Growing up in England, football, or soccer as it’s more fondly known here, always filled a large part of my life. When I first moved to South Africa, I started out playing for an 11-a-side club in Cape Town. However, after a couple of seasons I decided to transition to a club closer to home.
After finalizing the transfer paperwork with the South African Football Association (which made me feel a lot more professional than I actually am!), I eventually arrived at the new club for my first training session – with my good friend, Shawn, in tow. It was then that we realized that at 35-years old, we were almost double the age of every player on the team!
The coach called all the players around him and gave us a simple instruction, “laps around all three pitches – and start!”
We all turned on our heels and made for the first-corner flag. At this point, the young guys on our team stepped on the gas and sprinted off down the sideline as fast as they could. Shawn and I glanced at each other and jogged slowly after them, however, it didn’t take long for the young boys to speed up and overlap us. Five minutes on and the young chaps were still trying to race each other – but their pace was lagging and they were starting to stumble. Still, the coach didn’t call us in.
All the while Shawn and I continued on with our steady pace – lapping them in the process.
Soon after, the coach called us in and explained the moral of the story.
“I didn’t tell you to race or tell you how long you would run for”, he said, “I just told you to do laps. Now these two here,” (pointing to Shawn and I) ”this is wisdom and experience. You left them behind because you wanted to show off. However, they went further than any of you because they weren’t trying to prove anything – they ran their own race, together. In this team, it’s going to be more important to cross the line together, than to cross the line first.”
I think that our Christian walk can often mirror this concept. The Bible uses the language of running a spiritual race. In 1 Corinthians 9:24 the apostle Paul says:
At this point you might think that my younger teammates had the right idea, after all they were running for the prize. Surely that’s what we’re also called to do, spiritually?
The next verse in 1 Corinthians 9:25 adds an important qualification for how we run:
My younger teammates hadn’t exercised self-control. They had been striving to be first, to be recognized, to be the first name on the team sheet. However, they had forgotten self-control in their desire to win. As pointed out by our coach – their motivation was wrong. They should have put the team first.
The Kingdom of God is the same. When the disciples were arguing about who was to be first in the Kingdom and to be recognized as the greatest, Jesus rebuked them (Mark 10:43-45):
“But it is not this way among you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
So how do we reconcile these two concepts of running a race to lay hold of the prize, and yet being the least so that others are greater?
Paul, who wrote about running the race in his letter to the Corinthians, uses similar wording of striving towards a goal when he wrote to the Phillipians (3:12-14):
“Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul knew that this was his race to run and to strive towards the purpose and call that God had called him to. It’s the same for us. However, what does putting others first in our race to the prize mean practically for us in our Christian walk?
After this first training session, the nicknames our coach had dubbed us – Wisdom and Experience – stuck – and stayed with us for the entire season. As with any name, they carry meaning. These two words can help us understand how we are to run our race.
It is all too easy to rely on our own character or gifting to serve God, but that is not wisdom. We end up being like the lads who sprinted off in their own strength, but hadn’t paid attention to what they were called to do. They soon ran out of their own power and lost their boast. In 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 we see how Paul explains this:
“Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, so that no one can boast in his presence. He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
Maybe you feel that you have ‘powerful’ gifts that aren’t being used. Or maybe you see others who have ‘powerful’ gifts and feel that you have less to offer. Always remember that the only boast that any of us have is that we are in Christ. Don’t envy their gifts – they have to figure out their own calling for themselves. All we can do is stay humble, find what we have been called to, and run together with our brothers and sisters.
There were two reasons Shawn and I didn’t sprint off after the rest of the team. Firstly, we couldn’t have kept up even if we wanted to, and secondly, this wasn’t the first time we’d been at new season training. We knew from experience to listen to what the coach said and not to automatically make assumptions. This experience allowed us to keep up the steady pace and ultimately run further than the rest.
The Christian walk is the same in that we can learn from experience – both our own experiences and that of others. The Bible is absolutely full of testimonies about nations and people that got things right and got things wrong – all of it is there to teach us. Our own lives should be a witness to His faithfulness, and we should be seeking to tell others too. As David sings in Psalm 71:18-20:
“Even when I am old and gray,
O God, do not abandon me,
until I tell the next generation about your strength,
and those coming after me about your power.
Your justice, O God, extends to the skies above;
you have done great things.
O God, who can compare to you?
Though you have allowed me to experience much trouble and distress,
revive me once again.
Bring me up once again from the depths of the earth.”
Don’t be ashamed or afraid of the journey God has brought you through or is bringing you through, when your testimony speaks of God’s faithfulness. Look to the testimonies of those around you and stay strong – as it says in 1 Peter 5:9:
“Resist him, strong in your faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are enduring the same kinds of suffering.”
Crossing the line together
As friends, Shawn and I were able to encourage each other as we jogged around those pitches. It probably would have been a bit disheartening to jog on our own as everyone else lapped us, but together we had solidarity. As it says in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10:
“Two people are better than one,
because they can reap more benefit from their labor.
For if they fall, one will help his companion up.”
In your own race, be sure to encourage each other. In the same way that the coach made an example of Shawn and I, look to wisdom and experience that you can model yourself on and follow those examples (Philippians 3:17). If you are still running for the wrong prize – a crown that will fade away at the end of this life – then today you need to join a different race. A race where the prize is an imperishable crown.
Jesus has an inheritance for you, and there are brothers and sisters waiting to run this race with you – waiting to cross the line together.