Being a Christian is hard. I would even suggest once we start thinking it's easy, we might not be doing it right. That's the thought that entered my mind as I entered the 6th mile of my 8.4 mile training run today. I'm not a runner, but I've decided to participate in a 120-mile relay run which a 5.3 mile segment is my part. Now that I'm no longer in my twenties, I'm starting to realize that being fit takes some work. Like obediently following the teachings of Jesus when it’s the unpopular thing to do, it's hard, especially at first. If I thought running was easy, my wife (a marathon runner) would probably be the first to tell me I wasn't doing it right.
So as I started loosing my steam, I started to think about spiritual parallels to running. Race training is a good analogy to a spiritual journey, but I'm not the first one to make the observation. It's widely known where the Olympics got their start and that the "Marathon" comes from the original city in ancient Greece. The Romans adopted much of Hellenist culture including athletic competition evidenced today by the numerous arenas that remain in ruins. The Roman Empire during the life of Jesus and the early church was well aware of these contests. Paul plainly makes the comparison in his final goodbye letter when he says in 2 Timothy 4:7, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." The context here is in reference to presenting the gospel and all that comes with it. Anyone familiar with Paul’s story in Acts can relate to the difficulties he faced while passionately engaging in fervent evangelism. In reference to the wreath that the champion wins, he mentions in verse 8 that "now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." This is the eternal prize of unending life in paradise with the Creator and all our fellow believers.
Jesus himself refers to the kingdom of heaven several times in terms of a prize. He compares the reward of heaven in parables to that of a precious pearl or a banquet feast yet cautions his followers of the coming persecution for his sake. He gives this warning at least eight different times just in the gospel of Matthew alone including this one from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:10-12 NIV). Jesus is not warning of the possibility of persecution, but that it certainly will happen. Notice his choice of words in his statements like “when they persecute you” (Matt 10:23), “when persecution comes” (Mark 4:17), and “they will persecute” (Luke 11:49). If we listen to his Word, we will be more prepared to endure the difficult road ahead.
The pain of fighting the good fight or running the race is only temporary whereas the rewards are long lasting. Christians so often err by focusing solely on future rewards in heaven while neglecting the fact that eternity begins with our creation on Earth. A runner doesn’t see the health benefits only later in life, but also soon after beginning the healthy lifestyle of exercise. Likewise, a new Christian can experience the benefit of a renewed and healthy lifestyle on Earth long before entering heaven. The benefits of such a transformation are too numerous to mention, but some are less guilt, less anger, more love, genuine fellowship, purposeful living, valued relationships, peace in this life and anticipation of things to come. There are even physical benefits to living as God intended such as a minimized exposure to STDs, alcohol/drug related incidents, incarceration, and violence.
Everyone lives forever, but not everyone receives the same reward. This comes about not by human effort but as a supernatural gift from God. The race training metaphor has been appropriate up until this point but differes sharply when it comes to merited honor. While the competitor earns a prize through hard work, the Christ follower gains a heavenly reward by God’s unmerited grace alone. (Although, I guess even the ability to have been born healthy and capable for atheltic competition is unearned as well). A Creator who is perfectly just cannot go against His nature by ignoring even the smallest sin. No matter how minor it may seem from our human perspective, our fallen state keeps us infinitely far from the glory of the Lord. Since we are all imperfect beings, we require help to please God in lieu of our inability to reach His standard on our own. We need something more than the natural world can offer. Fortunately, everyone is offered the same gracious reward since Jesus already earned the prize for us. Once we examine the Christian claims and find them to be true, all we need to do is accept God's gracious offer, trust his Word, and keep our eyes on the prize.