Today, I want to talk about signs.
I don’t mean the type of sign that you pray will magically appear when you are struggling with a huge decision. (“Should I marry him?” “Should I take this job?” “Should I order the chicken, or the salmon?!”)
No – today, I want to talk about tangible, hold-‘em-high-in-the-sky, written signs.
Since leaving China nearly three months ago, I’ve made sure to keep myself busy with endeavors that will develop, occasionally distract, enthuse, and strengthen me. I made a plan to radically transform my resume and job search strategy, I bought a ukulele to keep my creative juices flowing, and I signed up for the Milwaukee marathon, to name a few.
Marathon training has been going well so far. Physically, I am feeling stronger every day; my runs are getting easier and I seem to be moving faster each time, which is a promising sign.
Reflecting on these figurative signs during a recent run, my word-associating brain then recalled images of the many actual signs I saw along the streets of Chicago during my first and only marathon back in 2015. Some of them were funny (“Ohhhh you’re halfway there!” accompanied by a headshot of Jon Bon Jovi), some were meant to encourage (“Pain is temporary, pride is forever!”), and others reminded runners of the prizes that awaited them at the finish line: ice baths, medals, and most importantly, beer.
As my head sorted through these signs and wondered what others I might see this October, the image in my head changed unexpectedly, and I found myself choking up a little. (Note: choking up towards the end of a fast run is a really great way to induce dry-heaving.)
Instead of signs saying things like “You can do it!” and “May the course be with you!”, I suddenly envisioned friends, family, and strangers alike holding signs of spiritual encouragement along the running path:
“Jesus already won this race for you – follow His lead!”
“Christ be my leader by night as by day; safe through the darkness for HE is the way!”
“Cast all your anxieties on Him; the LORD will carry you!”
“Earth is temporary – Heaven is forever!”
Just as race fans on the sidelines support our bodily and mental strength with motivational posters, what if our brothers and sisters supported each other with signs of spiritual encouragement during our race of faith on this earth?
I’m not suggesting that the new way to support each other is to write scripture on signs and hold them up for all to see. (It’s well-meaning, but might not be as effective as an actual conversation.)
What I am suggesting is for us to simply consider how we can be signs of spiritual encouragement to our fellow man while running – or walking – on this earth.
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24)
The imagery of racing appears at several points in the Bible, and especially in 1 Corinthians. Since the Corinthians were so familiar with the Olympic Games of the 1st century, as well as the arduous responsibility of physical training itself, the Apostle Paul used foot racing as an analogy for a believer’s life of faithfulness. He wrote to the church of Corinth, saying,
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
Here, Paul’s appeal is that believers should be as unwaveringly committed and focused as those runners were in the ancient games. Our motivation in serving Christ is much greater, however; we run for the eternal crown of heaven, not just for some medal and free bananas at the finish line.
If you know anyone who has run a race before, you know that runners really do depend on the cheers and inspiration of spectators to help them keep going when the going gets tough. Knowing the stakes and the true prize of this life’s spiritual race, then, I wonder once more:
How can we be the biggest, most visible, and most fortifying signs of blessed cheer to each participant in this earthly race of faith?
Attending church, discussing the meaning of HIS word during Bible study, confiding in and praying for each other, cooking a meal for a neighbor in need, smiling at strangers, telling new friends about the hope we have in Jesus, going out of our way to simply be good and help others even if they don’t know or appreciate it – yes, these are just a small handful of things we can do to motivate and help sustain fellow runners in Christ.
What other ideas can you think of?
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:24)
But you should know – it’s not just about making the sign and showing up for that one race. The ancient runners needed to be focused and dedicated to their long-term training; so too must we be ever vigilant in our efforts to support, direct, and nurture our fellow runners, even when we are in the race ourselves.
If you are a runner, you’ll know that the running community is one of the most sympathetic and friendly groups of people you’ll ever meet. Whenever I’m on the trails and pass another runner, we wave to each other – every time. It’s a greeting, a gesture of respect and admiration, and a way to say “great job, keep it up!” to motivate each other.
Neither of us know how many miles we’ve run or how many we have yet to go. Maybe I’ve only just started, but the former addict I pass has already done a half-marathon. Maybe your afternoon 10k is a breeze, while the single mother behind you is out of breath after only her first mile.
We are all at different points in our races, all struggling with our own weaknesses and attempting to build upon our own strengths. All trying not to despair when we realize there’s a really big hill ahead of us. All hungry for a Savior who will forgive our shortcomings and help us cross the finish line.
Thinking back to Paul’s aim in Acts 20:24, it is vital for us not only to run and finish the race but to complete the task the Lord Jesus has given us all – “the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”
As we are running our own races of faith, we must also be demonstrating the way of God and the manner of Jesus to those around us. Waving to our fellow man, helping them back up when they fall, offering food and drink and shelter and a shoulder to lean on when they are weak or full of doubt. Being a sign to redirect loved ones and keep them on the right path when they veer off course.
Dear Christians, there are so many ways to show others the love and hope of Christ Jesus. What does your sign say? What encouragement and reminders do you seek in other people’s signs?
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. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
I did manage to catch my breath after getting so emotional during that run a couple weeks back – but not for long. Running onward, I continued to imagine spectators cheering me on and holding up posters of scriptural motivation and Gospel assurance. The emotional floodgates truly opened, however, when my mind’s eye landed on a smiling Jesus waiting at the finish line, beaming with love and admiration and joyfully holding up his own sign:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest! (Matthew 11:28)
I walked the rest of the way home. It wasn't my best time, and it wasn't my worst. Lucky for us, our Savior doesn't care about pace. No matter how long it takes, no matter how many dry heaves or water breaks, as we "press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:14), HE will be waiting with open arms, ready to bestow upon believers the crown of eternal life in Heaven. First prize.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)