In the seventh grade I took up track and field. It turns out I wasn’t fast. One hundred, 200, 400 meters—it didn’t matter; I always finished last. Hurdles slowed me down even more. And forget the relay team. That baton wasn’t getting passed my way.
We ran endless laps, sprints and drills for speed, and laps again to cool down. I never seemed to get faster. When I compared my results to the rest of the team, I was a failure. But one day Coach circled us up after practice and, with an arm around my shoulders, commended me for my hard work and perseverance.
Up until then I’d been wondering if this track thing was worth it. It certainly couldn’t be my thing, not with the results I was getting. Yet Coach’s words showed me that investment and effort can be their own reward. Maybe I couldn’t get faster, but I could endure. With daily discipline, my body grew stronger and so did my spirits.
In Scripture, Paul puts even greater emphasis on our spiritual efforts: “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily training is just slightly beneficial, but godliness is beneficial for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:7-8).
Even a daily habit of prayer can slip into a laundry list rather than be the intimate communion Christ desires for us. It can all seem like running in circles.
Discipline makes us stronger, but as I learned in track, I can easily miss the point of my spiritual disciplines. If my aim is to check a box on my through-the-Bible-in-a-year schedule, then Scripture reading becomes more ritualized than revolutionizing. Even a daily habit of prayer can slip into a laundry list rather than be the intimate communion Christ desires for us. It can all seem like running in circles, especially when we lag behind the goals we’ve set or compare our results to others’. This is why it’s important that we marry discipline with encouragement.
God made us, so He knows this about us. We need His power to run the race set before us, and we require the fuel of His love poured into our heart to keep us from growing weary and unfocused. Think of the way He spoke encouragement to the Israelites—and to His children through the ages—with the promise of our glorious future in Christ, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will rejoice over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zeph. 3:17).
Better than the well-placed words of a coach are the never-changing, always relevant, all-sustaining thoughts of our Creator toward us.
Better than the well-placed words of a coach are the never-changing, always relevant, all-sustaining thoughts of our Creator toward us. Despite our lackluster winning percentage, God celebrates us because we’re His own. With every lap, I need to hear His words of love, comfort, and challenge. That’s why He wants us to revisit His Word continually—and prayerfully. That nearness will give us perspective so we can avoid the performance trap.
“To live a holy life does not mean that you live a sinless life,” says Dr. Stanley. “It means that our heart is bent toward God. It is our desire to walk obediently before Him. We desire to please Him.” The object of our faith is not our effort toward discipline or results; it is Christ. He is the one we aim to know and enjoy.
I never won a race. At every meet, I was the slowest runner. Yet at one I ran a short sprint far from the view of spectators in the grandstand. There weren’t many of us in the race, so that merely by finishing—though last again—I placed and earned points for the team. I’d barely stumbled over the line when Coach hurried over, clapped my back, and rushed me to the scorer’s table. “Write down this name!” Turning me so the scorer could read the back of my uniform, he said, “See how it’s spelled! Write it down.” He was skipping with joy, so happy to see me finish.
How much more joy will Christ display as we come around that final bend? He will run to us, clapping our backs and saying, “Well done! Well done!”