the mountain.
Rather, a combination of factors supports the endurance needed to continue with Christ to the end. Christ himself finished the race set before Him, though faced with detractors. We can look to Him for an example of endurance through vision, focus, and commitment.
Children are masters of vision. They look forward to their next birthday, sometimes far in advance, not always understanding clearly how long the wait may be. They have dreams of the special day filled with cake and gifts. We are all endowed with this ability to visualize a possible future, bringing hope amid the struggle.
When Jesus said that His kingdom is not of this world, He was referring to an invisible kingdom seen with spiritual eyes, one that currently anticipates His future, final, visible kingdom (John 18:36). Seeing ourselves as part of that kingdom, now and forever, gives us the vision that motivates us to persist in the race through rough terrain.
As Jesus faced the roughest terrain of His earthly life — His
trial and crucifixion — He saw Himself “sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). Similarly, the early church leader Stephen, after angering a Jewish council that suspected him of blasphemy, further incited the council by sharing his vision of “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56).
As we lift our own eyes above this passing earth to envision our seat “in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6), rough patches on the course seem smoother.
Any serious athlete will agree that you can’t go far without intense focus. Inherent in this word is the idea that thoughts unrelated to the task at hand must go. An Olympic swimmer glancing at the competition may lose a precious one-hundredth of a second — enough to lose the gold.
From age twelve, when Jesus astounded the teachers in the temple with His understanding (Luke 2:46-49), to the day He was lifted up into heaven, Jesus’ emphasis was on His Father’s business and His own role in it “to suffer and to rise from the dead” (24:46). He fulfilled His purpose to provide remission of sins by His death and our repentance (vv. 44-49). Christ’s life exemplified throwing off distractions, such as the Devil’s sly offers in the wake of His baptism (4:1-13) and extreme suffering as He laid down His life. Jesus not only demonstrated focus but also taught the importance of it for His followers in saying, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62).
Focus is a matter of choices. What do we really want?
Finishing the race requires commitment, which stems from the conviction that “He is, and that He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). The over-confident hare of Aesop’s fable took a break from the race, convincing himself it wouldn’t make any difference. He did not diligently pursue the prize.
My own experience tells me I reap spiritual rewards of guidance and grace when I sow time and attention in my walk with the Lord. The temptation to grow sluggish is strong, but those who are diligent until the end inherit the promises (vv. 11, 12). Again, we see an example in Christ: “I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me” (John 5:30). In the same spirit, Christians commit to following Christ where He goes (12:26).
Grace for the race
The Christ we follow sympathizes with our weaknesses and temptations along the way. However, we are expected to come to Him boldly for grace to help our need (4:15, 16) and to not give up and wallow in a pit of failure. When we don’t succeed at some goal in life, a well-meaning supporter will likely remark, “Well, you gave it your best shot.” Thankfully, in Christ, we need not rely on our best shot to finish the race for the crown of righteousness given by the righteous Judge for all who love His appearing (2 Timothy 4:8).
Even so, if we are to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1), we must first lay aside whatever weighs us down and, by God’s grace, run the race to the finish.
Don’t despair; endure!