For the past year or so I have been a frustrated runner.
The people who see me running around town every day or so would be surprised to hear me say this. Argonians seem to think that I am in great shape. But I think I am slow and getting slower.
I have been a fairly disciplined runner ever since I began running cross-country in college, and I expect a certain level of performance out of myself. When I run, I am always focused on how far I run and how fast I run and how many miles I can accumulate in one week. But I always end up frustrated, because I never run as fast or as far or as often as I think I should, as I wish I could, or as I used to be able to run five years ago when running college XC.
Five years ago when I graduated I decided I didn’t feel like pushing myself to run six-minute miles for a while. I kept not feeling like it for the next five years. And so now of course I can’t even come close to running six-minute miles. But in the back of my mind I still can. In my mind my best running days are still ahead of me.
I’m frustrated because I can’t run that fast anymore. I’m frustrated because I don’t have the discipline. I have no coach to make me run, no teammates to push me. It’s just me.
However, I am beginning to think that the root of my frustrations lies not in my lack of coach or team or discipline but rather in my expectation that I will be some sort of running rock star every day. My high standards for myself can become their own sort of Kryptonite.
Here’s what I mean: If I don’t feel like I can be a rock star that day, I simply don’t run. I guess I only want good runs. This of course begins a downward spiral where my unwillingness to run results in not being able to run as fast or as far as I want, which leads to more unwillingness to run. And all the while my frustrations grow and my body gets softer.
And then earlier this summer I realized something. My problem is not that I can’t run as fast or far as I want. My problem is that I am not running. How can I be a runner of any kind if I do not run? The speed or distance of my run does not make me a runner. Running makes me a runner.
I know, I know, it seems obvious. But you’d be amazed how silly I can be sometimes. It’s just silly for me to think about speed and distance when I’m not even running consistently.
For the last few months, I have focused on running five days a week: days I feel like it, days I don’t, days I feel tired, days I feel like running a marathon, days when the weather is nice, days when the weather is hot or humid or windy or cold or raining or somehow all of those at once because Kansas is insane. It didn’t matter if I my run went well or not. All that mattered was that I ran.
And you know what happened? I ran. I ran a lot, because I am a runner and that is what runners do. I can’t tell you that my times got much better, but my distances did get longer. I ran and ran until the mornings started getting cold a few weeks ago, and then I remembered that I hate cold weather and re-evaluated my commitment to running.
Why do I tell you this? I tell you this because sometimes I am also a frustrated Christian, and, for me at least, the causes and the symptoms of both frustrations are very similar.
I get frustrated because Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Talk about high standards. That’s like asking a baseball player to knock it out of the park every time they step up to bat. That’s like asking a runner to set a new PR every time they run a 5k.
And, as with running, some days I don’t think I can do it. I can’t be perfect that day. (Or maybe more honestly, I don’t want to be perfect that day because I’m lazy.) And so I don’t even try, and after a while it becomes habitual not to try, to accept failure, to expect mediocrity.
I don’t want to live in mediocrity. I want to be like Jesus. I want to be Christ-like.
But how? “Being perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect” isn’t like running, where I can simply get up every day and run and therefore by definition become a runner. No, all the effort in the world combined with all the determination to be like Jesus won’t make me like Jesus, at least not on its own.
I remain dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart to truly make me like Jesus. The inner attitudes of my heart must themselves be changed from self-focused to God-focused, and this is something I can’t do. Unless God does it for me, it will never happen. I need his grace daily to even make any of this perfection possible.
Yet, knowing that my own effort is not enough, I still have a job to do. The Holy Spirit cannot change my heart if I am not putting myself in a position where I can receive his grace. There is nothing I can do to fix myself, but there remains plenty to do to put myself in the care of the Holy Spirit.
I read in Life With God (by Richard Foster) that the spiritual disciplines are what you and I CAN do. As we discipline ourselves through study, fasting, prayer, service, etc., God transforms us. Wesley called these disciplines the “means of grace.” When we participate in them, they open up our hearts to be changed by the grace of God.
Jesus told his disciples to wait on the power of the Holy Spirit. He also told them to deny themselves daily, take up their crosses, and follow him. This self-denial is a means of grace, but so is following Jesus into life-giving ministry. Both are forms of discipline, and discipline is the essential element of any disciple.
The discipline is our part. We need that every-day dogged determination to get up and go again, to do whatever we need to do to receive the grace we need to be like Christ. This is why we are called to self-denial, to bearing our crosses, to following Jesus as his disciples.
And we will change. The discipline won’t change us, but the Holy Spirit will change us as we prepare ourselves for his grace.
This afternoon I put on a long-sleeve shirt and went for a run because I am a runner and that is what runners do. It wasn’t that cold…yet.
If you do not run, you cannot be a runner. If you do not take up your cross and follow Jesus, you cannot be a disciple.
It’s as simple as that.