When I was a teenager, I couldn’t imagine that real people in the world actually chose to run. For me, it was a punishment.
Running was what you had to do when you messed up at football practice or something you had to do at the end of a workout just for the pleasure of our coaches. It was a necessary evil, but never something I looked forward to. I’m pretty sure most everyone else I grew up around felt the same way. That’s why when we, as a team, had to perform this duty of putting one foot in front of another, we had an unspoken agreement that we would all keep the same, leisurely pace. That way we could get it done without too much effort or strain. Again, everyone felt this way, and when everyone feels like that, the system works great.
Until it doesn’t.
It stops working when that one kid takes it upon himself to not just get to the locker room after the conditioning portion of the workout; he chooses to actually try. That’s when everything goes south because suddenly everyone in the crowd is exposed. Whereas before a coach or other onlooker might look at the clump of humanity and conclude that everyone in that mass is actually giving a good effort, when someone separates themselves from the pack it becomes clear that the majority has a lot more gas in the tank than they’re letting on.
This would happen from time to time when I was younger. And when it did, those of us in the pack had one of two potential responses: Option 1 is that we could look with some degree of admiration on the person now out in front. We could embrace the fact that we had been exposed, and then embrace the challenge of giving more ourselves.
Or there is option 2 – that we could become bitter and angry at the person in front of us for not playing by the unspoken rules we had established. More often than not, we took option 2. And we lost a lot of football games.
I think the same principle applies to holiness. As Christians, holiness is not just an ideal – it’s a pursuit. Paul himself likens our pursuit of holiness to physical activity in that doing both requires great effort, but one brings significantly greater benefits than the other:
But have nothing to do with pointless and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness. For the training of the body has limited benefit,but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. For this reason we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe (1 Timothy 4:7-10).
Train. Labor. Strive. These are words we don’t necessarily like when it comes to our walk with Christ. We are, after all, saved and kept by grace alone in Christ alone. But the same grace that brings us salvation teaches us to say no to ungodliness. So we are called to give ourselves wholly and completely to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives – to surrender to Him. And in every one of us, surrendering to the work of the Holy Spirit means pursuing His goal for our lives. That goal is not fame, platform, or fortune – it is holiness. This is what we are to pursue:
Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness—without it no one will see the Lord (Romans 12:14).
Problem is I (we) become so accustomed to seeking other things besides holiness that it rarely if ever comes into our field of spiritual vision. But one of the ways God brings us back to this goal is through seeing that pursuit alive and well in someone else. Surely there is someone in your life you know that, through their integrity, their discipline, their sheer presence that you can sense is running hard out in front of the pack. The ironic thing about the person on this kind of pursuit is that they aren’t trying to shame us with their lifestyle; they are simply running the race hard after Christ.
And here we have two choices, much as I did those years ago. How will we respond to the person out front who is out in front, and to the voice of the Spirit who is moving us to run harder and faster? Will we embrace that challenge for our good and as God’s will for our lives? Or will we simply laugh it off, becoming bitter and angry at the one who has unintentionally exposed us? Jerry Bridges has a good word for us here:
“But God has not called us to be like those around us. He has called us to be like Himself. Holiness is nothing less than conformity to the character of God.”
May it be so.