Living for Christ in a fallen world is hard.
Search the whole of Scripture for metaphors and analogies comparing the Christian life to something easy like a picnic or a leisurely stroll around the lake and you’ll come up empty-handed.
What you will find, however, are comparisons to fighting (1 Timothy 6:12), to warfare (Ephesians 6:10-20), and to running (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
The book of Hebrews was written to formerly Jewish new believers and was encouraging them to press on by faith in the Christian life, even as it became difficult. To drive this message home, the writer compares the Christian life to running a race, and he tells them how they can run this race with endurance:
In Hebrews 12:1 we read:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
This is such a great metaphor. Running a race is an active process, not a passive one. It’s challenging. There’s a reason that the Christian life isn’t compared to a summer picnic or a quick stroll around the block.
A race is hard. And when you’re in it the race becomes your chief occupation as all other concerns fade to the background.
The same is true of the Christian life. We are to live in a determined pursuit of Christ; we cannot live as though passive, half-hearted devotion will get us closer to our goal of being more like Him. It is an active process, requiring the best of us. Living for Christ must be our chief occupation, set as the ultimate priority of our lives.
And just like in a race, in this life you will have troubles, and you will face obstacles, and you will get tired. The Christian life is like a race, and we are called to run this race with endurance.
This “cloud of witnesses” refers back to Hebrews chapter 11, which is often referred to as Hebrews’ Hall of Faith. In this chapter we find accounts of those who endured in the faith and did great things for God: It was by faith that Abel offered up a sacrifice pleasing to God; by faith Abraham obeyed the call to leave his home and set off for the Promised Land; by faith Moses led Israel out of Egypt; by faith the people crossed the Red Sea. “By faith” is used 21 times in these 40 verses. These encouraging examples are meant to bolster the spirits of those who were starting to grow weary and fainthearted.
But this cloud of witnesses does not consist of spectators looking down and cheering us on us from the heavenly grandstands. An encouraging thought perhaps, but not one we can support from Scripture. They are witnesses in the sense that they bear witness to a life lived by faith, and we are to look to them for encouragement to press on.
In them we see the power of faith in Jesus which gives us the ability to “run with endurance the race that is set before us”
In the New Testament, endurance is seen in those who are not swerved from their faith in Christ by even the greatest trials and sufferings. Enduring faith is steadfast in the face of opposition. It is hopeful in the face of uncertainty. It is content in the face of poverty. It is joyful in the midst of sorrow.
Don’t you want a faith like that?
Our faith is not meant to look like a series of short sprints separated by long periods of laying sprawled out on the track or wandering back towards the starting line. Enduring faith is marked by steady, consistent progress toward the finish line as we pursue Christ.
Not a Sprint, But a Marathon
To “run with endurance” is to keep moving forward even when things become difficult. Enduring faith is vital in the Christian race because our race is not a sprint, but a marathon. It is long, difficult, and requires focus, steadfast determination, and stamina.
Have you ever participated in or watched a marathon? It is a grueling test of endurance and determination. Running a race that 26.2 miles long! No wonder those who complete marathons put those little oval 26.2 stickers on their cars. This is a significant achievement and something to be proud of.
Personally, I’m no more of a marathon runner than I am a Greek scholar. But I know enough Greek to tell you that the word used for “race” here in Hebrews 12 is the Greek word ἀγών (ä-gō’n) – from which we get the word agony. And I know enough about running to say that “agony” seems like a pretty good description of a marathon to me.
But whether you have ran in a marathon, have cheered on others from the sidelines, or have perhaps just seen a clip of marathon runners on TV, I’m willing to bet you didn’t see anyone run the race while carrying 3 sacks of groceries. And you didn’t spot anyone attempting to run well while wearing a bathrobe or a Snuggie.
Why not? Because carrying any extra weight slows you down and wears you out. Long, loose-fitting garments entangle your legs and trip you up. Marathon runners are so dedicated to the race that is set before them that they avoid anything that would hinder their endurance.
This is just what we are called to do:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely…”
It’s not unexpected that we read here that sin is a hindrance to our race of faith – it is a constant struggle, as our sin “clings so closely.” Other translations say “the sin which so easily entangles.” The picture here is of clothing that easily gets wrapped around the runner’s legs and trips them up.
There are of course a great number of sins that “cling closely” to us, tripping us up and causing us to stumble in the Christian race. Anything which draws our hearts away from God, anything which dishonors the name of Christ, anything which saddles us with guilt and shame, anything which bids us to place our trust and confidence in something other than Christ will trip us up in this life.
When we find sin in our life we must lay it aside as eagerly as a runner would lay aside a bathrobe or a prom dress when choosing what to wear for the race. Because we too are in a race and we want to run it with endurance.
But there is another aspect of this verse that we must not lose sight of. We are called to lay aside “every weight.” We are to put off anything which impedes our progress and limits our endurance.
This includes things that are not necessarily sinful in themselves.
When a marathon runner is deciding on the shoes they are going to wear they don’t stop at simply consulting the rule book to see if their choice of footwear is against the rules or not. No. They are also concerned with what will help them run well. And so they aren’t going to pick high heels or work boots even if they aren’t against the rules.
Likewise, there are many things in this life that may not be sinful but that are nevertheless a hindrance to running the race of faith with endurance. We have a limited amount of time, energy, and passion and we will often need to choose between what is good and what is best.
Simply asking “is it sinful” is far too low a bar to set when evaluating choices in your life. It’s not going to cut it to simply “check the rule book” when you want to run with endurance. We want to determine if something will help us be spiritually fit or if it will weigh us down, wear us out, and keep us from running with endurance.
Evaluate how you spend your time, how you spend your money, what you devote your energy to, like a runner evaluates their shoes, clothing, and diet.
Do your choices set you up to run with endurance?
Or will they hinder you from running well in race of faith?
We’re going to have to ask difficult questions of ourselves to determine if we are carrying extra weight that slows us down. Questions like:
- Does my time in front of the TV keep me from spending time in prayer?
- Do my hobbies dominate my free time and leave little room for regularly meeting and growing with other believers during the week?
- Have our kids’ sports or other activities squeezed out time for church, for having dinner together as a family, or making time for worship in the home?
- Does my circle of friends spur me on towards holiness, or pull me towards worldliness?
- Do I read so many books about God and the Bible that I neglect to read the Bible itself?
Such questions can help us identify where we may be carrying extra, unnecessary weight that will hinder our progress and make it difficult to endure the race.
Recreation, hobbies, sports, friends, and other good things in life are not sinful in themselves. But we must keep them in their proper place and hold onto them lightly, always willing to forgo whatever does not make us more fit for the race ahead.
The runner forgoes certain foods or activities in their training, because they do not merely want to start the race well – they want to be at their best in order to pursue their goal with excellence. They want to run with endurance when they’re on their 18th mile and their legs are burning.
How much more should we be focused on the race that is set before us?
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.
The energy and effort we put into running the Christian race should far surpass the effort and energy that a runner exerts to obtain a temporary reward.
Running the Race Together
But how can we know when we are carrying good things that have become needless weight while trying to run the race? And how can we fight the sin that so easily entangles us?
Note that the writer says here “let us run the race that is set before us.” This race of faith was not designed to be run alone! Unlike a marathon, we aren’t in competition with those around us. We run together and are called to assist one another in the race.
Part of following Jesus is helping others do the same. In some stages of life we will receive more than we give. And that’s okay. But whether you are giving assistance and encouragement or receiving it – or both – don’t miss this important truth:
If you want to live the Christian life with endurance, then you must be in community with other believers.
The Bible tells us “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27) and is filled with commands to love, serve, an pray for one another.
We cannot expect to run this race with endurance if we merely slip in and out of worship on Sunday mornings and have only superficial relationships with other believers.
Like someone who trains for a marathon with a friend for accountability and encouragement, our fellow runners can speak into our lives and point out to us when we are attempting the spiritual equivalent of trying to run a marathon while holding three sacks of groceries and wearing a snuggie. They can help us get untangled from the sin that is constantly tripping us up.
Do you want to run with endurance? Do you want the type of faith that can withstand the agony of the race when you are at your weakest? Then you need to drop anything that saps your strength and energy from pursuing Christ as you ought.
In order to do this well, you must prioritize being in community with other believers who can help you identify and lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, the things which prevent you from running the race with endurance.
Who else in your life is going to ask you candidly about how your social media use impacts your walk with Christ, or point out when your hobbies have become too large a priority in your life?
But you will not develop these deep relationships without being intentional about being in regular community with other believers.
Participate in an adult Sunday School class, join a Bible study, be a part of a small group, get involved with a men’s or women’s ministry, meet regularly with a mentor, or simply read a devotional book with someone and discuss it over coffee.
There are many ways to spend intentional time with another believer for the expressed purpose of doing each other spiritual good. Find something that works for you and make it a priority in your life.
For a Christian to be spiritually fit, we must grow beyond merely “going to church.”
Instead, we must remember that the church is not a building. It’s a community of believers running the race together. And at its best, it will draw you into deeper levels of discipleship as you seek to run towards Jesus.
Together we can remind each other of the cloud of witnesses that came before us; we can encourage one another to drop unnecessary weight and to fight doubt with faith, flee from sin, and to keep moving; we can help up those who stumble along the way.
And most importantly, Christians in close community can continually remind each other to keep our eyes on the finish line, exhorting one another to “look to Jesus,”
“…the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
We are meant to be lived in community with other believers. Don’t run the Christian race alone.
Let us commit to running the Christian race together, so that we may be better able to lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and to run with endurance the race that is set before us.