21 March 2009

Why I Run ("Cheating the Thief" Preview)

THIS POST HAS BEEN RECYCLED IN PREPARATION FOR: "CHEATING THE THIEF" (Please forward to everyone who may be interested and watch for a series of posts this week.)

The silhouette on the water awakened conviction. Actually, it was a little more than that. My oldest son proclaiming “Daddy’s fat!” was integral to the illumination. Bouncing (in every sense of the word) on the diving board of my parent’s pool on a hot July day, I realized my utter lack of discipline.

Old-fashioned vanity got me on a pair of rollerblades a week later. I was not going to be called fat by anyone – especially my son. The "fat daddy" would not be attending the tenth anniversary trip to Boston that year either. In his stead would be “daddy fightin’-weight.”

Flying Men series
Originally uploaded by Arnold Pouteau.
So my pursuit of fitness began - shallow and self-obsessed. The only possible redeeming quality to my motives was a desire to be fit and trim for Shelli. Basically, though, I wanted to look better for myself. That day on the diving board exposed more than a spare tire. It grabbed my attention because I had a spare tire around my whole life. The condition of my soul was exposed and my inherit reaction was to run for the bushes. A fit exterior is a great place to hide.

My life had fallen into an anxious hell. I always felt behind – lacking sleep and frequently unfaithful with my commitments to work and home. My connection with God was wildly erratic and shallow. As a pastor, demands can be extreme (at least I think they are) but that can be offset by a flexible schedule (well, that’s the idea anyway). But the flexibility in my schedule wasn’t helping. I started to get the impression that it was actually hurting. I was becoming a bad father, husband and friend who was seriously underproductive. The idea of physical fitness was a life raft in a sea of confusion. It was something I could control.

Eventually, I started running. I knew enough from days gone by that I would need to start slow and get a good pair of shoes. I did. Months passed and something dramatic happened – I became a “runner.” Months later I was enjoying it for something beyond my initial “noble” cause. It wasn’t completely clear yet, but something in my soul began to transform.
A close friend invited me to run the Bolder Boulder on Memorial Day of 2005. This specific goal engaged something intentional. Now I had a workout schedule complete with intense days on the track and long days on the trail. This was the context for what I can only now call a work of grace.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.  1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  Hebrews 12:1-2
While running, my mind would often fix on these passages. While it may not be novel that a running pastor might eventually think of these passages the meditation did lead to something new.  Up until that point, I had a sensitivity that is common among Christians my age. I was very sensitive to anything in my faith being an “effort.” Surely that would be self-righteousness. Indeed Paul himself said "the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,"(Romans 4:1-5)
Certainly, spiritual progress isn't made by effort – that would be denying the gospel. Right? Isn't that what Paul is saying
This logic can be a trap because my ugly, lazy side really likes it. Wisdom recalls that this same Paul did say “I discipline my body and keep it under control.”
“But isn’t this talk of discipline burdensome? I thought Christ’s yolk was easy and his burden was light. I thought my focus, as a Christian, was to:
Delight yourself in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
(Psalm 37:4)
Yes, but lightness only comes when my heart finds rest in the form of real, lasting joy and something opposes that pursuit of joy. Something that can disqualify me from this race of faith; my flesh. 

There is an unredeemed part of my existence that still wants to reside as king of the world – receiving all comfort, all honor and all dominion. It needs to be beaten... mercilessly. This self-centered, self-serving old man is an enemy of God and, if Christ is my only source of joy, my enemy as well.  My flesh desires comfort, security, control and short-term pleasure at the expense of substantial joy, worship, freedom and long-term pleasure.

So I must beat it back. I must grow in my ability to refuse the flesh the right to make my decisions. Real joy hangs in the balance. So, even though the spare tire is gone and I could keep it off fairly easily, I run, not for leisure but competitively, to eradicate my flesh’s tendency to play it safe, because the spare tire around my soul still lingers.

In the middle of a day of mile repeats, when my body is screaming to stop, I have an opportunity to put that bag of dirt in its place. That is the time to keep moving and remind the flesh that it does not make my decisions. If I make any provision for it, it will someday dominate me and I run the risk of disqualification. There is no grace here – my body must sacrifice to the road.  Not for my righteousness (Christ has given me that) but for my joy.

Staying faithful to a regime and to specific goals has caused me to question the lack of discipline in all areas of my life. When your heart rate is 190+ and you have a mile to go, you start asking yourself things like “What is so hard about reading the Bible regularly?” and “Why do I find it so hard to pray with my kids?” Eventually those have changed as well. Indeed my whole life is more ordered and less crazy – I feel like a sharper tool.

What I have found is that discipline is not something that gets exercised in one area of life. Discipline becomes a part of your whole life or it eventually fades. And this is not burdensome. At its essence, discipline is an effort to cheat the thief. The thief is our flesh and it seeks to steal lasting joy. This is why David encourages us to make friends with faithfulness:
Trust in the LORD, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. 
Psalm 37:3 (notice the context this provides for Psalm 37:4)
The surprise is that this has not encouraged pride; instead it has reinforced a sense of my frailty. Every day I am confronted with the weakness of my flesh. Some days, I desperately want to foreclose on the whole thing. Always I am reminded that apart from Christ, I can do nothing. My flesh is too weak and Christ must do the great work of changing my motivations from self-worship to Christ-worship or it will never happen.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am that He corrected my initial silly and shallow motives. It has been almost five years since I started and I hope to keep running, but I have a greater hope that cheating the thief and looking more to Christ will change my affections and bring Him glory.

The fight for joy may require more than a silly workout someday.


  1. absolutely incredible

  2. I recently prayed about the complacency and temptation of living a safe, secure, pleasure-seeking life. Thanks for letting God use you to remind me of one of the enemies that I had forgotten: the old Adam/sinful flesh. May God continue to lead you to bear the fruit of the Spirit.

    “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Gal 5:24

    “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:14


  3. Mitch,

    That was a great post! I'm lerning something similar in my own life, except without the running part! :-)

  4. medicjeff8:03 AM

    Each run is an adventure for me. What was easy one day, might present a challenge the next. There just never seems to be a wasted run, no matter what I feel like at the end, I know that something has been accomplished. Sometimes I see it right away and at times I don't realize it until later. God is so patient with me.

    Mitch, you hit the mark with this post (not like you've missed with any others)! What sweet conviction.

  5. This is an especially relevant thought during the final leg of college, and the success of the last two weeks hanging on a final term paper. He who perseveres to the end will graduate, and all that.

  6. Mitch,

    God has been convicting me lately with this as well. He has been telling me that if I don't get up and work hard that I won't get anything in the area of discipline in my life. Proverbs 13:4 is very convicting on this samething.

    Thank you for sharring mitch, it is encouraging to see a brother victorious in this!
    -I press on toward the goal