If there is one thing that breaks my heart, it’s an interaction between two Christians pretending to be “fine.” This is commonplace within so many small groups and church services. One person believes that being a Christian means doing good and being good, but they have failed recently (a fight with their spouse, reoccurring sin, stress, circumstances), and they believe that they would be less than Christian if they let on. Then the other, equally as burnt out, sees the other as the ideal Christian and doesn’t want to be seen as any lesser. So the conversation goes. And many more like it, until one day when it comes out. Then what happens? Many Christians in gospel-centered churches are, by God’s grace, being taught to bring their brokeness to the community and seek help. But what is the help that is being offered? So often, we offer the tired, hurt, needy Christians a gospel adrenaline shot and send them sprinting off. Like a football player at the Pro Combine, the Christian bursts forward at incredible speed only to come to a halt or trip over their own feet forty yards later. Jesus becomes coach, not savior. This is how Christians get burnt out.
Discipleship is a marathon, not a 4 x 100. Sure, you can sprint passed a marathon runner for a mile or two, but eventually they are going to catch up and pass you. Like a marathon, discipleship has to be paced and consistent. If all emphasis is put on quiet time, prayer, and other disciplines, soon the Christian will soon be exhausted from running on fumes. And nobody can run the race the Paul talked about in 1 Timothy in short bursts.
How do well-meaning, seemingly gospel-centered Christians (like me and you) get taken for a ride on this spiritual rollercoaster of discipleship? We set achievable goals. I once chatted with a (very kind and hospitable, might I add) college ministry leader who was disciplining his guys through the book of Luke. He was very excited to tell me about the “punishment & reward system” that he had set up. Essentially, for every guy who came to the weekly meeting unprepared, the rest of the guys would have to do a certain amount of extra bible study as punishment. I remember thinking that this was pretty intense but probably pretty effective. It wasn’t until recently that I realized what was so wrong with this system. It reduced the law of God to an achievable goal. Sanctification was achieved by reaching a finish line.
Even though it is not always this extreme, performance is the default mode of the human heart, and it is so easy for that performance to sneak into our discipleships. The cross becomes a motivational gasoline instead of a refuge of rest. In running the gospel-driven race, believing the gospel is not a performance enhancer but a reminder of Jesus’ perfect performance on our behalf. The truth is we cannot finish the marathon on our own. It’s like running in a hurricane, with winds of self-doubt, sin, legalism, failure, incompetence and demonic sabotage constantly being thrown our way. Yet Jesus himself has secured our prize, and the Holy Spirit now empowers us to run.
With this in mind, it becomes so important to remember by what strength we run. Is it our powerful faith and godliness that takes us through the hurricane? Or is it the power of salvation (Romans 1:16)? I know a pastor who says, “the way up is not up, the way up is down.” Essentially, when we see ourselves as incompetent of running the race ourselves, we learn to cling to the righteousness of Jesus. It is here that the gospel not only becomes sweet, good news but consistently good news day in and day out.
This changes the way we think about discipleship and the way we teach others to live the Christian life. This radical juxtaposition between our goals and our abilities requires that we disciple by helping others realize the truth about themselves (the law) and the truth about Jesus (the gospel). The trajectory is long-term (REALLY long term) faith and repentance. We should be teaching people to believe first and foremost. Belief will lead to fruitfulness, but if a step is skipped, we are simply sending people out to run a marathon in a hurricane with a few encouraging words and no strength.
Nobody can finish the race by themselves. The race sounds simple enough, just believe the gospel. But why does Paul, the super-church-planting apostle, tell Timothy at the end of his life that he has finished the race? What is the race that Paul has finished? Simply keeping the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). So we push on and teach others to push on, one Holy Spirit-empowered step at a time - despite doubts, emotions, and fears - by believing that “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you." (Romans 8:11)
For the Christian who suffers through the dreaded “how are you doing?” questions at small group with a fake smile and a “oh, I’m fine” there is good news! In the hurricane marathon of the Christian life there is refuge and power. That refuge and power is the good news that Jesus has performed perfectly on our behalf, declaring freedom from guilt and condemnation before a holy God. Christ is both the imperative of the race and the power to run it.
Musician Jim White tells a story in his documentary “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” about riding his bicycle across the Brooklyn Bridge. On the bridge, there is a narrow bike lane, and he would often try to keep his front tire on the white line of the bike lane. He could only do this if he stared straight ahead. Whenever he looked down at his tire he would wobble. We must fix our eyes on Jesus, the big picture, only then can we expect to run the Christian life and not succumb to our hurts, emotions, and fears.
Nick Rynerson is a Christian and a music and film lover. He blogs at Gospel Community Culture, and is a part of Charis Community Church an Acts 29 Church Plant in Normal, Illinois. His interests include taking his beautiful fiancé on dates, playing the mandolin, and reading. Twitter: @Nick_Rynerson