Ten thousand meters. Ten kilometers, 6.2 miles, 25 laps around the Olympic stadium.
I’d be happy to make it around once.
I hate running. The last time I ran any significant distance was when we did cross-country in our junior high PE classes. They would take us off campus and into the surrounding neighborhood. We’d start as a group, but the field would start to stretch as the slower runners fell to the rear. Being the chubby kid with no lung capacity, I’d watch the last person disappear around a turn and be left huffing and puffing by myself.
On those days, I was late to my next class.
So when Paul likens the Christian life to a footrace, a part of me groans. But thankfully, watching the Olympic track and field competition has perked up my imagination a bit.
We were out of town visiting relatives this past weekend, celebrating my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday. We spent part of the time, of course, watching the Olympics, most memorably the women’s and then the men’s 10,000m competitions.
At first I thought, This is going to be long and boring. But I was wrong. You could see the runners strategically jockeying for position and helping out their teammates. Some runners started strong but overtaxed themselves early and quickly fell out of contention. And then, in both races, came the jaw-dropping final sprint that separated the medalists from the also-rans: how could they possibly have that much energy left at the end? After crossing the finish line, they hardly seemed winded.
In a letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor 9:24-27, NIV)
These days, of course, we’d have to substitute the word “medal” for “crown.” Paul’s point, of course, is that the Christian life is not meant to be an aimless walk in the park. It’s a rigorously disciplined life in which we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the prize.
I don’t want to push Paul’s metaphor too far beyond his intended meaning, but watching the full range of track and field events, it’s obvious that not all races are created equal. Look at the 100m runners: they’re well-muscled, built for power and speed over short distances. Often, the race is won by the person who gets the best start off the blocks. Look at the 10,000m runners: they’re of a much slighter build, appropriate to a race of endurance, won by the person who knows how to finish.
Paul himself was quite conscious of the need to finish well, for he didn’t expect a long and leisurely life:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Tim 4:6-8, NIV)
My mother-in-law was far from the oldest person in the room at her birthday party; the ages ranged from 8 to 97. These days, I think a lot about the upper part of that spectrum. A week from tomorrow will be the first anniversary of my father’s death. Amongst friends and family both, age-related health concerns are daily topics of conversation.
What does it mean to finish well? Paul’s story has a heroic dimension to it. Imprisoned for the gospel, suffering persecution, a witness for Jesus in the halls of power: he’s earned his gold medal.
But here’s a person languishing in nursing care. Here are those who are frustrated because their bodies will no longer do what their minds tell them to do. Here are those whose minds are being stolen from them by degrees. What does it mean for them to be able to say, “The time for my departure is near; I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”?
It’s a race of endurance. But we expect no heroic sprint to the finish.
These are not questions Paul intended to raise, and I hope it’s not disrespectful to shift his metaphor a bit. Again, his point is to cultivate the single-mindedness of an athlete pursuing gold, who willingly takes on whatever training regimen is necessary to win the prize. But to me at least, the metaphor is contaminated by living in a culture that celebrates those who crush the competition. We cheer the medalists and promptly forget everyone else.
Here’s a different image. I remember races in which a runner has taken a fall, eliminating them from medal contention. And rather than lie on the ground weeping and bemoaning the cruelty of the universe, they get up and finish the race.
To reach the Olympics, all the runners must engage in rigorous training. In a race, all the runners run, chasing the gold. Only one will get it. But we must all finish well and faithfully, even if we have to limp across the line.
And often, we will need the help of our teammates to do it.