In 1992, Olympic runner Derek Redmond’s hamstring snapped mid-race. He hobbled to a stop as the other runners flew past him. With much pain and tears, he began to limp and hop toward the finish line, refusing to give up.
It appears several coaches advised him to stop running, probably to avoid hurting himself further. Already in excruciating pain, he could hardly move. But then his dad, Jim, reached him. After collapsing onto his father in tears, together they slowly and painfully made their way to a touching finish as his dad continually waived away those who were attempting to stop them.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Tim 4:7) These words of St. Paul have made an impression on me since my youth. I see myself much like Derek Redmond. The race of the spiritual struggle for salvation began, but then the world and even my own body assailed me with every kind of difficulty and distraction. Spiritual athletes of the past and present flew to the finish line with seeming ease as I fell to the ground in pain, wondering if I should just give up on all of this.
But when that happens, I find my Father’s voice whisper through the scriptures, guide me through the fathers of the church, and sing to me in the services, encouraging me to “gird up my loins” one more time.
SCRIPTURES ON THE RACE
There are numerous scriptures that equate the work of salvation in our lives to running a race, including:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1st Corinthians 9:24-27)
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)
ARE YOU SAVED?
I have heard it asked, Why do the Orthodox pray, ‘Lord have mercy’ so often? Our culture here in America is Protestant, and it carries with it various strange ideas about salvation. Even people who convert to Orthodoxy have a hard time letting go of some of these ideas.
Many of us have heard the question, Are you saved? which implies salvation is some kind of one time event that happens to us. Whereas the ancient Christian understanding has always been that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12)
I recently had a Southern Baptist preacher ask me if I am saved. I told him, in summary, that I am working out my salvation. He then attempted to correct me, teaching the usual strange Protestant doctrine. I referenced the passage from Philippians 2:12 (above) and he said that it means that we are to sit back, relax, and enjoy the grace that God has given us. I said, “Ok,” and figured it would not be worth discussing theology with someone who completely dismisses scripture that conflicts with his doctrine.
AN IMAGINARY ADVENTURE
I brought up Derek Redmond’s story above as well as the concept of salvation in order to tie these things together. Like an Olympic runner, we must dedicate our lives to working out our salvation if we wish to finish the race successfully. Even if that means we are limping our way to the finish line, that is ok, as long as we compete and finish.
Fitting Protestant theology into this metaphor of a race would look like this: All you have to do is believe that there is an Olympic race and you will win it. Don’t live a life of strictness, don’t watch what you eat, don’t train so hard. Just kick back and relax, basking in the thought that you are an Olympic runner. The man who gives out the medals has run the race on your behalf. After all, he said “take up your running shoes and follow me,” meaning that you’re to read about him and tell other people to imagine themselves in the race, too!
You can see how utterly nonsensical that is.
FAITH VS. MAKE BELIEVE
The author of Hebrews, in chapter three, states that many of the Israelites did not enter into God’s rest due to their sinful lives. He called sinning unbelief (verse 19).
Here we see clearly the author of Hebrews equating a life of disobedience to God as unbelief. In other words, being a Christian and stating that one believes in God is not a mental ascent to a certain philosophical idea, but a radical change of life. The Apostle John’s emphasis in the teaching of Jesus was that we only believe. But in his first epistle, he states, Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. (1 John 3)
In short, we must strive every day so that our life matches up with our claim to be a Christian, otherwise our faith is simply a fairy tale.
Today, I look at myself and my own lack of spiritual discipline and I cannot help but think I’ll be lucky if I even finish this spiritual race. But that is the reason Christ called the path to salvation a cross.
A FAULTY MODEL
Belief in Christ was never meant to be a philosophy about a relationship with God, but it has always been a struggle toward God. Much of the language of the New Testament makes very little sense if salvation is improperly understood. When Jesus hung on the cross and said, “It is finished,” he did not mean we “bask in the grace.” Rather, God had done everything necessary on His part for our salvation: He signed us up for the race, He gave us the plan on how to become fit for it through practicing the virtues, and He gives us the ability to run.
But we still have to run it! And as long as we are struggling, making an honest effort to daily crucify our fleshly desires, then we are running the race and I think God will see to it that we finish.