Finishing well

I admire the endurance of distance runners. I’ve never been a runner myself, though; part of the reason is that by a quirk of the anatomy with which I was born, I don’t have the lung capacity. When I was a kid, running cross-country in gym class was both torturous and embarrassing. I would sometimes have to show up late for my next class because I was still out on the road somewhere trying to convince my body to keep going, one agonizing step at a time.

But it’s not only runners who need endurance. People struggle with ongoing challenges of every kind. And some need an extra measure of endurance and grace to “finish well” — to come to the end of their days, or the end of a career or ministry, with their spirits whole and healthy.

. . .

The apostle Paul was fond of using the metaphor of a footrace to describe the life of discipleship. Writing to the Corinthians, he compared the Christian life to an Olympic track meet; runners had to train with rigorous discipline if they wanted to win the race (1 Cor 9:24-27). And later, as he bid farewell to the friends who had to fill his shoes in Ephesus, he used similar language: 

And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace. (Acts 20:22-24, NRSV)

He knew, as we have seen, that the Holy Spirit was calling him to complete his mission of bringing the money he collected from the Gentile churches to their poor brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. He also knew that trouble was waiting for him everywhere he went, including Jerusalem. After all, much of the suffering he had endured on his missionary journeys was inflicted by his fellow Jews. And lest there be any doubt, the Holy Spirit assured him that imprisonment and persecution would continue to be his lot.

Though Paul didn’t know exactly what would befall him, he didn’t go into Jerusalem blindly. He knew there would be trouble of some kind. I imagine that the Ephesian elders, listening to him predict his further suffering, were grieved. “But,” Paul told them, “that’s not what really matters. What matters is that I be able to finish the race, complete the job Jesus gave me: to keep preaching the gospel of grace.”

To me, this is yet another of the substance of true Christian hope. Paul doesn’t say, “Well, bad things are likely to happen, but I hope not.” That’s not because he’s masochistic or has a death wish. Rather, he has a different perspective than many of us do, a different way of looking at life and suffering.

After all, how many of us could say, “My mission is more important than my life”? Paul would see his gospel vocation through to the end, whatever it cost.

. . .

As I have said repeatedly in recent weeks, hope is neither mere optimism nor wishful thinking. People who exhibit a robust Christian hope see the bigger picture. As it was with Jesus, as it was with Paul, it’s not just about whether or what I have to suffer in the present; it’s about what might be achieved through that suffering. There is a glorious future beyond what I can see, and that future is in the hands of our Father, whose Son suffered to give us entry into that glory.

Paul knew what it meant to finish well. I am blessed to have friends who know it too. Even when facing the ravages of terminal illness, even when they pray for a break from their suffering, they don’t lose sight of the big picture.

Suffering in the present life matters to God. Of course it does. But what matters more is eternity. Christians with real hope don’t simply want to know when or if their suffering will end; they want to know how that suffering might become an opportunity to testify to the grace of God.

Such friends are my teachers, part of a long line of people stretching all the way back to the Bible itself. May I learn the lesson, and when the opportunity comes, finish well.