However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. Acts 20:24 NIV
Over the years I’ve had a number of friends who have run the Comrades Marathon from Durban to Pietermaritzburg (or vice-versa). It’s a gruelling race with thousands of runners who are usually skinny, no doubt brave, generally motivated, and somewhat masochistic.
The race begins before the crack of dawn. As I’ve watched the contestants at the beginning of the race, it’s obvious that running is fun. People are laughing, joking, and waving to the crowds along the way. Their bodies look loose, their lungs are sucking in air, their heads are clear, their muscles strong, and their motivation high. Everyone looks to be in the best of condition.
But it doesn’t last long. For the majority of runners the initial rush of pleasure soon becomes an effort. The effort becomes laborious, and, as the sun, coupled with the Valley of a Thousand Hills, wears the runners down it becomes obvious that many are struggling to overcome the overwhelming temptation to stop.
Marathon running is like that. At some point your feet begin to protest, your calves begin to burn, and your lungs feel like they’re on fire. That’s when you’ve started to “hit the wall.” Although I never ran a marathon, in my younger days I discovered I’d hit the wall before completing ten kilometres. Through this experience I discovered that to run when you’re hitting the wall is the ultimate test of a runner. As runners will tell you, a race is won or lost, retired from or finished, at “the wall.”
Which is why I admire marathon runners. They dig down deeper than most. They call on reserves they don’t feel they have. They push their bodies despite the gruelling pain. And they motivate themselves to somehow make it over the finish line.
That’s what it’s all about. Some runners will virtually kill themselves just to say they made it. You’ll see them struggling with cramps. You’ll see their legs collapsing under them. You’ll see them staggering or crawling on hands and knees as they try to make it to the end. And you’ll see some of them crossing the line and passing out from dehydration and exhaustion.
Yes, the start of the race is enjoyable. The finishing is hard work. But it’s the finishing that counts.
This capacity to finish is what the Bible refers to as endurance or perseverance. It’s the ability to bear a hard thing and turn the hardship into glory. It’s the ability to stick to something and not to waver. It’s the tenacity to keep on going when everything within you is crying out for you to stop. And it’s the discharge of effort when you feel like you’ve got nothing left to give. No wonder Chrysostom said, “Endurance is the queen of all virtues.”
Which brings me to another Comrades Marathon. It’s the Christian race. It usually starts well. Then somewhere along the way it starts to get tough. You begin to experience pain. Little stabs at first, and then before you realize what’s happening you’re “hitting the wall.” That’s when you’ve got to dig deep. And that’s when you’ve got to be determined you’re not going to quit. For your life is “worth nothing” unless you “finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given” to you, “the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” Acts 20:24.
There’s no way around it. Believers are marathon runners. There’s no retiring and no dropping out. We must “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and … run with perseverance the race marked out for us” Hebrews 12:1. For we do not run aimlessly. No, we run in such a way as to finish the race and “to get the prize … a crown that will last forever” 1 Corinthians 9:24- 25.