The Christian life is compared to many things throughout Scripture. It's likened to a soldier going to war, a sheep under the care of a shepherd, or the journey of a pilgrim to a far-off city. But, perhaps, the enduring image of the life of Christian is nowhere better realized than in the world of sports.
The apostle Paul makes mention of athletic activities throughout the New Testament, using them as vivid pictures of the life of a believer for his Gentile readers. Being a Jewish Roman citizen, Paul brought a unique perspective to the ministry, and this included the positive use of sports metaphors in his letters. Prior to his epistles, much of Jewish population had a condescending view of gymnasiums and the games associated with them.
Paul, however, saw an opportunity to identify with his Gentile brothers and sisters and engage them with the gospel using athletic motifs. He often used sports to emphasize the similar aspects of training and focus required in the Christian life. A prime example of this can be found in 1 Corinthians 9, where the apostle reminds the Corinthian believers of the discipline and dedication necessitated in the life of those who are in Christ (1 Cor. 9:24-27). This was insightful of Paul, as Corinth was the home of the Isthmian Games, a forerunner of the Olympic Games dating back to the 6th century B.C.
Another instance of this, though not officially Pauline, occurs in Hebrews 12:
"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, looking 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" (Heb. 12:1-2).
These verses, notwithstanding their notoriety outside of the Christian realm, are supremely significant, perfectly capturing the life of a believer. The writer, here, is inciting his readers to endurance — but the manner in which he does this beautifully indicative of the vastness of the gospel.
The natural inquiry that comes after imperatives like these to run and endure and persevere is, How do we endure? What makes endurance possible? Fortunately, we're not left without sufficient solutions to these queries — and, even greater, solutions that don't ride on us!
Endurance is built upon faith
Now, at first, this might seem very Law-driven. The idea that my endurance is built upon faith seemingly suggests that the faithful ones are the enduring ones and, therefore, if you're not enduring, you're not faithful. The ones who aren't weathering the torrents of life are the ones who aren't as faithful, aren't as loyal, aren't as devoted to God's call.
But such a conclusion ignores the sublime realities of this passage.
Hebrews 11 is often referred to as the "hall of faith." The entire chapter recounts the lives of significant men and women throughout the Bible. Their stories are truly inspiring, and the writer even says that it's because of their faith that we remember them. "For by it [faith] the elders obtained a good report" (Heb. 11:2 KJV).
No doubt, the lives of these men and women were remarkable, demonstrating a grace and faith that we can only ascribe to. We remember this "cloud of witnesses" and commend them because of their faith in the face of grave dangers. But it wasn't their faith that caused them to endure and to be remembered. Likewise, it's not your faith that allows you to keep going, to press on, to stay determinately devoted to God and His Word. It's not yours, it's God's faith.
You won't last, I won't last in this life but by faith. As long as we're trying to live apart from God's influence, apart from the Spirit's power, we're going to fail. As a runner approaching the first hurdle, we'd only end up kissing the pavement.
Endurance as a believer is only possible as faithfulness in our faith decreases and faith in God's increases.
But, then, how do we have faith?
Faith is built upon belief
I'd say there's a lot of misconceptions about what "faith" actually is. This is mostly due to faith not getting a clear biblical definition. Sure, Hebrews 11 hints around the idea of faith, with verses 1 and 6 providing some clarity — but even there, both instances denote faith in the functional sense, not in the philosophical.
A true definition is never expressed. Throughout the Bible, faith is pictured and presumed, never prescribed. We're given example after example of the results of faith — conviction, assurance, hope, etc. — but we're never really told what faith is or how to get it.
For that reason, though, we get many ill-conceived understandings of faith.
Faith isn't some blind leap in the dark or plunge into the abyss of the future — it's a confident step forward in the knowledge of what is known about God. Faith isn't presumptuous about the future or about what might happen next, but it is presumptuous about an all-knowing, ever-faithful, ever-gracious God who has promised never to let you go or leave your side (John 10:29; Isa. 43:1-3; Heb. 13:5; 2 Cor. 4:9; Ps. 37:25).
Faith is typically explained as putting your weight on something or someone, and trusting that thing to support you, to carry you. This is close to the mark, I'd say. But the reality of faith is that it requires an abandonment of your own faithfulness.
The laying aside of every weight and sin that clings to us (Heb. 12:1) is really a delineation of casting off our own faith — faith in ourselves, our abilities, our strengths. The "sin which clings so closely," closer than all the others, is confidence in ourselves. Somehow, we've forgotten this.
Man sees himself as capable and competent, equal to the task of fulfilling the Law. Even if not explicitly admitted, mankind is implicitly committed to himself, believing that he is strong, proficient, and adept enough at pulling it all off, at balancing the scales and living his "best life now."
But this idea completely forgoes the underpinning of the gospel and forgets the crux of man's predicament: pride.
The early church fathers defined pride as "the mother of all sin." They saw it as the chief reason for the fall of man in the Garden. A twisted marriage of disbelief and pride careened the entire human race into darkness and delinquency. And so it goes that all of man's problems and pains can be traced back to a concurrent disbelief in God and belief in self.
This is why much of the New Testament contains entreaties for belief. Over and over again we're incited to relinquish belief in ourselves and believe all the more in the words and promises of God (John. 6:29; 1 John 3:23).
Losing belief in ourselves occurs when we replace that object with Someone else.
And what is that object? What are we believing in?
Belief is built upon Jesus
This might seem like a rudimentary or unsophisticated response. It's your typical Sunday School answer. But it really is all about Jesus.
The writer's appeal to endurance isn't founded on you. Unlike the cross-country runner, this kind of endurance isn't something you can train for or achieve with vigorous amounts of effort.
Biblical endurance isn't found in the gym — it's found in grace.
The command to run isn't left without encouragement as to how this is done. "Let us run," he says, "[by] looking unto Jesus." And there is our prerogative.
In reality, this is where we find our belief, our definition faith. It is a loosing and a looking — a setting loose of confidence in ourselves and a focused look to Christ and His cross. American theologian and pastor A. W. Tozer beautifully expresses this as "the gaze of a soul upon a saving God."* Luther, likewise, terms this belief as "a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times."**
So we see how we're made to endure: by putting our faith and belief on the endurance of Another.
Our perseverance in faith will only last as we continually look to and believe in what Christ did for us. We endure because Jesus endured for us. We can run and "follow hard" after God because His Son bore the wrath, endured the shame, and shouldered the weight of the world's sin for us (Heb. 12:3; cf. Ps. 63:8; Isa. 53:1-12). Our faith is built upon God's faithfulness to us (2 Tim. 2:13).
His great faithfulness is the whole reason we're made to last, to keep running, to keep dedicating and devoting ourselves to His cause and His gospel.
Because Jesus was strong for you, you're free to revel in His strength.
Our belief is predicated on a knowledge of Jesus's sacrifice. You'll never find a biblical command to trust what may or may not be true. We're always invited to believe what we know — about God, His Word, His Son, His work, His character. Abandoning confidence in ourselves is the essence of biblical faith. We are called and made to endure in the most unintuitive manner: by relinquishing our own efforts and energies and letting Christ's endurance be our own.
Christ is at once the goal of our race and the companion along the way. His name and glory and grace are the purpose and the preservation of our running. He resurrects us to run and causes us to endure to end.
* Tozer, A. W. The Pursuit of God. Whitakers, NC: Positive Action For Christ, 2007. 70. Print.
** Luther, Martin. Commentary on Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1976. xvii. Print.