Pacing Yourself in the Spiritual Race
I recently got back into running. And when I say “got back into,” I mean more like “stumbled into.” Not gonna lie, ladies: it’s been a rough going. Where once were muscles that could propel and carry me for twenty-six miles now seem like flabby pouches of skin and bone. (PSA: an easy way to get back into running is to not stop in the first place.)
I just got so dang busy, you know? Between transitioning home from China, looking for work, moving to Milwaukee and starting a new job – I just haven’t had the time, energy or mental capacity to seriously train over the past year and a half. Life has been so go-go-go that, even when I’ve tried taking the time to hit the track, I just…can’t. I’ve been distracted, and I have found myself rushing through the motions of stretching and hydrating just so I can start and finish the run more quickly. Kind of defeats the purpose of taking that extra time to prepare, no? Those runs never, ever went well.
For a while there I stopped running completely. The overall, natural fitness I had built up over the years kept me feeling healthy and strong enough for a time, but it wasn’t long before I began to feel the repercussions of stagnancy. A single flight of stairs had me huffing and puffing. My body felt so stiff that it actually made me sore. I felt weak. And worst of all, when I actually got out of the house and tried to run, I could barely make it a mile without stopping.
Sadly, this feeling of staleness, soreness, and stagnancy has not been limited to just my physical health over the past year. The resemblance is uncanny: life has been so go-go-go that, even when I’ve tried to pray or spend time with God, I just…can’t. I know I’ve talked about this before, so I won’t repeat myself. But I will simply say that it was a curious thing when I realized the dichotomy between my physical lethargy and my spiritual lethargy.
“Serve God by doing common actions in a heavenly spirit, and then, if your daily calling only leaves you cracks and crevices of time, fill them up with holy service.” - Charles Spurgeon
Now, some would say you can rest when you’re dead. But that’s not a goal I’m necessarily trying to reach in my day-to-day life, so I eventually made the decision to start running again – to really start running again.
“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” - Proverbs 27:1
It was tough at first. It felt strenuous just to stretch out my muscles, shaking the figurative dust off my immobile bones – but then I’d start running and feel amazing! …until I didn’t. After that first mile, I would crash. I’d get a cramp (sometimes two), my legs would start to scream, and my lungs would feel on fire.
The same thing was happening with my faith life over the past several months. I would decide to pray or read my Bible, and it would feel amazing at first. “Why don’t I do this more often? This feels so great! I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” But then my brain would crash. I’d get a mental cramp, the to-do list in my head would start to scream, and my sense of guilt would be set ablaze as I found myself focusing more on my shortcomings than on God’s forgiveness and validation of my worth in his eyes.
I was fit at one point, physically and spiritually — so of course I was trying to do the same thing that I knew had worked in the past. Just keep running, and run faster. Just keep reading, and read as much as possible. Pray, and tell God as much as I can, as fast as I can. And yet it wasn’t working this time. Why, oh why, wasn’t it working. I just couldn’t figure it out, and it was only adding more stress and guilt each time I tried and failed out of exhaustion.
Then, one day, I did the unthinkable: I slowed down.
For a runner or any other kind of athlete, having to slow your pace can often feel like a defeat.
I have to slow down because I haven’t been training hard enough.
I’m not strong enough.
I can’t do it.
But you know what happened when I slowed down? My runs got easier. My breathing has become more relaxed, my legs don’t tire as quickly, and I can feel myself growing stronger with each jog (instead of risking injury by over-exerting myself). It is in this way that I am building endurance for the long race, not just that first short mile. It is also in this way, I believe, that we can build our spiritual endurance – not by rushing through scripture or daily prayers, but by really taking our time with them.
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” - 2 Corinthians 12:9
They say that you don’t really benefit from rushing through exercise since it doesn’t allow your body to go through a full range of motion. It’s the same with faith and prayer, isn’t it? Simply going through the auto-pilot motions of church and pre-meal prayers won’t engage your whole heart and soul. We need to slow down and enjoy our time in the Bible and with Jesus, truly letting him in to do some serious strength-training on our hearts.
“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” -Ephesians 5:15-17
When we are tired and can’t run through the cramps, when we are distracted and can’t focus on the sermon… yes, it is discouraging. Yes, we want to give up. And what really stinks is that, in our prideful state, we often default to forcing ourselves through the race and through the daily devotion, just to say we did it. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – but I will say that this method is not sustainable. You’re going to burn out. (And then it becomes even harder to stay in shape.)
Here’s the silver lining to our over-exertions, though: when we are exhausted and feel lacking in discipline, strength, ability and worth – my friends, that moment is not meant for self-shame. That moment is an opportunity to remember and celebrate the fact that our worth is not up to us. It’s up to the one who sacrificed his own worth by being born in a lowly manger, walking the earth as a man (and a poor one, at that), and dying on the cross like a common thief – all to save us from sin and eternal damnation. Because he loves us.
“…have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” - Philippians 2:5-8
Try and run as hard as we might, we will never be the fastest. Read and pray as much as we can, and that will not make us World’s Best Christian. These practices may theoretically be good for our physical and spiritual health, yes; but they will not single-handedly save our lives, because only Christ can do that. He already did.
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” - Ephesians 2:4-7
The thing is, we don’t have to be the fastest. We don’t have to be World’s Best Christian, showing Instagram-worthy perfection and poise every minute of the day. God doesn’t call us to be these things—because we can’t be.
We are all undeserving of the value with which He crowns us. Yet God sent his one and only Son so that our worth might be found in something far greater and more glorious than ourselves. In Christ, no longer do we look to our own medals, Facebook likes, personal records, and accomplishments to find significance or strength. We look instead to his perfect work, and there we can find the true strength and identity we so crave and so need to endure our earthly race – it’s a long one, but eternal glory in Heaven is longer.
So take your time with your spiritual workouts. Don’t delay, but don’t rush. Focus on form, not on number. Rest and pray between sets. If you have less time, do fewer exercises but make sure to do them properly – no short cuts, as this could alter your form and end up doing more harm than good. Find a spiritual workout buddy. Build up to higher mileage and longer chapters over time, not all at once.
And if you find yourself huffing and puffing after taking that first mile or chapter too quickly, don’t sweat it – slow down and breathe a sigh of relief, knowing Christ has already run and conquered the race for us.
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My worth is not in what I own
Not in the strength of flesh and bone
But in the costly wounds of love
At the cross
My worth is not in skill or name
In win or lose, in pride or shame
But in the blood of Christ that flowed
At the cross
I rejoice in my Redeemer
Wellspring of my soul
I will trust in Him, no other.
My soul is satisfied in Him alone.
“My Worth is Not in What I Own” by Keith and Kristyn Getty