Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Which Race Are You Running?

I've heard it said that sometimes pastors preach to themselves by writing a sermon that is more about what they need to hear, than what their congregation needs to hear.

This blog post might be similar to that, in that it may be more of a reminder for me than for others. But I hope others will still find it useful.

The topic that has been on my mind lately is about the difference between worldly achievement and heavenly achievement.

Unfortunately, I think it's very easy for pastors and others whose careers are related to ministry or Christianity to confuse the two, and I have recently found myself slipping into that error as well.

Instead, I have to remind myself that worldly success and what God considers to be success can look like very different things.

Two Types of Races

I've always had a strong focus on achieving my goals, ever since I was a child. I often focused on academic achievement, in order to get into good schools and programs, so that I could get good degrees, so that I could get a good job, which would then provide financial security and all the things I want. But there has also been a desire to make sure I was going to heaven, and to please God, and do what God called me to do.

Paul also seemed to be a very achievement-oriented individual. He talked about how he viewed the Christian life as running a race:

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable [one]" (1 Cor. 9:24-25).

When Paul knew he was near death, he wrote to his protege Timothy that "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7).

The author of the book of Hebrews also encourages us to "lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Heb. 12:1).

I think though in this life, there are actually two different sorts of races that Christians can run:

  1. The worldly 'rat-race' of careers, success, fame, money, fulfilling our dreams, having a good life, and so forth.
  2. The heavenly race to please God.

So we might ask ourselves: what race am I running right now? What is higher on my list of priorities, and what do I put the most focus and effort on? Is my focus on pursuing success in this world, or is it on doing what God wants us to do, even if that does not line up with the world's view of success?

Conflating The Races

Unfortunately, people who go into lines of work that are ministry-related can often conflate these two races, which means that success in ministry or in fulfilling our God-given calling is measured by worldly success.

Pastors may focus on how many hours they work at things like preparing sermons, doing pastoral counselling, paying visits to people in hospitals, leading Bible studies, and more. They may focus on how many people are in their congregations, how many people are baptized or go on mission trips, what percentage of their congregation is involved in church activities and service opportunities, how much money is being brought in each week or spent on charitable causes, or how many people congratulate them on their latest sermon.

For professors of theology, it may include things like how prestigious their institution is, how many students take their courses, how many courses they're asked to teach (and which ones), how many books and articles they have published (and by which publishers or journals), how many books they sell, whether they have tenure or not, how many committees they serve on, how many conferences they speak at (and whether they're the main speaker or not), how many students they supervise, and their progression up the career ladder.

This has been something I've noticed appearing in my personal life, and has led to a lot of anxiety. I find myself thinking that in order to be useful and pleasing to God, I have to be as successful of a professor as possible, as defined by all these things listed above.

Then, I put pressure on myself to do everything I can to try to set myself up for the best possible future career as a professor of theology. I feel pressure to work many hours each day on my dissertation with few breaks, to publish journal articles, to present at and attend conferences, to go to professional development seminars about writing books, to network with others and keep up with my contacts for future job possibilities, to put my name out there to start building a reputation for myself, and on and on.

Then I start to think that it's all up to me to do all the things above in order to make myself as useful to God as possible. Even worse, I start to arrogantly think that my work is somehow so important to God that if I don't do it, then no one else will. I mistakenly feel that the weight of the gospel and the preservation and promotion of Christianity is all up to me. (Which is ridiculous - it's up to God, not me. God can do it even without me!).

This wrong attitude then makes it hard for me to get the necessary rest and relaxation without feeling guilty, which then ruins my relaxation. I feel like taking time for myself and my needs is letting God down, because I've conflated advancing my career with serving God. But this only leads to burnout, anxiety, and trusting in myself and my own abilities instead of trusting God.

I suspect this is a challenge that pastors face also.

But finally, God helped me see that success in His eyes does not necessarily involve being maximally successful in my theological career, as I might define that. In fact, God's version of success is often different than getting ahead and having success in this world.

How Do We Win the Heavenly Race?

When I talk about winning our particular Christian race, I'm not talking about jumping onto some performance-based treadmill, which is used to threaten Christians to keep doing more and more and better and better in order to prove they're saved, or else, to ensure they remain saved.

Again, I believe Eph. 1:13-14 shows that every Christian who has believed in Christ as their savior is permanently indwelled by the Holy Spirit, who guarantees we will be saved. So this isn't a race to keep our salvation, or else, salvation would not be a free gift (which is received simply by believing that Jesus died so we can have eternal life), and we could boast about keeping ourselves saved (Eph. 2:8-9).

Instead, the heavenly race is a race to do the best we can for God, given our unique talents and spiritual gifts and ways God has called us to serve him. But even then, we need to be careful to remember what God really cares about.

It's easy to think that God wants us to be out there, every spare minute we have, doing things like: evangelizing, caring for the poor, advocating for those who have no voice of their own, preparing meals for church lunches, fundraising for mission trips, or whatever other activities we can imagine that God approves of.

These may even include things that God has called us to and which we enjoy doing. And certainly, these are good things, and God does approve of them.

But then, the story of Mary and Martha comes to mind (Luke 10:38-42).

The two women were working hard, preparing a meal for Jesus and his disciples, who relied on generous donors such as these women to provide shelter and food during Jesus' itinerant ministry. Certainly, these women's cooking and cleaning and preparing for their visitors was a good thing.

But when Jesus arrives, Mary leaves to go sit at his feet, to be in his presence, to spend time with him, and learn from him.

Martha then complains to Jesus, and asks him to tell Mary to get back into the kitchen and help her out (Luke 10:40).

What does Jesus say? "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:41-42, NRSV).

So while serving God does please God, what may please him even more is taking time to spend with Jesus through prayer and reading scripture, by taking time to stop working so hard, and instead do whatever we need to in order to be close to God.

(A great book that can help you figure out how you connect best with God is titled Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas.)

It's encouraging to remember that King David, possibly the greatest king Israel ever had, is noted for being "a man after God's own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14, Acts 13:22). Not "the guy who killed Goliath" or "the man who won all those victories for Israel", even though he did do those things.

In the story of Mary and Martha, we could also say Mary was a "woman after God's own heart", in her prioritizing Jesus over her other duties.

Jesus summed up all of God's desires for people into two commandments: Love God, and love others as you love yourself (Matt. 22:37-40, Luke 10:27, Mark 12:29-32). So that's what really matters to God.

Of course, service is great, and may indeed be done out of love for God and for others, and will be eternally rewarded. Paul says that we were "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). So Christians should certainly do good works.

But Paul also says that even if we do great and amazing things, like speak in tongues or prophesy, have great understanding and strong faith, are extremely generous with our resources, and even if a person is killed for their faith, if we don't have love, then it's all worthless (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

Therefore, we (and I) should remember that loving God, loving others, as well as loving ourselves (implied in the line 'love others as you love yourself'), is possibly even more valuable than serving God.

So if I spend time in devotions and prayer, or reading some Christian books or blogs that aren't just necessary for my immediate studies, or spending time at church or Bible study, these aren't a waste of time, and may actually be more important to God than the activities I do to serve Him.

If I spend time with friends and family, then that counts as loving others. Of course, our love shouldn't be limited to our family, but if we don't love our friends and family then it's going to be tough to start loving complete strangers.

And I need to learn to love myself, by taking time for rest, relaxation, exercise, hobbies, and so forth, or I will burn out and won't be able to do the things that God does call me to do for Him.

So I need to remember that even if these above activities do not seem to be 'productive' in the ways that the world measures success, achievement, and productivity, they may be more valuable in God's eyes than rushing around to achieve all the things I feel I need to do.

Is the Heavenly Race a Competition?

If taken at face value, Paul's metaphor of the spiritual life being like a race may risk giving a wrong impression that to run the Christian race well we need to be doing better than other Christians, or even, that they have to lose so that we can win.

I think the problem is that the word "race" instantly brings up the image an Olympic-style race, in a stadium, with a whole line of competitors ready to run an equal distance over equal terrain, and where only one runner can win first place.

In my field, I sometimes feel I have to compete against my fellow Christian peers to vie for those scarce jobs in theology that are out there. I worry that if a friend has better grades or speaks at more conferences than I do, then they're going to get hired instead of me, and I'm going to be left without a job. If someone wins, someone else has to lose. This is how it often works in this world.

But the heavenly race is not like this. Instead, I should rejoice at the success of my fellow Christians and desire to help them in any way I can! I should not be secretly envious of them, or compare myself to them and think I have to outdo them. And I should remember that, according to what we just looked at above, much of what God judges to be our Christian 'success' is internal and cannot be seen or measured by anyone but God.

And just because one person is pleasing God well, does not mean that others are now left out. There's no risk that God will run out of heavenly rewards to give if, say, we're not in the top 10,000 Christians of all-time, if such a list could even be created.

So instead of thinking of an Olympic race, what if we switched to thinking of our Christian race as a long-distance individual run, over varied terrain, through the woods, across creeks, up mountains, and down narrow winding paths? The goal then would not be to outdo others, but to just run the trail we're given the best that we can.

After all, no one else has the exact same life as we do, and no one faces the exact same challenges or struggles. So each of our races will be different, and there will be as many different types of races as there are different Christians.

Some people's races may appear to be smoother than others, over smoother terrain, with gorgeous scenery, and they can seem to jog along at a good speed without hardly breaking a sweat, and even with a huge smile on their face. While others may be more like running up a steep muddy hill in the pouring rain and blowing wind, where just gritting their teeth and managing to hold on and not fall down the hill is an achievement, at least, until the rain lets up. At different points in our lives the path may be easier or harder as we go from one type of terrain to the next.

Of course, this metaphor may present the Christian life as being too individualistic, when in reality, Christians are all running together, and are meant to support and encourage and help each other. But I think the idea that everyone's races are not identical is an important thing to remember to avoid comparison and envy. I've written more on why we should not compare ourselves to other Christians here.

Let's consider the incident when Peter and John were talking to Jesus after His resurrection. Jesus had just told Peter that Peter was to feed Jesus' sheep (i.e. be a leader of the early church), and that Peter would also eventually be killed for his faith (John 21:15-19).

Peter then asks "Lord, what about this man?", referring to John (John 21:21). Presumably, Peter wanted to know what John was called to, and if John would also be martyred. Jesus simply says "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!" (John 21:22). So basically, John's future is none of Peter's concern, and Peter's only job is to follow Jesus in the way that he has been called.

This is a good reminder for all of us that we should not worry about how our Christian race compare with others, and just focus on our own running and following after Christ.

The Races Can Conflict

It's also important to get our priorities straight and know which race we're running, because sometimes, the two races are not just competing alternatives, but they may actively be opposed to one another.

There may be times when our commitment to God and Jesus will mean that we actually have to give up on worldly success.

It might involve giving up careers or jobs if we're asked to do something that goes against our beliefs. We might be outright fired for not toeing the company line. Or we might be simply not hired in the first place, if we don't agree with those who have the power to hire.

It might involve making enemies because we stand up for our beliefs when others disagree and call us 'hateful', 'ignorant', 'backwards', 'superstitious' or whatever other epithet they prefer.

It might involve having our reputation trashed, or our name slandered, and losing friends or supporters. We might be kicked off social media platforms, or even cut out off from certain financial service platforms because of our views. We might risk being fined or going to jail for preaching the gospel in public.

It might involve having to fight in court for the values and rights which we believe are important, or fighting against unjust accusations, despite the exorbitant cost of legal fees, and the risk of losing anyway.

Churches and ministers will likely, sooner or later, have their tax-exempt and charitable statuses revoked, and/or experience other financial penalties if they refuse to endorse the values that the government chooses to promote.

This should not seem unexpected. Jesus warns that Christians should expect to be persecuted. He says "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you." (John 15:18-20).

Thus, the world and Christ are inherently opposed, even if they are not always in open visible conflict.

This was something the early church faced too. Often early church persecution brings to mind Christians being thrown into gladiator arenas to be killed. But there were many other more subtle ways that early Christians faced conflicts between their new faith and the world.

Some willingly gave up careers as pagan occultists and burned their expensive books and paraphernalia (Acts 19:18-19).

Soon, Christians began to be expelled from the Jewish synagogues, and thus set up their own churches, but lost their social respectability and status. Others who were in trade guilds had to leave these careers because the guilds required them to worship the trade's patron deity. Some left or were kicked out of their jobs as soldiers, or in government.

Many would be ostracized for not participating in local festivals that worshipped pagan gods. They were subject to rumours of participating in incest, or cannibalism. When it was mandated that Christians worship the emperor or face death, some were informed on by their neighbors and had to leave everything behind to flee and hide.

And this choice between this present world and heaven will eventually be a very real choice that those Christians during the Tribulation will have to make. The Book of Revelation warns that someday no one will be able to buy or sell anything without taking the "mark of the Beast" on their hand or forehead (Rev. 13:16-17).

But the cost of taking this mark is declaring that you are in rebellion against God, and thus, anyone who takes it will rightly be eternally punished for it (Rev. 14:9-11). (So no, it's not going to be possible to 'accidentally' accept the mark of the Beast, it will involve an intentional and clear choice to side with the Antichrist against God).

Those who do accept the mark of the Beast will give up on eternal life and instead will face God's punishment and eventual eternal death, only so they can continue to buy the necessities for physical life. Yet, based on what goes on the Tribulation in Revelation chapters 6 to 19, their lives are unlikely to last very long anyway. So it's an even worse decision than when Esau traded off his inheritance for a bowl of soup (Gen. 25:29-34).

By the way, I want to say that I believe that 1 Thess. 4:16-17 ('the rapture') will happen before the Tribulation begins. So current Christians who live now before the rapture don't have to fear having to make this specific choice, although we may have to make some similar tough decisions as listed above, depending how things go before Jesus comes back to get us.

So if or when we are faced with having to make choices like these where our faith and the world's expectations clash, that's when our commitment to Christ at the expense of worldly success will be tested. By getting our attitudes towards the heavenly race and the worldly race straightened out now, it will be easier to sacrifice the worldly race when it becomes necessary.

Conclusion

In summary, Christians have to choose which race we're running: the worldly one of success, achievement, and financial security, or the heavenly one of pleasing God and serving him in the ways he calls each of us to.

Yet remember that the heavenly race is not like any other 'race', for doing well at the Christian life is not just about outward achievement, but primarily is about loving God and loving others as we love ourselves, in all the unique ways that might look like in our lives now. And we're not in competition with other Christians, who we should support in running their own races.

While running the race well will include serving God with our gifts and following God's calling for our lives, we should remember that, like in the story of Martha and Mary, relationships and spending time with God may be more important than other activities, even though they don't produce outward signs of achievement or productivity.

Let's not confuse the worldly and heavenly races. Remembering which race it is that we're running can help us put less pressure on ourselves to look successful or productive according to the world's standards. After all, the world and God are in opposition, and there will likely be times in each of our lives when we have to choose which race has priority. But, heaven will be so amazing that it will make choosing the heavenly race totally worthwhile.

Let's try to run so that each of us can say "I have run my race as best I could", when we see Jesus face to face.