Christians are runners.
The New Testament frequently uses the analogy of running a race to depict the Christian life lived in a broken world. We’re called to run to win the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24), while laying aside every weight and sin, and looking to Jesus (Hebrews 12:1–2).
I had this analogy in mind while I ran around the lake the other day. It was windy. My lower back ached. My knees were sore. My ankle hurt. I felt the effects of the limitations of my body. All I wanted to do was stop.
But I didn’t stop. I pressed through the pain. And as I was contemplating this running analogy, I began to realize something sinister about why I wasn’t stopping: I didn’t want to look weak.
The Reward of Running for Reputation
I take pleasure in those around me viewing me as strong. I delight when others think highly of me — as did some of the Pharisees.
Jesus talked about how these religious leaders prayed long prayers in public to be noticed. He also said, “They have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2). The reward they received was when others thought highly of them. But that kind of reward only fuels our pride (if we keep up the image) or our shame (if, and when, we fail to keep it up).
If we live for ourselves, we will have reward in this life, but not the life to come. Our self-sustaining, individualistic impulse to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps” may appear like strength to the world, but in the end, it keeps us from eternal life.
And this impulse to be exalted on other people’s opinions extends far beyond a run around the lake. It begins to saturate almost every conversation we have and every post we make on social media. It alienates us from each other because we know we are being inauthentic, trying desperately to keep up appearances. We live in fear that our walls of strength will eventually be seen as flimsy fences.
So, how can we obey the call to run the race without running hard for the wrong reasons?
A Strange Pleasure
In 2 Corinthians 12:7–9, the apostle Paul chronicles his struggle with a thorn in the flesh that was given to him by the Lord. He asked God to take his thorn away, but to this point God had not done so. Paul’s response is surprising. He says that he boasts in his weakness because God’s grace is sufficient for his weakness and God’s power is made perfect in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
But Paul continues in verse ten,
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
The literal translation of the word “content” is “well pleased.” Before, Paul pleaded for this thorn to go away, but now he says he is “well pleased” with all of the strong winds in the race of life. How can this be?
I think Paul realized that his greatest weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities served as reminders of his utter need for the grace of God in Christ. We cannot run hard enough to fulfill the law on our own. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and therefore deserve the wages of sin: death (Romans 6:23). The fundamental reality of our salvation is that we must give up on our efforts to clean ourselves up and make ourselves look nice, and instead admit that we are broken sinners in need of grace.
Paul was well pleased with weakness because it served as a moment-by-moment reminder that only God’s power and grace was sufficient. Therefore, Paul was free to run and work hard in the pleasure of God’s work in him (Philippians 2:13) and by the grace God supplied him (1 Corinthians 15:10).
In other words, running the race with this strange pleasure is the antithesis of running the race fueled by pride and shame. We don’t try to make ourselves look strong, but we shout that we are weak. We don’t try to run the race by ourselves, in our own power, but we realize the only way to run this race is by the grace of God in Christ.
Lay Down the Burden of Self-Sufficiency
If we can be well pleased with our weaknesses, we will lay down the weight of self-sufficiency by placing our burdens on God who cares for us. While we run, we look to Jesus who ran the race before us and trust the Spirit to empower us in the gospel.
We will get the help of prayer from the body of Christ because we will admit where we need help and God will get the glory as he meets us in our weakness through their prayers (2 Corinthians 1:11).
So, brothers and sisters, let’s lay down the pride of self-sufficiency and lay down the shame of our weakness, and instead look to Jesus. Let us be well pleased with our weakness and run together as the body of Christ the race that is set before us, trusting the grace that saved us and brought us safe thus far will surely lead us home.