Thursday, September 1, 2011

Run Your Race Well: Part 2

In order to run the race of life well we need to remove the obstacles that would get in our way. At the beginning of cross-country season our High School team takes a day to clear the course. They run their home meets at a beautiful park with trails that lead through the woods. These trails need to be cleared of debris. A low hanging branch or a fallen limb can cause a runner to stumble and fall. In order to run the best race the obstacles have to be removed.

Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles...” We are instructed to divest ourselves of all those things that hinder us from running the race; those things that would distract us and keep us from doing our very best.  There are two different kinds of encumbrances that get in our way; good things that distract us and bad things that entrap us.

A new track season had just begun. I had purchased a new lock for my track locker. It was one with a key because I didn’t like remembering the combination. As I dressed for the meet, I put the key on a chain around my neck and stuck it inside my uniform. I was scheduled to run the 2-mile race that day. When the time came I took my place at the starting line and anxiously waited for the gun to sound. The starter gave the commands; take your mark, set, bang! We were off. As I rounded the first turn the key around my neck began to swing wildly. Needless to say it was distracting as it repeatedly hit me in the face. As I came around the track I heard the coach screaming out, “Throw it away”.  I didn’t.  I hung on to it.  I didn’t want to lose it. Have you ever tried to run hanging onto a key attached to a chain around your neck?  Needless to say I didn’t run very well. What I needed to do was get rid of the thing that hindered me, but I was more afraid of what I might lose. 

The fear of losing something good often keeps us from experiencing something better. Just before a race begins the runners take off their warm-ups.  Warm-ups are great when you’re cold and you need to get your muscles loosened up, but when it comes time to run they must come off. They will hinder you from doing your best. There is nothing wrong with warm-ups. They are just not appropriate for running the race.  As we prepare to run our race throughout this life, we need to get rid of those things that encumber us, those things that may be good things, but distract us from running the race.

Life offers us many good things. If we are not careful we can fill our lives with so many good things that we become weighed down and unable to strive for what is best. As we mature in our faith we learn to see the difference between what is good and what is best. If a good thing is hindering us from running our race well, then we need to “throw it away.” As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “"Everything is permissible"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive.” In order to run the race well we must let go of some good things so we don’t miss out on the best things. We can live “the good life” but fail to run the good race that God has marked out before us.

There is another kind of obstacle that we need to clear out of our way. Hebrews calls it the sin that so easily entangles us. We don’t like to talk about sin. It makes us uncomfortable. Instead we talk about making a mistake or a poor decision. Sometimes we rationalize away our sin by claiming that we are victims of other people’s actions or some circumstance out of our control. The Bible is very clear that we are all sinners. Romans 3:23 says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Sin is a reality that we must deal with in our lives.

Sin is such a common part of our lives that we often don’t recognize its presence. Children are notorious for not tying their shoes. They run around with shoelaces flopping in the air oblivious to the potential danger involved. So parents are constantly reminding their children to tie their shoes so that don’t trip and fall. No serious runner would ever run a race with his shoes untied. It would be a recipe for disaster. Even more so, no runner would attempt to run a race with his shoelaces tied together! He would be tripped up at his first stride. Every runner makes sure to eliminate anything that would entangle her and trip her up.

Recently I read an article on the Internet titled “Police thankful for baggy pants.”  The story was about some juveniles that had robbed a store.  The police arrived in time to catch them in the act.  The juveniles tried to run away but were unsuccessful. They were wearing baggy pants that hung down low. As they tried to flee their pants fell down to their knees, tripping them up. Can you imagine the scene? It would be comic. There is the thief trying to run while holding onto his loot and pulling up his pants at the same time. Even as this makes us smile, it should remind us of our own attempts to hang onto our sin and run the race of life.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are keenly aware of sin in our own lives. There are certain things that trip us up time and time again. It could be anger. When things don’t go our way we explode and hurt others. It could be pride. As we look in the mirror we glory in our superior abilities. It could be lust; lust for things or for pleasure. Whatever it may be there is some area in our lives that always seems to be lurking in the shadows waiting to take center stage. By God’s grace we need to take steps to actively eliminate those things from our lives. One of the most helpful ways to do this is to confess this sin to a trusted friend. James 5:16 tells us, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”  The juveniles mentioned above intentionally put on those baggy pants and it tripped them up!  We do the same thing when we ignore the common sins in our lives. It is time to put off those things so that we can run the race well.  

Satan is the master of setting obstacles in our way. He is always watching for ways to trip us up. The more aware we are of our vulnerabilities, the better prepared we will be to side-step Satan’s traps. Here are some common obstacles that Satan likes to throw in our way.

One of Satan’s greatest tools against us as believing Christians is to get us over-committed to too many good things. We live in a society that values productivity. We often measure this by how busy we are. If a person is really busy we assume that they are highly committed and productive. Satan loves this. He tempts us to fill our lives with so many activities that there’s no margin left in our lives. He convinces us that busyness is the same as faithful service to God. As we add one thing on top of another we become overwhelmed. Instead of feeling fulfilled and joyful be become discouraged and resentful. We collapse under the weight of all of our commitments. Part of running the race well is learning to say no to many good things so that you can say yes to the best things. God has gifted you to flourish in certain areas. Discover these areas and then pursue them with all of your heart.  

In John 17 we get the chance to eavesdrop on Jesus as he prays to the Father. In verse 4 he says, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” I love that passage. At the end of his earthly ministry Jesus was able to say he had done everything the Father had asked him to do. Did He do everything there was to do?  No!  Were there still people who needed to be healed?  Yes!  Were there still demons that needed to be cast out?  Of course there were. He did everything God asked Him to do. He completed the work the Father had given to him.

We need to guard against the trap of trying to do everything. In our desire to be faithful we often say yes to too many things. Ask God for discernment about what to accept and what to reject. When we come to the end of our lives the Father is not going to ask us if we were busy. Instead He will ask us if we did what He asked us to do. If we are going to run the race well we need to guard against over-commitment.

Another common obstacle that Satan puts in our way is fear. Fear is a powerful emotion that can take control of our lives. Fear is the antithesis of trust. When we let fear rule in our hearts we are really admitting that we don’t fully trust God. Everyone would like a secure future, but that is not always the race marked out for us. The fear that our future may not be secure can keep us from running the race. If we elevate security to the highest place then we will always take the safe course in life. The fear of failure can immobilize us. We cannot expect to be 100% successful in life. Failure is a normal part of life. But if we are afraid to fail we will never take the needed risks in life that allow us to grow and mature. Most of us want to be liked by others. Being accepted by our community is important. But if we put undue emphasis on the opinions of others we will constantly live with the fear of rejection. It will cause us to become chameleons, adapting our lives to the wishes of others while losing our true identity. These are just a few of the fears that can be major stumbling blocks to running the race of faith. As with sin, the best way to deal with our fears is to bring them out into the light. Name your fears. Confide in a trusted friend and ask them to help you conquer your fears. One of the most common commands in the Bible is, “do not be afraid.” God doesn’t want you to live in fear. Paul’s words to the Romans still hold true for us today. “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." Romans 8:15 We can trust our heavenly Father.

Have you ever felt like you were just going through the motions, and it didn't really bother you? That is called complacency. I think this is one of the obstacles that hinders us most often in running the race. We all like to be comfortable but it is possible to become too comfortable. Complacency allows us to coast along in life without giving much effort. An “I don’t care” attitude runs counter to everything Jesus taught. What we do with our lives matters for eternity. Jesus warned us that we will be held accountable for the things we say and do. “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” Matthew 12:36 When we forget that there is something of significance at stake we become vulnerable to being tripped up.  

We need to ask God for the courage to throw off the things that trip us up, to divest ourselves of the obstacles that so easily entangle us, so we can run the race of life well.

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