Self-Discipline Develops a “Long-distance” Faith

One of the New Testament metaphors used to describe the Christian life is running a race. “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” (1 Corinthians 9:24). My experiences as a long-distance runner taught me some ways believers can run in order to “get the prize.”

Training. I decided to run a marathon once. I’d run 10 miles before, so I figured 26 miles would be no problem. But about a third of the way through, my leg muscles began to tighten and soon my entire body cried out in pain. I hadn’t trained properly.

When I ran my second marathon I had trained. For three months prior to the race, I ran 60 miles a week and took 20 mile training runs. I ran comfortably and knocked 30 minutes off my previous time. Training made the difference.

Paul wrote, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (1 Corinthians 9:25). A runner must train to finish strong. Christians must train to run a race that glorifies the Father.

Here are some things that can help us run our long-distance race of faith.

Focus on the Word. In Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald Whitney defines biblical meditation as “deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer.” Whether it occurs in our daily devotions, while memorizing Scripture, or when doing Bible study, we need regular time to think deeply about God’s Word, reflect on its meaning, and apply it to our lives. It conforms our thinking to the mind of Christ instead of allowing it to be shaped by the world (see Romans 12:1,2).

Wrestle in Prayer. Prayer is another key area of spiritual training. Paul described Epaphras as “always wrestling in prayer” for the believers in Colossae (Colossians 4:12). Some don’t train themselves to pray because they just don’t know how. Praying with others is one of the best ways to learn. Praying with godly men and women gives us deeper insights into the heart of God. Many churches have at least one prayer group that meets on a regular basis. Joining such a group will not only teach us to pray, it will ignite our desire to pray.

Grow in Self-discipline. Any athlete knows the importance of self-discipline. It’s not uncommon for world-class marathoners to run 100 to 120 miles a week. Although we may recognize the value of training, “self-discipline” scares many of us. It leaves us with a “just do it” feeling. How can we get over this fear and actually grow in self-discipline?

One of my early discipleship mentors encouraged me to keep desire before self-discipline. He meant that if I have a quiet time because I enjoy it (rather than because I “have to”) I’d maintain this habit for the long run. Our relationship with the Lord needs to be the motivation for our self-discipline.

Don’t Go it Alone. A team I competed against once utilized teamwork very effectively. They would designate a runner on their team as the “rabbit.” For the first half of the race, the “rabbit” set a blistering pace to tire the top runners from the opposing team while his teammates hung back. When the “rabbit” and those who chased him began to fatigue, his teammates would spring ahead to take the lead and finish strong.

We are not called to run our race alone. Hebrews 3:13 challenges us to “encourage one another daily . . . so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” We need other believers to encourage us, to pray with us, and to do life with us. Do you have one or two friends whom you encourage and who encourage you to persevere?

Lightening Our Loads. In Hebrews 12:1, we are commanded to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” A long-distance runner doesn’t want any extra weight. A Christian doesn’t want to carry unnecessary baggage either.  What obstacles are weighing you down as you run? What do you need to do to cast them off?

Perseverance. Marathon runners have a term called “hitting the wall.” It’s when a runner has exhausted all her energy and feels she can’t go any farther. What does she do? She perseveres. Every long-distance runner knows she must run through the pain, putting one foot in front of the other and pushing to the finish line.

Hebrews 12:1 encourages believers to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” A runner has to push through pain. Christians must persevere in life. We must stay in the race, even if it means slowing our pace to a jog or a walk.

To persevere, we must have the right focus. Hebrews 12:2 instructs us to “fix our eyes on Jesus . . . who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.” Jesus’ perseverance amid terrible suffering at the cross is our example. He is our source of strength, and He gives us the ability to take the next step when our whole world is filled with pain.

By God’s grace, each of us can run a strong race into our Lord’s presence, and hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21).


Adapted from Kingdom Runner: A marathon runner shares five keys for long-distance obedience, by Douglas Wendel. Published in the September/October 2000 issue of Discipleship Journal. Used by permission of NavPress.

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