“Everyone who competes in the games goes into training…I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” I Cor. 9:25 & 27
Theres’ a story of a young cross country runner who was training with his team and feeling rather “feisty” during a particular training session. On this day, he decided to show the rest of the team that he was the fastest. Instead of running with the pack and maintaining a sustainable pace, he broke free from the group and sprinted ahead for the last kilometer or so.
Finishing a considerable time ahead of the rest of the team he prepared himself for the accolades of his coach and teammates. When the final runner crossed the finish line the coach called the team to circle up. He commended the team on an excellent effort for the day and then singled out the young man who had finished well ahead of the rest, “Son, don’t ever do that again,” the coach chided. “This is a team of winners. We have several regional and state championships in both individual and team categories. And we win because we train to race, not race to train. We are a team of winners, none of us are a winner above the team.”
The three of you who regularly read my blog know that I run three to four times per week. Actually, it’s slightly above average jogging, but the allegory holds true. I run in the morning between 6:00 and 7:00 AM. I enjoy the solitude, just me and my iPod enjoying each other’s company plodding along for a few miles. An interesting aside is that the more relaxed my listening music is then the better my running times for distances longer than five to seven miles. I think it’s because I’m relaxed in not competing against anyone else, just out training for the intrinsic value of doing what is good for my body.
Needless to say that the more intelligent humans in my neighborhood are still in bed at that time of the morning. But every once in a while another misguided soul will be out running. This is when I get into trouble. I start comparing myself to them. “Is my stride as good as theirs?” “How’s my pace compared to there’s?” “Am I wasting as much energy in upper body movement as they are?”
Inevitably, in an attempt to increase my self-esteem I compare their weakness to my strengths. I’m blessed with a naturally neutral stride. That’s usually where I start. “Their stride isn’t nearly as effortless as mine,” I assure myself. It doesn’t matter that they just blew by me with a smile on their face while I huff and puff.
Of course, if their times appear to be better than mine it can only be because they’re just out for a quick one mile jaunt while I’m in the middle of a grueling five mile slugfest with exhaustion. “Their form is so poor that I bet I could still catch them even with my increased distance,” I rationalize.
My pace quickens and before I know it, I’m not training to race any longer, I’m racing to train. I’ve lost sight of my goal. My goal, in becoming a runner in my late forties, isn’t to win a race….I might not ever even run a competitive race. My goal in running is to be healthy, to control my diabetes without drugs, to maintain a reasonable weight, to be the best me that I can be. But, now I’ve made it about someone else and comparing myself to them.
In short order my session comes unraveled. My form disintegrates, my upper body tightens, my breathing becomes erratic. The neutral step that, just moments before, I was so proud of fails me as I fatigue and my feet begin scuffing the ground under me. I am undone by my own pride.
I notice a similar tendency in my growth as a Christian, as well. It’s a trap that many of us fall into; the tendency to compare our strength to others’ weakness. The name for it is judgmentalism. And it’s fruitless. All it does is distract me from the race that God has called us to run. He’s set a course, a pace, a discipline for all of us to run. The life of a Christian isn’t a contest against others. It doesn’t matter if I’m faster or better than someone else. My life isn’t identified in relation to theirs. My life is identified with the pace setter, Jesus.
Continuing with the analogy of my running, this year’s Boston Marathon winner, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya, set a new record for that twenty six mile race: 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 2 seconds. I run about ten miles in the same amount of time. That means that Geoffrey could lap me and finish six miles ahead of me. I wouldn’t stand a chance. He could run with less than half the effort and still finish more than an hour ahead of me.
But what if it wasn’t a race to cover a certain distance the fastest? What if the contest was to be the first to circumnavigate the globe at the equator in less than 2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds? At that point it really doesn’t matter that he’s faster than I am. In fact, he could be one hundred times faster than I am. He could lease a private jet and still not win. It would be a hopeless, winless situation for both of us.
That’s the accurate race analogy for us as Christians. We could never reach the goal except for the pace setter, Jesus. And here’s where the analogy breaks down, He’s already won the race in our place. But I’m thankful that analogies break down with Him. He breaks the mould. He doesn’t just set the standard; He also carries it for me…for you. And He wins the race while carrying the standard in one hand and carrying us in the other. He’s that big, He’s that strong, He’s that fast…He loves us that much. He wants us to experience winning the race with Him.
So, let’s stop racing against each other and start training with each other. Let’s stop competing in our habits, our lifestyles, our churches, our dogma with each other. If we’re running in the presence of the One carrying the standard, then it really doesn’t matter that I read the Bible more, that my knees have bent in prayer more, that my church has more attenders on Easter Sunday, that my ministry has more major donors, that…anything. It only matters that more people join the race and train to race, not race to train.
The litmus test of being great in the Kingdom of God isn’t that I’m better than those around me; that my theology is more sound than someone else’s; that my church is more Biblically accurate than the those surrounding mine; that my ministry ministers to more widows and orphans than mine. The way to tell that I’m running the good race is that everyone around me runs a little faster, a little truer, a little straighter because of my example that reflects the One who has already won the race. Spiritual leadership isn’t being better than everyone else; it’s encouraging, inspiring, equipping everyone else to be better.