The road seemed to stretch longer and longer as I pushed one pedal down after the other. As I rode my bike up to the traffic light on the feeder of I-40 in the middle-of-nowhere, Arkansas, I lost what little strength I needed to simply pull my cleats out of the clips in my pedals. With my feet stuck to my pedals, you can imagine what happened next.
I collapsed, crashing into the pavement. The pain from biting hunger and road rash caused by the fall kept me on my back. I only had nine miles left ahead. Did I have what it would take to get back up and finish the race? I cycled 301 miles from Fort Smith to West Memphis in twenty-three hours and needed to embrace my "why" if I was to continue. While lying on the hot asphalt, my eyes found the small portrait of a missionary in China I taped to the stem of my bike before beginning the race. I remembered the sacrifice he was making away from his family to care for orphans and the risk in sharing his faith "underground" in a closed, oppressed country. I promised him I would finish. Donors gave thousands of dollars toward this charity ride so he could have a new van to spread the gospel. Remembering my "why" was essential to digging deep, finding the strength, and getting back on my bike to finish the race.
The last few miles of every long-distance race are the most difficult, especially when you hit the wall as I did. No matter your preparation, every endurance runner is tempted to quit. It becomes the defining moment when you discover who you really are. You question if it's worth it. The temptation to quit is like a sabotaging thread woven through your purpose, relationships, job, and life. The voice to quit becomes deafening. It says, "cut the corner," "leave early," "I don't need this," "raise the white flag," or even "just move on." It's not how you start or how fast you run, but how you finish the race that counts. When you are tempted over and over to give up, it's essential to remember your "why." Why do you do the things you do and for whom do you do them? You will need your "why" for the hell to come.
The dramatic but confessional play-by-play of that pivotal moment when I faced defeat head-on pales in comparison to my friend who was a little younger than me when he completed his own long-distance race.
No one believed he could finish. His closest friends and family begged him not to go. Even though he considered an alternative route, once he crossed that starting line, he set his mind to never quit until he finished the race.
The crowd never cheered. Instead they jeered at him and screamed for him to fail, to fall under the crushing weight of ever-increasing pain and the walls still to come. Instead of a helmet of protection he was given a thorny crown to pierce his brow. Instead of Gatorade, they spit in his face. Instead of an energy gel for a needed burst of strength, they whipped him with their words. They laughed and mocked without mercy. A 125-pound burden was strapped to the back of his shoulders. Dirt mixed with sweat and blood clouded his vision.
And yet one foot continued to step in front of the other.
In the final stretch of his race, even the taunting crowd cringed at repeating strikes of a cruel hammer producing the worst pain a human could endure. Every breath brought searing pain as he pushed his feet down against an unyielding spike. It tore muscle, tendon, and bone. To cross his finish line, he would have to give everything he had: his life.
It is finished.
No one took the life of Jesus. He laid it down at the finish line. The author of Hebrews explains in the twelfth chapter that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him. What could possibly bring joy powerful enough to finish the hardest race man ever ran? Jesus never forgot his why. His why behind the cross was love. The prophetic words of Jesus came true in John 15:13 "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." His love was the why that brought glory to His father by fulfilling God's will to bring about your salvation. Jesus suffered the greatest pain anyone would ever endure. Jesus loved you that much.
All believers need encouragement in the face of what may seem like insurmountable odds. The early church, during the first century when the book of Hebrews was written, experienced such a time. The message of Hebrews is twofold: to never quit and to resist the pressure to cave to circumstances, those around you, and your own failings and past. Hebrews was written to recently converted Jews of that time; these Christians lived under constant persecution and pressure, not only from the world but also from friends and family to return to their former way of life and the religion of Judaism. More than ever, the author of Hebrews knew they needed to only get to know Jesus and their resolve would be set.
The letter of Hebrews was written for two reasons. It was a message to first-century Christians to never quit. These new believers in Christ were discouraged by persecution. Second, it was a reminder that Jesus is greater.
"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. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted." Hebrews 12:1-3
The cloud of witnesses is not the focus on which our heart is fixed. The Greek word for "witness" is actually "martyr." A martyr is one who never renounces what he believes, even under persecution. He or she never quits.
You will discover more about these endurance runners in later chapters, but for now choose where you will fix your own eyes: not on the many who went before you, but the One. Instead of being included in the heroes of faith in chapter 11, Jesus stands apart. No one compares. All others are a distant second at best. When your gaze is fixed on Jesus first, above all others, you will discover the foundational strength needed to complete your own journey of faith. Your "why" must be an unselfish love and obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ. Carefully examine and commit to memory how Jesus set his mind to never, ever quit, even in the face of insurmountable odds. Jesus endured everything thrown at Him. His endurance becomes your fortitude. When you are tempted to quit early, never forget to re-turn your gaze upon the story of the ultimate finisher. On Jesus.
Look where you want to go. All trail runners and mountain bikers have discovered if you let a rock or tree root psyche you out, you'll stare at it and hit it every time. Look for the clean line and hold it. Once, our pastors took a multi-day twenty-six-mile canoe trip through the beautiful Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. It should be on every paddler's bucket list. The most technical class three white-water section of the Rio Grande River is called Rock Slide Rapids. You must canoe through a maze of boulders bigger than your house. My partner was our student ministry pastor who I affectionately call Griz. We made a commitment to each other never to look at the boulder no matter how nice it was. We took a deep breath and were quickly thrust into the maze. Whenever a mammoth boulder was near, I'd yell, "Keep paddling. Keep paddling." A huge rush of satisfaction and relief comes when you navigate the Rock Slide cleanly. If you go first, you have the luxury of looking back with guilty pleasure if your friend's canoe tips. Watch the show. Don't be the show. Look where you want to go. The three common perception problems on your spiritual race are: no view of Jesus, wrong view of Jesus, or a low view of Jesus.
No View of Jesus
Most of the time it's not blindness but fixing on the wrong thing. What gets your attention gets you. Jesus says in Matthew 6:22, "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light." Is your body dark because your eye is unhealthy?
When you have abundance, it's tempting to be self-reliant and have no desire for a Savior. You become God in your life and all your focus revolves around your needs, wants, and dreams. Quitting has less to do with self-reliance and more to do with what you've forgotten about the character and nature of God. One of the greatest temptations is to fashion God in your own image. You default to worshiping a God in your own character and preference. Instead of believing and trusting man is created in God's image, you become guilty of breaking the first commandment—making a god after your own image. It's idolatry. You can't make God in your own image.
Anything or anyone who gets more devotion than Jesus is an idol. Evaluate the time you give your favorite sports team, hobby, work, social media, or even ministry, friends, and family. Binge watching the latest Netflix series or spending countless hours as a gamer trying to conquer Halo 42 sets you up for failure. Where does your mind drift while lying in bed at night, taking a shower, or waking in the morning? It isn't a passion problem. It's where you direct your passion. If you love the church or a worship song more than the person of Jesus you have a real problem. You are missing out. What if you redirected your focus to Jesus? What if He became the single greatest object of your attention? "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." Matthew 6:33
Distorted View of Jesus
The popular worldview today is that you will reach God no matter what trail you choose in your spiritual journey. If you disagree, you are intolerant and filled with hate. The very people who once preached tolerance and accused Christians of being intolerant bigots only a few decades back have become intolerant themselves. Now they have achieved a level of cultural acceptance, "tolerance" is thrown out the window. Under the pressure of such hatred and persecution, Christians have begun to let their belief in the absolute truth of the Word of God and moral stance slide. But the church's dangerous shift is less about conforming ourselves into the image of the world and more about what we've forgotten about God.
What makes Jesus unique is He came down the mountain because of His love for you. John 1:14 says, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." He humbled Himself from a position in heaven, came down to personally reveal the character and nature of God, and then died for you. There are many wonderful people to be respected and admired in Scripture and church history, but only One worthy to be worshiped. Although many have tried to worship other gods and people, no one has been so wonderfully loved like Jesus. Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:6
Who or what sits on the throne of your heart as God? You must know who God is based on the Bible, not on the constantly shifting misconceptions thrown around by the changing times and the loudest voices in our culture. If you see God as a genie in a bottle, you will be frustrated when he doesn't answer your prayers according to your preferences. If you see him as a cosmic cop, you will be constantly looking over your shoulder after every mistake. If you see him as distant because of a dysfunctional relationship with your earthly father, you will never have the personal relationship He desires for you. Every misconception produces dangerous consequences. Studying the nature of God revealed in the Jesus of your Bible will help you see the one true God. Christ walked among men to show who God really is. He faced every trial and temptation you will face. He can say "me too." His words and actions flowed from His character. His attributes will shape you. You become what you behold. Your actions and words will flow from a right view of God. Trust the character of God. Trust in His promises.
Low View of Jesus
"What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." writes A.W. Tozer in his book Knowledge of the Holy.
The inner circle of Jesus was told by God not to look around, but to keep their gaze on Jesus. Peter wanted to build three altars on top of the mountain where Jesus was transfigured with Moses and Elijah. God commanded them to only listen to His beloved Son. Only Jesus is the author and finisher of your faith. Only Jesus is your hope. Only Jesus will enable you to cross your finish line. Looking back will cause you to stumble. Looking down will bring discouragement. Looking around will make you feel inferior. Your prize is not a what, it's a Who. When you discover this, it will shoot joy and renewed strength through your veins.
"Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high." Hebrews 1:1-3
Even Jesus looked to a Who other than Himself. Hebrews reveals Jesus has a high view of his Father. Apart from God He could do nothing on his own. He would only be about his Father's business. When his disciples asked to see his Father, Jesus said when you look at him you see the Father. The Father and Son are one.
Who you behold you become. The one you spend the most time with is the one you start to become like. The first step toward finishing your race is setting your gaze on Jesus. Stop looking to humanity. Jesus had twelve close friends and one betrayed him. Your friends will let you down. Leaders you elevate will fall under your unrealistic expectations. Parents and children will break your heart. None will be enough. Jesus is greater. He is your best example for how to finish.
When you focus on the life of Jesus, you'll discover His purpose. Luke 19:10 reveals Jesus came to this world to seek and save the lost. Jesus started his ministry with revealing His life's purpose. He continued to worship at the same synagogue in Nazareth he did as a child. When he stood up to teach, he opened the scroll to Isaiah and read a Messianic prophecy written 800 years earlier. Luke 4:18 relay the five purposes of Jesus. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed."
Never was this more demonstrated than when Jesus encountered a bunch of religious folks who brought a woman caught in the very act of adultery. The law said she must die. Jesus took a knee and wrote something in the ground with his finger. The last time the finger of God wrote something was on Mount Sinai when He gave the commandments. This time, instead of giving the Law, the finger of God was extending grace, mercy, and love. One by one her accusers dropped their rocks and left. Imagine the intimate moment between her and Jesus when He tells her she will not be accused this day, but then says, "Go and sin no more." Jesus is full of grace and truth. Grace says I love you no matter what. Truth says I must be honest with you no matter what.
You are never the same after a real encounter with Jesus. The starting line of your spiritual race begins when you place your trust in Jesus, the Son of God whom the Father raised from the dead. You too are a child of God. Your life has purpose. When you discover His purpose, you'll discover your purpose. "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father" John 14:12. To sustain a long-term race requires a growing faith and trust in Jesus. The spirit of Christ is in you to do and finish great works. As a follower of Jesus, you'll discover a race full of adventure and true life when you start fulfilling his purposes. You are created to run, not stumble. Your race continues when you are being conformed to His character and image. It's being so obsessed and consumed with Jesus, your heart and mind are occupied with thoughts that won't abandon you in your most difficult moments. In Him alone is the faith needed to run your race with endurance to the finish line. It's never a race to run alone, but one meant to finish and finish well through a relationship with Jesus. He declared "I will never leave you." He will always give you help when you need it most. Over and over, you will be tempted to quit. Your only shot at crossing your finish line is keeping your eyes, heart, and mind centered upon Jesus.
"You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world" 1 John 4:4. Dig deep. You are stronger than you think you are because the spirit of Christ is in you. When you feel alone and hope seems too distant, know it would be unfortunate for you to give up now. Jesus never gave up on you! He will give you the strength and grace to continue. Know Him. Love Him. This is eternal life. The only way to look past your struggle is to look upon Jesus. He is who you've been searching for. Jesus will help you finish your race.
John Van Pay is the founding and lead pastor of Gateway Fellowship Church (www.mygateway.tv) in San Antonio, Texas, the fastest growing church in America in 2016, according to Outreach Magazine. He is a leader in the Christian Multiplication Network. He has finished seventy endurance events, including the IRONMAN TRIATHLON. John, his wife, Stephanie, and their three children living in Helotes, Texas. For more information visit marathonfaith.org.