Just in case anyone wondered, I am not nor have I ever been a runner. Thankfully there wasn’t room to run very far on submarines, or my military career might have looked a little different. Between a predilection to development of shin splints and a genetic predisposition to corpulence, this ole body just ain’t made for race day. Before anyone takes the bait and gives me the chicken and the egg lecture, let me just defer to your correctness and make my point. Even though Usain Bolt’s records are not under threat at my hands (or feet), I do understand the euphoria of crossing the finish line in first place. I have also learned something about the nature of life’s race – there’s more than one finish line! This thing is more mosaic than masterpiece, and there’s no way to tell the highlights of the story without the accents of the low. We intuitively understand that mountains and valleys are opposite sides of the same coin. What we often don’t remember is that our journey necessarily carries us across both, and our ultimate victory can only be truly appreciated from the perspective of yon’ side of the last tape.
Carnality demands that we build upon supposed failures, put them in perspective, and put them behind us. The problem with that kind of humanistic thinking is the presumption that it is our destiny to be ‘more’ or ‘better’ than we were yesterday, and that anything that keeps us from reaching some new ‘level’ is to be summarily rejected, including the people who may be holding us back. This is where modern self-help oriented pseudo-theology runs afoul of our undeniable evangelical purpose and commission. There is a distinct difference between growth and progress, and without understanding that nuance the Christian is little different from the self-absorbed unbeliever. Growth is the divinely programmed objective response to external stimulation, and is repeatedly encouraged among believers in light of their fellowship in God’s purpose (2 Peter 3:18 et al), whereas progress is the purely subjective accumulation of apparent significance and worth. Often the exhortation to ‘prosper’ (3 John 2, et al) is misconstrued to mean some sort of spiritual investiture rather than simply a blessed progression on the course set by the Lord. When we finally do approach the tape on that last day of our particular race, these things come into focus. I’ve never yet stood by a deathbed where it’s occupant was obsessed with comparing himself with his peers. At that critical moment of clarity, the foolishness of such self-serving thoughts is replaced with genuine reflection. It is only then, at the point of impending death, that relationships abandoned to some supposed better option, the appropriations of advantage at the expense of others, and the neglect of those with whom the journey is shared begin to weigh down the thoughts of the unredeemed. This narrative plays out as a matter of course when sin’s payday overtakes the lost. Unfortunately, the carnal mind continues to strain with it’s ungodly impulses upon the mind of the redeemed as well. Without living surrendered, prayerful lives the believer runs the risk of ending up at the same emotional place as his unbelieving counterpart at the end of the journey.
The good news is that there is a way to avoid the need for such futile reimaginings. The answer is a simple understanding of the transactional aspect of our salvation. There is a spiritual corollary to the pensive reflection brought on by the approach of our mortal end – it’s called conviction. When the Apostle Paul used terminal language to describe his own devotional intensity (1 Corinthians 15:31), it was more than a metaphor – it was a chronicle of the intentional mortification of his flesh’s purposes and constraints (John 3:3-7). The very promise of the resurrection itself is played out when a believer chooses to surrender his own pride and carnal preoccupations to the path that God has ordained for him. Likewise, the tragedy of a rescue intentionally rejected is illustrated when a believer chooses sinful self interest over the path that leads to life and peace (Proverbs 14:12). We all know that Christ paid the price for our sin once for all (Hebrews 10:10). In one fell swoop our savior secured for whosoever will (Romans 10:13) his regenerate engrafting into a supremely regal bloodline (1 Peter 2:9) whose worth and value are vouchsafe in his identity as a joint heir with Christ (Romans 8:16-18). There is no difference in value or worth between the pauper and the prince in the light of Calvary’s cross (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11), and the preoccupation with moving from one to another apart from finding God’s will is a fool’s errand. Carnal ambition is akin to the survivors on the lifeboats intentionally returning to the foundering RMS Titanic to make sure their cabin was in better shape than the one next door. When the believer commits himself to the sanctified life of Kingdom purpose, the foolishness of measuring himself by his comparative assessment of others is laughably excused (2 Corinthians 9:7). The only valid rubric whereby we should evaluate ourselves is whether or not we are in the will of God.
Oh yes, those finish lines….I knew I was headed somewhere. It is only a life lived according to His script instead of our untrustworthy passions that can truly bring peace in the middle of an apparent storm or even in the face of perceived failure. There is beauty and value in the small things, the humble places, and the seemingly insignificant tasks if they are viewed in light of the ‘big picture’ – their specific place in the mosaic that is God’s perfect plan. The fact is that every day is a race of it’s own, and every night a review of the day’s work. Many spend their lives trying to increase the size of their impact without considering if it’s God’s will for them specifically to engage in such ambitious obsessions. It is the small chips that provide the detail in a mosaic, and the unappreciated but masterfully placed little pieces that bring texture and clarity to that big picture of the Lord’s design. Living with the sobriety of knowing that there’s more going on than just my apparent success (Titus 2:11-14) is a profoundly freeing truth – it makes it possible to appreciate and value the people and circumstances of life, good and bad, as the gift of God that they are instead of evaluating them to see if they are just in our way. The Lord makes it clear that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28) – that means the low spots and the high. All that is required to cross every day’s finish line as a winner is to get to the end of the day having served the Lord with a pure heart, a clear conscience, and authentic faith (1 Timothy 1:3). A life lived with the certainty of having been in the will of God robs death of it’s sting and the grave of it’s victory (1 Corinthians 15:55). Hopefully that revelation is way out in the future, but the promise of victory is ours today, tomorrow, and every other time our thoughts are turned to Him in worship (giveth us the victory, present participle – in the unterminated process of giving). It does no harm to the translation to say that He is helping us to win over and over and over again (Romans 8:37). There’s not a singular judgment awaiting the believer at the end of this earthly life, but one attached to our spiritual surrender every day. The judgment seat of Christ will be an acknowledgement of that spiritual death and resurrection lived out in the faith of the believer (Romans 14:10-12). With that in mind, the size of the victory becomes irrelevant, and the little victories portend great things for the eventual reward of those that are faithful to His will instead of their own (Matthew 25:21).