Teaching series from Hebrews

How to Run the Race With Endurance

Hebrews 12:1-13

Teaching t05005


>> Read vs 1. Here is the thesis of this passage: "Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us."

God has a race for you to run. God has a purpose for your life. To run this race means to acknowledge that God's purpose for your life is what matters, and to make it your #1 priority to discover and complete this purpose. Like the Old Testament heroes cited in chapter 11 (and mentioned as spectators ["cloud of witnesses"] in this verse), we are each called by God to play a unique role in his purpose for human history.

Of course, you aren't eligible to run a race until you enter it. Likewise, you aren't eligible to run God's race until you've entered it. The bad news is that none of us qualifies for this race by our own previous performance; in fact, we're all disqualified by this means. But the good news is that God says he has already paid the entrance fee for us through the payment of his Son (EXPLAIN). So now the issue is not one of eligibility, but of willingness. Are you willing to receive God's forgiveness through Christ and enter this race? Have you done this?

"Run the race!" Now that you have received Christ, this is the most important issue in your life. Can you say that our #1 priority is now to discover and complete God's purpose for your life? Unlike entering the race (which we need do only once), running the race is something we must continue to choose day after day. That's the second point in this statement...

This race requires endurance. This race is not like a 100 meter dash; it is like a marathon. It starts the moment you receive Christ and lasts until you die or Christ returns. And the path is not level ground; it leads through all kinds of hills and obstacles. Such a race does not require blinding speed; it does require endurance.

Hupomone means "to hang in there." It is perseverance, stick-to-it-tiveness, refusing to quit in spite of fatigue and pressure to do so. Endurance, along with its synonym "patience"/"long-suffering" (makrothumia) is a key theme in Hebrews. He uses the word four times in this passage (vs1,2,3,7). He devotes two other passages to this theme (6:9-20; 10:32-39). These two terms are used over 70 times in the New Testament, because it is such an important character quality for the Christian life.

Most modern western Christians have good stretches in this race, but the fact is that few (including leaders) run consistently and finish well. Why? One reason is that we are children of a culture which has utopian expectations (RIGHT TO LIVE LONG LIFE & HAVE IT BE FREE OF POVERTY & SUFFERING), expects "instant" results, and views dramatic performances as more important than behind-the scenes consistency. Much western Christianity has conformed to these values rather than exposed them. Therefore most Christians don't value endurance because it shouldn't be necessary in the first place, and secondly because it isn't flashy or easily gained. But the length of the race and the presence of many obstacles make endurance a non-optional requirement.

Because his audience (like most of us) lacked endurance, the author gives them insights on how to develop it. We will look at three...

Lay Aside All Excess Baggage (vs 1)

Imagine someone showing up at the starting line to a marathon wearing basketball shoes with laces untied and carrying a pair of suitcases! You say, "Hey, you aren't going to be able to run very far with that stuff!" He responds, "You don't understand; I need this stuff to do my best. I feel more attractive wearing my basketball shoes this way, and I've got food and drink in the suitcases." He can say what he wants, but before long he'll have to make a choice: get rid the excess baggage or get out of the race.

What is obvious to us about running a marathon may not be obvious to us about running God's race. Most of us are carrying around significant excess baggage, and then wondering why it's so difficult to stay in the race. The author indicates two different kinds of excess baggage:

"the sin which so easily entangles us" - This refers, not to existential falls from grace, but to sinful attitudes, practices and habits which we believe we can't do without, but which are in fact depleting our energy to pursue God and enmeshing us in other sins as well. Read Rom.13:12-14 >> EXAMPLES: SEX/DRUG HABIT; MATERIALISTIC COMMITMENTS; COVETING OTHERS; BLAMING OTHERS.

"every encumbrance" - This probably refers to things which, while not necessarily wrong in themselves, must nevertheless be jettisoned because God has shown us we have an inordinate attachment to them (IDOLATROUS RELATIONSHIPS; MUSICAL PERFORMANCE; CAREER) or because we simply can't do both (RECREATION SCHEDULE).

>> If you're finding it difficult to stay in the race, the first thing you should check is what you're carrying. Is it possible that you are asking God to give you more power to carry excess baggage when he is calling on you to "lay it aside?" Agree with him about what it is, turn away from it, and take the practical steps he shows you to stay away from it. It will hurt to do this, but you'll feel so much lighter and freer to run the race!

Maintain A Proper Mental Focus (vs 2-4)

From the running I do, I know how important my mental focus is. When I let my mind go where it wants to go, I wind thinking about how tired I am, how much certain muscles hurt, how far I have to go, and how far ahead of others are. This always results in greater perceived fatigue and desire to quit. Marathon runners tell me that proper mental focus is every bit as important as proper physical training.

The same thing applies to running God's race. There are all kinds of distractions which will grab your focus and convince you to quit if you let them.

CIRCUMSTANCES OVER WHICH YOU HAVE NO CONTROL: "Look how rough my situation is! Look at the people I have to put up with! No one can be expected to serve God and grow in this environment!"

CONTRADICTORY FEELINGS: "I feel so defeated, so lethargic, so unmotivated. I obviously can't be expected to endure when I feel this way. God will have to change my feelings before I can go on."

LONGSTANDING PERSONAL PROBLEMS: "Look how goofed up I am! I have been deeply damaged by wrong choices and relationships in the past. I've got deeply ingrained character weaknesses which don't go away over night. I can't possibly be useful to God in this state; I need to drop out of the race until I am more healed."

INVALID COMPARISON WITH OTHERS: "Look how far ahead they are! Look how much longer they've been running than I have! What's the use of running since I'll never be able to catch them?"

The Christian who wants to run the race with endurance has to learn how to choose and maintain proper mental focus. This involves not only identifying and turning away from wrong mental foci (above), but also developing the habit of focusing on Christ (vs2). The Greek word means just this: looking away from everything else in order to concentrate on the proper object of your attention.

What does it mean to "fix your eyes on Jesus?" It does not mean visualizing a picture of him in your mind. This practice is increasingly popular in Christian circles, but it is more akin to the New Age idea of creating your own reality through mental imagery than anything biblical. The author tells us two senses in which we are to focus on Jesus:

"the author of our faith" - NIV has "Pioneer" which is probably better. Jesus is the example of what it means to run with endurance. He has gone before us into every kind of suffering we'll encounter and endured it victoriously. When you're sunk in self-pity, consider what he endured (read vs3,4) and why he was willing to endure it (read vs 2). There is great educational and motivational value in studying the life of Jesus. His example will rebuke our self-pity and inspire us to keep on keeping on.

"the perfecter of our faith" - Even more important than his example, though, is his role as sustainer, his availability to strengthen, sustain and thereby perfect our faith. In fact, a big part of his example was in modeling the importance of drawing spiritual strength from God to run with endurance. Because he knew his Father promised to help him do his will, Jesus drew near to him often for this purpose (Mk.1:35; GETHSEMANE). And now he is available to us as our High Priest to make the same promises and provide the same resources (2:18; 4:16). Because this race is run by faith, it is run by prayerfully depending on Jesus' resources rather than keeping a stiff upper lip and gutting it out on our own.

>> If you are flagging in endurance, what has been your mental focus? This is for me the most common reason for running out of gas: I am mentally focused on the wrong things. But when I choose (against my feelings of self-pity and fatalism) to focus on Jesus in this way, the power of God's Spirit is unleashed in me to go on following and serving him.

Benefit From God's Training Program (vs 5-13)

Even if I showed up at a marathon with no excess baggage and properly focused mentally, I would still poop out long before the finish line. If I want to complete a marathon, I must be willing to undergo training. In fact, I must cooperate with a very extensive training program. I would need to be willing to let an experienced runner design a whole training regimen that would seem in many ways irrelevant to the race. Taking my own physique and physical shape into account, he would design exercises carefully calculated to produce pressure and strain on various muscle groups. By cooperating with this frustrating and sometimes agonizing training program, I would gradually become hammered into shape for a marathon. The biggest reason why people are unable to run marathons is not because they are physically incapable of it, but because they are unwilling to undergo the necessary training. I have to admit this is the case for me!!

God is committed to hammering each of us into shape to run his race. And to that end he has a training program designed for each of us individually. He knows exactly what roles we are designed to play in his race; he knows exactly what qualities are lacking in our lives which we will need in order to finish; he knows exactly the right amount of stress and strain to put on us to develop those qualities. He calls this training program "discipline" (vs7a), and he is constantly doing just this with all Christians through all sorts of suffering which he sovereignly allows us to experience.

The author does not focus in this passage on how God disciplines/trains us, but rather on how to benefit from it. He reminds us of three keys to benefiting from God's training program.

Remember his discipline is evidence of God's love, not of anger or neglect. Read vs 5-10. How often we need to remember this!

Most of us can look back now and see that our parents disciplined us for our good. I didn't understand much of it at the time, and I chafed that some of my friends escaped discipline that I didn't, but today as I see the fruit of that discipline I am glad they loved me enough to say "no" to my foolish demands, and that they allowed and even created painful consequences to my wrong choices. It is this perspective that helps me to keep disciplining my own children when it is easier to give in. Discipline is a thankless job, but hopefully I love them enough and want them to realize their potential for God enough to keep disciplining them. And hopefully, even though they often don't understand or agree with it, they believe I discipline them because I love them.

Yet how quickly I forget all this the moment God lays a disciplinary finger on me! I cave in and threaten to quit because of the pain. I focus exclusively on the natural cause of the pain and forget all about God's sovereign involvement for my good. I envy and resent others who are not suffering like I am. I complain that this suffering is hindering rather than helping my ability to serve God. I accuse him of neglecting me or being too rough on me. In all this, I merely demonstrate that I have forgotten what God says about why he disciplines me.

Remember discipline is painful now; its reward comes later. Read vs 11. Every Christian should memorize vs 11. This is the biblical version of the weight-lifter's motto: "No pain, no gain." Of course discipline is not joyful, but sorrowful. It wouldn't be discipline if it was easy to take. But God wants to transform our characters so we can fulfill his purpose for our lives, and this goal is valuable enough to warrant some pain if it is necessary!

How different this is from the ethos of our culture, which is so narcissistic that people find it a moral outrage that they should have to suffer for anything. Some of us have reacted to pain as the ultimate evil for so long that we have virtually no capacity to take it. We are spiritual wimps, and God is very patient to be willing to teach us toughness in this area.

Remember your response to discipline is the key to its effectiveness in your life. Read vs 5,12,13.

Only those who submit to the training reap the benefit. Only those who hold still have their injured limbs healed; if you jerk you can put the limb out of joint. God does not deal with us deterministically. Just as our children's response to our discipline is the most important issue and is freely chosen, so our chosen response is the key to the effect God's discipline has on us. This is why some Christians become ever more mature under God's disciplinary hand, while others never grow up.

We all want the benefit of discipline, but are you willing to respond properly to get it? Do you want to be able to say with increasing conviction: "I am more like Christ than I was a year ago, and I am more at peace because of it. I have more endurance than I did a year ago, and I'm seeing the effect of this on others." Then you need to hold still and take it when he disciplines you today. Acknowledge it as loving discipline from his hand. Thank him for it even though you can't see yet what he is trying to do, and ask him to make you what he will through it. Then choose to obey the lessons you can learn from it.

"Suffering is in the mind of the sufferer, and may be conveniently defined as getting what you do not want and wanting what you do not get. This definition covers all forms of loss, hurt, pain, grief, and weakness--all experiences of rejection, injustice, disappointment, discouragement, frustration, and being the butt of others' hatred, ridicule, cruelty, callousness, anger, and ill-treatment--plus all exposure to foul, sickening or nightmarish things that make you want to scream, run, or even die." J. I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness, p. 249.