A Runner in a Race

Quoting his beloved mother, Forest Gump famously compared life to a box of chocolates: "You never know what you’re gonna get." But what about the life of the Christian? To what can we liken it?

In the New Testament, we find the Christian life often compared to a race. Paul used this metaphor both for his life as an apostle and the Christian life in general (1 Cor. 9:24-27; see also Gal. 5:7). At the end of his life, he depicted himself as having “finished the race” (2 Tim. 4:7). The author of Hebrews paints the picture of a sold-out stadium with the Hebrew Christians down on the track, running the race of their lives (Heb. 12:1).

How is the Christian life like a runner in a race? One answer is that there is a start, middle and end. We begin the race when we are born into a Christian home or if we are born strangers to the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12), when we profess faith in the Lord Jesus and are baptized. The middle of the race is the rest of our lives. The end is our death, when we rest from our labors and go to be with the Lord—or, if it comes first, the return of our Lord. 

Seeing ourselves as runners helps us to understand that being a Christian is not a one-time event, but a life-long endeavor. We might be tempted to think that so long as we were baptized or made a decision for Christ or can pinpoint the exact time of our conversion that we have done all that is necessary for possessing eternal life and entering into God’s rest (Heb. 4:1-13). But that is not true, because we are like runners in a race who are running to the finish line. 

This is why Paul was concerned with the Galatians. They were running well but were sidetracked by the Judaizers (Gal. 5:7). If the start of their race was all that counted, there would have been no need for Paul to exhort them passionately to get back on track and stay the course. The start, however, is not all there is because a Christian is not someone who had a moment of faith but who lives daily by faith. The focus, therefore, should not be on what we did in the past, but on what we are doing in the present. A runner doesn’t concern himself with his past missteps or triumphs; he focuses on the what he needs to do now. So too with the Christian. Like the Galatians or the Hebrew Christians, we may have a good track record, or we may have a spotty one. At various points in our life, we may have stumbled into heresy or immorality, which may have caused us to question the genuineness of our faith. But it doesn’t really matter what our personal history says about us; what matters is that we are trusting Christ now. Forget what lies behind, and keep straining forward to what lies ahead (Phil. 3:13).

The Christian life is also like a runner in a race in that there is an award at the end. We are not running in circles or to nothingness, but towards the finish line where a prize beyond our wildest dreams awaits us. The Bible uses a number of different words and expressions to describe it:

  • glory (Heb. 2:10; Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17);
  • God’s Sabbath rest (Heb. 4);
  • paradise (Luke 23:43);
  • the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2);
  • the new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13);
  • the resurrection (Acts 26:7);
  • eternal life (Titus 1:2; Rom. 2:7; 6:22);
  • the knowledge and presence of God (John 17:3, 24);
  • the kingdom prepared for you before the foundation of the world (Matt. 25:34);
  • an imperishable crown (1 Cor. 9:25);
  • a crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8);
  • a crown of life (Rev. 2:10);
  • an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4).

There is, therefore, more to this life. Indeed, as good as our life may be in this world, our best life is yet to come. This wonderful truth provides meaning in the present and helps us to maintain the right perspective during the ups, downs, and in-betweens.

If there is no God and if this is all there is, then life would ultimately bear no real meaning. In the immortal words of Macbeth, life would be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But God is, and he has called us out of darkness and to glory in Christ Jesus. We have purpose and meaning. We are to run for God and to God. 

We need to keep this in mind throughout the vicissitudes of life. When life is good, we are able to enjoy it responsibly, knowing full well that it will not last and that we are on our way to something far greater. When life is hard, we are able to be patient and persevere through it, knowing that it will soon pass and that there is a glorious, eternal light at the end of the tunnel. When life is mundane, we are able to plod along, knowing that each step leads us closer to our inheritance.

The Christian lives as the runner runs; he begins, continues, and concludes, with a glorious prize awaiting him at the end. We must keep this metaphor in mind, therefore, as we go about our day doing all things for the glory of God. In this, we gain the proper perspective for life and ministry, encouraged to keep on keeping on to the very end.

Patrick Ramsey (@dprmsy) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Rachel, have five sons. He earned his B.A. from Covenant College, his M.Div. from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and his Th.M. from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ. He is a contributor to A New Divinity: Transatlantic Evangelical Debates during the Long Eighteenth Century and Samuel Rutherford: An Introduction to his Theology. He has written for periodicals, including The Westminster Theological Journal, Mid-America Journal of Theology, Themelios, and The Confessional Presbyterian. 

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