“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1 New Living Translation)
Many, many years ago, I became the unlikeliest of track stars. Ok, I wasn’t exactly a star, but my beginnings as a Sophomore on the Junior Varsity track team actually produced some surprising results. I was not a particularly gifted runner, but I ran on nerves, and when the starting gun was fired I found that my pace kept me in front of the pack all the way to the finish line. My first three races, if memory serves me correctly, all proved to be first place finishes. I had never distinguished myself in sports before, and I was elated with the success I was having. In a couple of those races I stood alone representing my school while my competition had several runners representing theirs. The success was short-lived, but I even got to race (and win) against three boys from the now famous McFarland High School track team of Disney fame. Of course, that was against different boys in a different era, but let us not quibble about the details. This is my story, after all!
However, my greatest challenge on the track was not against McFarland or any other team I raced against. In fact, the race that made me the most nervous in my single year as an 880 runner was when there was no one racing against me at all. I stood alone, the sole runner in the Junior Varsity 880 race, and was guaranteed a first place by simply going around the track twice. The rub came when the officials, seeing that I was alone and wanting to save time, decided that they would race the girls teams alongside me. After all, I would only take up the one lane and they could run their race against each other at the same time. Now, suddenly, the race that should have been the easiest of my year became the race of my life!
To give this story a little perspective, you need to understand that the last time I had been involved in any kind of athletic endeavor with these girls was when the boys eighth grade basketball team played a practice game against the girls eighth grade team. If you don’t remember eighth grade (and why would you), it was that horrible awkward stage when the girls were taller than us boys and towered over us like amazons out of the jungle. They had crushed us then to our great humiliation, and now I stood poised to face these girls in what could be the kill shot to my recently gotten success as an 880 winner. What if they beat me? I would be exposed as a fraud who couldn’t even outrun a girl! This was serious. The fact that I had grown taller, faster, and stronger than these girls over the last couple of years never entered my mind. I was determined to win this race or die in the attempt. I remember it well; running the race with my head turned looking behind me the whole time until one of the coaches yelled to me from the middle of the field, “Just run! They’re nowhere near you!” Needless to say, I probably logged one of the best times of the year running against a bunch of girls with whom I wasn’t even in competition!
Yes, I won the race, but I didn’t beat the girls. We were running two distinct and separate races. Years later, when I would preach on the theme of “Running the Race Set Before You,” this story would always get a good laugh from the congregation. But how true it is that we are often trying to compete against one another when none of us are even running the same race. Paul warned against our carnal propensity to try to outdo each other when he wrote, “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” (2 Corinthians 10:12). Comparisons of this sort in the Christian life or in ministry are never healthy and can create a false perception in two ways. For one, we may feel like we have failed to succeed when we compare the results and fruit of our life and ministry with others who seems to have a larger impact and greater influence. Equally harmful, we may harbor a false sense of success because we enjoy great respect from our peers, have large works, or have great monetary success, none of which really determine whether or not we are successful in the eyes of God.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said that we are to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” I am not running your race, nor are you running mine. The course we each run in our respective races is different from that of everyone else who has ever ran their race for God. Besides this, none of us started the race we’re running. We were all preceded by those who have finished their race and passed the baton of responsibility to those of us who are to make our contribution and be a voice to our generation. After we have run our leg of the race, other runners will come and add to the ground we took to advance the purposes of God still further.
In my life of service to God I have had good friends who have encouraged me in my race. I’m think of some particular friends right now who started off in ministry at the same time I did many years ago. As we have each served God in our respective journeys of faith, there were times when it was obvious that they were in an uphill struggle on the course they ran. At the same time I may have enjoyed great success running on the level ground of my course at that time. However, in a long journey the terrain never stays the same for long, and as time went on I had my share of set backs and disappointments as they found their rhythm and began to enjoy a time of relative ease and success. This is why we are encouraged to “run with endurance,” for it will not always be an easy race, nor will the ground rise uphill before us forever. There will be ebb and flow in any race. The good news is that we all have the opportunity to stand in the winners circle together when the day is done and the race is over. All we have to do is keep to the path and run with a steady pace, following the prescribed course God has mapped out for us. Regardless of the race others are running, we should never allow envy or an unhealthy sense of competitiveness to cause us to lose our joy in running our own race or begrudge someone the success they have experienced in running theirs.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from those who have run or are running their race well, or learning lessons from our peers that keep us from unnecessarily reinventing the wheel for ourselves, but to try to do, or worse, outdo, what someone else is doing is sheer folly. I do not have the gifts or calling to do what God has called another man to do, and unless I want to run alone, without the anointing and grace of God upon my life and ministry, I better not attempt to do so. God has called us all to be winners, and He has given us everything we need to do what He has called us to do so that His purpose for our life might be fulfilled.
You will begin to move toward what you keep in view. If you stare too long at what another is doing or the course they are running, you may find yourself trying to emulate their style or direction for life and ministry. Don’t. You make a great original, but as a copy of someone else your potential will remain unfulfilled. Likewise, do not allow insecurity to make you feel jealous of another’s success. Their success is not your failure, and if we can be big hearted enough to believe it, any success for the Kingdom of God is a success we all share.
In the Academy Awards there is a trophy given for the best actor or actress in a supporting role. They are not the primary character in the movie, but they make the story of the protagonist all the better for the role they play. When I get to heaven, I want to hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I want to know that I ran my race well, but also that I was a good support for others who ran their race near to mine. In the end, it will not only matter that we ran our race to completion, but it will matter how we ran it as well.