Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Hebrews 12:1)
In Bristol this weekend 12,000 runners took to the streets for the annual 10K race. I live near the Bristol Downs, where every day you can see casual joggers (headphones in; gentle pacing) and more serious runners (hi-vis Lycra; determined) out for their evening’s exercise. Occasionally I’ll join them, but without anything to train for I find it easy to give up early and head home.
The Christian life is often described as a race. Christians are like athletes, in a competition with rules (2 Tim 2:5). We’re to run to obtain a prize, running with purpose and discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). We’re to press on to the end, straining forward to what lies ahead (Philippians 3:13-14). We’re to persevere (Hebrews 12:1), or in the words common to many conversations I’ve had recently, we’re to keep going.
“Keep going.” A simple phrase, easy to say, but it often feels so difficult to do. For the Christian facing a difficult time—whether the stress of exams, overwhelming temptation or the black dog of depression—it can seem next to impossible. “Keep going? Exactly how do you expect me to do that?” We’re all too aware of our weakness and inability, and yet other Christians—the Bible even—seem to expect something that feels beyond us.
Often it can feel like no-one really understands how difficult things are. So we end up hiding away our feelings, saying “no one seems to believe me anyway”. At the other extreme we feel the need to prove that we’re struggling by self-destructing—turning to sin, self-harm, even suicide attempts to get people to “take this seriously”.
To the suffering, struggling Christian, the gentle encouragement to keep going can seem like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. We read verses like the one from Hebrews above, and angrily respond: “I can’t! Can’t you see I’m drowning here?”
When it feels like it’s impossible to keep going, what do we need to hear? Is God being unrealistic and pastorally insensitive when he calls us to “run with perseverance”?
The book of Hebrews actually gives us a perfect model of how to encourage the struggling. More than any other New Testament book, it calls Christians to keep going, to keep running the race, to keep fighting sin, to persevere to the end. But it does so by pointing them away from their own resources, and shows them the one who persevered through ultimate suffering, even to the point of death, and still kept going—the Lord Jesus Christ. The verse above finishes like this:
Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
I can’t keep going. It’s beyond me. I’ll never make it. What can I do? Do I give up?
By no means. We’re to “fix our eyes on Jesus”; to “consider him”, the one who kept going to the bitter end—and pushed through to resurrection life. He has gone through suffering and death to the joy of heaven, and he does so as our pioneer, our forerunner. We look to him—and as we do, we find that, miraculously, he keeps us going. He’s run the race already, and ensures we’ll make it too.
Struggling, weary, doubting Christian: keep going! Not because you’re strong, but because his hold on you is sure. Not because you are worthy, but because he has promised.
Keep going. Not because you are able—but because he is.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 23-24)