“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Ph. 2:12-13)
I hated running in gym. It was needless sweating and getting oneself worked up, just to return to class sticky and ready for a nap instead of a test. I enjoyed running at home, of course, while playing outdoors and in the neighborhood with my brother and friends. That was different. Still, moving fast on legs was never my cup of tea.
In college I recall asking my buddy Dan, a track team member, why he enjoyed running…what purpose did it serve. He explained that it was all about competing against one’s own resolve. In the face of what could be every physical discomfort, you must will yourself to keep running until you’ve crossed the finish line. I’ve never forgotten his response, but my opinion about the discipline didn’t budge.
That is, until April of ’98.
Many people challenge me when I recount this story, but it is entirely true. It was less than a month to the end of my freshman year. This particular day I wasn’t feeling well, but I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I wasn’t coughing, sneezing, aching—nothing. I simply had no explanation for why I felt so bad. So, my roommate away, I decided that I would leave the dorm and go to the gym…so that if I fell ill or died someone would be around to aid me. I really thought I was ‘goin’ up yonder!’
Deciding on what exercise to begin, I looked over at the treadmills. I still don’t why, especially for a person who loathed running. I had never been on one, so I decided to give it a try. It couldn’t hurt since I was already in the throes of death. But when I got off that treadmill, I had run six miles! I had left the funk that was on me somewhere in the dust and still felt like running another mile or two.
It was a revolution for me. That summer I logged 25 to 30 miles each week, and I was 20 pounds lighter at the start of the next semester. Moreover, I had found a new exercise and health habit. But I’d be misleading you by implying it was all a breeze. Dan was spot-on in his assessment. Let me explain what I learned that summer.
What is amazing to me—and any athlete will know this—is how attune one becomes to his or her body while performing and how conditions and preconditions weigh upon that performance. I learned, by trial and error, that everything mattered to my body’s performance of the day’s 3-5-mile jog. For instance, the previous day’s dinner impacted the morning’s run: meat felt bad but spaghetti felt great. Proper sleep was a must; but then I had to be obedient to the alarm clock and get up. The right clothing was important for comfort sake because it’s no fun being agitated when fighting your body to press on. There were obstacles, like inclement weather, closed-off facilities, and schedule changes, which had to be managed.
I had to learn how to breathe correctly—and breathe what sometimes felt like liquid air in the humid Midwest. I loved the treadmill and indoor track. But the outdoor track was psychologically dreadful to me, especially when rounding the stadium and realizing how far I had left to run. Also, outdoors there were hills, wide curves, uneven track, and constant wind resistance. At times I had horrible shin splints. And when that “wall” came, there was no other definition of the Devil and the minions of Hell! It came every time and could sometimes send my mind spinning out of control for want of ending the anguish I experienced. But if I kept running it would go away. And the longer I kept at running, the longer it took to reach the wall; and it was also easier to get through it.
Soon, I lived to run and I watched my body morph. My aerobic capacity expanded. My metabolism revved to life. I traded body fat for leanness and gained strength. My body became agile and my mind sharpened. And I cannot forget a particular day I was nearly bouncing off the walls with energy and had to get out of my room and do something physical. What physicians and nutritionist tell us about exercise and healthy eating is very true.
But I also learned that there was no way for me to enjoy my new results without also having to cope with the extreme exertion and resistance that helped to create them. It’s no different for the person who wants large muscles or championship rings or thriving businesses. Hardship can always be expected, no matter the endeavor, yet hardship tempers us and the process eventually gets easier.
The Will and Desire
The apostle Paul instructed the Philippians to do everything they possibly could to prove the work of salvation in their lives and the maturity of their faith (Ph. 2:12). This is the will of God for each of us: to honor him with our lives and produce good works, beside anything more he may desire of us. So many people struggle with knowing the will of God for their lives, but Paul settles the matter. The will of God is whatever is good and pleasing to God. We should be doing that.
I have no problem with those who believe God has given them a special task or calling. But many people get sidetracked by this when they haven’t heard God speak anything special to them. Just please God. We should follow the good in our hearts and do what is before us. This is the will of God, and Paul suggests that we prove our faith with it.
But why we act this way is the truly glorious part. The Amplified Version has a marvelous rendering of verse 13: “[Not in your own strength] for it is God Who is all the while effectually at work in you [energizing and creating in you the power and desire], both to will and to work for His good pleasure and satisfaction and delight.” Behind all we can do to bring honor to God through our lives, by discerning his will and doing it, is God himself fueling the fire with his energy to produce those good works. He gives us both the work and the desire for it.
Just as it was with me learning to enjoy running, so it is with us running this spiritual race. A good desire burns on the inside of us. I desired to be healthier and fitter; God desires the same for us spiritually. But we must run and keep running despite fierce resistance that comes from every direction. Satan constantly devises ways to trip us up and attacks us. Worldly influence presses against us like a fierce headwind. And our own flesh and sin issues beat on our minds to end the needless agony and quit.
But God says to us, “Don’t stop for anything!” The longer we run, the easier running becomes. My friend, resistance will always be present in the race, but you will change in the process. God put the very desire to run the race inside of you; and there is promise in obedience to the task, both now and later.
God wants us to know that the race gets easier and is very rewarding. Since he gives us the desire to do his will, no resistance can frustrate that desire unless we stop running and give up its control. Don’t allow the Evil One, the world, or your own flesh to thwart the fire of desire God has placed inside of you. God knows—Satan knows!—that the will of God for you will be done if you stay the course.
There are two important things to note here. First, don’t allow the voice of Satan in others or in your own mind to belittle or dissuade you of your interests or good deeds. People don’t always see how God is working in our lives for his glory. In fact, we may not understand it; and it may be years before anything special becomes of talents we nurtured. But the reason we put so much effort in them is because God ordained them in our lives and his Spirit motivates us to sharpen the skill.
Second, it is important to consider the possibility of not doing the will of God. There were times out on the track that I did stop, times when I gave in to the physical overload and mental screaming. Sometimes we live as though God will simply make everything work out well. But that is not true where he gives us a responsibility to labor. We can fail at the will of God. Paul asked the Galatians, “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (5:7). Failing would be a disappointment when God has given us every advantage. God wishes for us to see that his empowerment is everything we need to achieve his will.
There may be some hard places in your life right now, but consider them part of a process that is making you well-conditioned in God’s purpose. Resistance is a constant and it won’t change, but you will and you are changing. Things don’t break your spirit the way they used to. You’re stronger in the Word. You’ve witnessed God answer prayer. Now you’re gaining your second wind and your steps are firmer. It takes a while to break a sweat now.
Keep running because God is in the process. He’s not destroying you; he’s blessing you. The finish line is somewhere in the distance, but the reward comes long before in the journey and its instruction.
“Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.” (Gal. 6:9)