Piper, the Sahara, and Perseverance

We were all mesmerized this summer with the blazing speed of Usain Bolt.

It makes me wonder if that is the kind of race Paul has in mind as he wrote to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2Tim. 4:7 )

9.69 seconds isn’t a very long time for Paul to be proud of “finishing.” The virtue Paul seems to be excited about is not necessarily blazing speed, but something else. Maybe we can call it stick-to-it-ivness or grit or perseverance.

2 Timothy is not the only instance that the New Testament speaks of the Christian faith as a race. We find that same image over and over again in Scripture:

I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me. (Acts 20:24)

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? (Gal. 5:7)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Heb. 12:1)

These passages all seem to be highlighting something about racing besides speed. They seem to put their emphasis on endurance, lasting till the end, finding a way to finish.

Maybe Paul and the other New Testament writers have a different race in mind than a 9.69s 100m dash. Maybe they were thinking of something a little bit more like the 2008 Sahara Race, an ultramarathon across the Sahara Desert that lasted 7 days and covered, catch this, 158 miles. Each stage is a marathon in itself, and the 5th stage is 56.5 miles long! The winner finished with an overall time of 27 hours, 9 minutes, and 17 seconds. The temperatures spiked as high as 120F. (Anyone want to join me in next year’s race?)

Honestly, that sounds absolutely awful to me. My initial reaction to this kind of race – an endurance, long-suffering, head-down-pound-it-out kind of race – is to say, “that sounds really hard. Thanks but no thanks.” I prefer races that are quicker, require less perseverance, less pain. I am no Usain Bolt, but 9.69 seconds sounds like about the right length of a race to me.

Unfortunately, I carry this same attitude into my faith journey as well. I like instant results. I like things that pay off now. I like seeing fruit for my efforts within the week, not years later.

For anyone like me out there, take a couple minutes to listen to John Piper in this short video clip:

I pray that we would become the kind of people that put a high value on perseverance, that we would be defined by our grit and longevity, not by our quick fixes and tendency to always find the easy path, that we will endure to the end, and that by the grace of God, at the end of the day, we would be able to say with Paul, “I have finished the race.”

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