All I remember about my first and only marathon is the disappointment.
After graduating from college, I decided to check off an item on my bucket list. I was gainfully employed without the commitments of a spouse or children. It was time to run a marathon. I had never run in a half-marathon race, but I naively figured that three years of running high school cross-country would somehow carry me for 26.2 miles. I was very wrong.
Without getting bogged down in the forgettable details, I undertrained the long runs and failed to prepare my feet and legs for the pounding. So on race day, around mile eighteen, I ran headlong into the dreaded “wall.” I finished, but only after limping the final eight miles of the race with a broken body and a wounded ego.
“We must not mistake our sin for weakness.”
When I think back on the race, I don’t recall the beautiful training runs along the beach in La Jolla, California. I don’t remember the exhilaration of building up mile after mile. I don’t even remember the excitement of race day or those first eighteen miles of well-paced running. I only remember the eight miserable miles of limping to the finish line. I remember my weakness.
Failures and Weaknesses
It is easy to remember our failures. Quitting. Dropping out. Divorced. Estranged. Fired. Bankrupt. Incomplete. Incarcerated.
It’s also easy to recall our ever-present weaknesses. Physical frailty. Chronic ailments. Below-average intellect. Learning disabilities. Emotional brokenness. Childhood trauma.
At one level, we can boast in our weaknesses and frailties. We should. We want to follow in the path of the apostle Paul, who says, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Our weaknesses are opportunities for Christ’s power to be revealed through dependence and faith. By weaknesses, I mean the painful but morally neutral aspects of our humanity, many of which are part and parcel of God’s design for us in this age.
Amazingly, we can even boast in frailties that come from being sinned against. God delights to be “near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). God turns evil into an opportunity to revel in God’s power, presence, and comfort. We receive comfort in affliction so that we might comfort others with that same comfort (2 Corinthians 1:4). Brokenness becomes the training ground for fruitful ministry to others.
While we can learn to embrace, and even boast in, our weakness, we must not mistake our sin for weakness.
Façades and Excuses
Sin often dons the mask of weakness or frailty. It masquerades as being morally neutral when it’s actually a deadly disease that will destroy us. We are tempted to reframe our sins — lust, anger, impatience, selfish ambition, harshness, gluttony, dishonesty, gossip, and so forth — as natural elements of our humanity or results of suffering trauma. One may be tempted to think, I’m just more prone than others to act this way because of my past. While our past can influence our present thinking and patterns, it nonetheless does not excuse us from failing to wage war against our sin.
In the famous words of Puritan John Owen, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” That truth applies both to the occasional or rarer sins and to those sins we find particularly (or persistently) enticing. No matter our past, disposition, or personality, there are no excuses for embracing sin.
For example, if a young man struggles with pornography because he was exposed to illicit material at a young age, that is grievous. He has been sinned against by those who exposed him to it, and he now bears the weight of increased temptation and all the various effects inflicted on his developing brain. But this young man’s sinful inclinations and propensities do not excuse his sin.
“No matter our past, disposition, or personality, there are no excuses for embracing sin.”
While our past experiences may help us to understand our struggles (anorexia, overeating, anxiety, a performance mindset, angry outbursts, impatience, and so on), they certainly do not excuse them. Christians are always — or ought to be — on the pathway and trajectory of increasing holiness. In fact, a propensity toward a particular type of sin ought to make us all the more vigilant against that sin.
Strengthen Your Weak Knees
The author of Hebrews understood the temptation to become weary or fainthearted in the struggle against sin. Yet he didn’t use weariness to excuse his readers’ sin, but instead calls them to rise up in God-enabled zeal to fight. He says, “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees” so that they might “obtain the grace of God” (Hebrews 12:12, 15). How are they supposed to do that?
The writer exhorts his audience to cast off sin and temptation by looking to Jesus Christ, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). That’s a simple but effective strategy against the ensnarement of sin: look to Jesus. Consider his life, death, and resurrection for you. Consider his present rule and reign at the Father’s right hand. Consider how Christ suffered and persevered to the point of death in obedience to his Father’s will. Much like a marathon, the race of the Christian life is mainly about finishing. It matters not how you get there, or how weak you feel along the way; it matters that you keep running. In the Christian life this running is fighting for joy in God (and against the joy-killing effects of sin).
God also offers his gracious work of restorative discipline in the life of believers. God disciplines his children for their good so that we might become more holy (Hebrews 12:10). While this may instinctively make sense as a parent (who regularly has to discipline his children), it’s much more difficult to accept when we’re on the receiving end.
Difficulty and Struggle
Thus God calls believers to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees” (Hebrews 12:12). He calls them to not crumble under the weight of exhaustion and discouragement — nor under the weight of corrective discipline — but rather to renew the pursuit of holiness. Do not give up or give in to sin. The difficulty of this task does not diminish but heightens the worth of the prize. To borrow a popular slogan, no pain, no gain — or growth.
“Difficulty and struggle are good signs of having actively engaged in the fight against sin.”
Difficulty and struggle are good signs of having actively engaged in the fight against sin. In the pursuit of holiness, we must embrace the struggle, sweat, and pain (Hebrews 12:4). Sin and Satan seek to rob believers of joy, to render them ineffective, and to derail their pathway toward everlasting joy and glorification. Recognizing weakness is not giving in to sin. Recognizing weakness is remembering our inability to fight on our own. Knowing we cannot fight alone, we renew our faith in Christ, relying on the infinite resources he purchased for us.
We may be tempted to wallow in our weaknesses, wishing we were more like someone else, but far better to ponder God’s redeeming power at work in our weakness, and then to renew our zeal to kill sin. Instead of lamenting our inabilities, we hope in the one of inestimable ability, Jesus, who took on our weakness so that we might become strong in him.
Our older brother embraced all the limitations of becoming human, he experienced the broad range of temptation yet was without sin, and he suffered extreme agony and mockery to redeem us. Therefore, we have a sympathetic high priest who brings us to the Father, and we have a Savior who has destroyed the power of sin so that we might find increasing freedom while we eagerly anticipate being with him forever, purified and new, in heaven.