FINISHING STRONG

by Rev. Dr. Jerry Schmoyer, Christian Training Organization © 2011
jerry@ChristianTrainingOrganization.org
ChristianTrainingOnline.org

I like to run.  I’ve been jogging my whole life.  I learned long ago how to pace myself so I don’t have to stop before finishing the route I am traveling.  Often I want to quit before the distance is covered.  A little while ago I ran in a Memorial Weekend 5K with some members of my family.  It wasn’t a long distance but the day was very, very hot and humid.  The first part of the race wasn’t too bad but the longer I ran the more exhausted I got.  I was hard to persevere to the end.  If I could have found a legitimate excuse to quit I would have.  But if I quit short of the end, what did that do to all the ground I had covered up to that point?  I had too much time and effort invested in the race to not finish it properly.

That’s the same way it is in the Christian life.  We all want to finish well, but as we progress life can get harder and we become weary.  However there is no legitimate excuse to drop out and stop living for Jesus.  God wants us to finish the race, and to finish strong, so that is what we must do.

Paul faced the same challenge as he neared the later part of his life.  “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me — the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:24)  He challenged others to keep going in their race and not fade.  To the Galatians he wrote: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7-8)   We all want to live faithfully for Jesus, continuing to the end of our lives.  But just because you are running strong now doesn’t guarantee you will until you die.

About 15 years ago I came across a statistic that was a great shock to me.  I read that out of every 10 young men who are trained and ordained for ministry, less than 1 ends up retiring from the ministry at the end of his life.  Nine out of ten drop out somewhere along the way.  That is a dismal record for pastors, and I suspect not even one in ten of all the people who come to know Jesus as Savior are still living faithfully for Him at the end of their lives.

I don’t want to stop; I don’t even want to fade or coast.  I want to keep running strong until the finish line I crossed and I am in heaven with Jesus.  As Paul, I want to run to the end so I get the prize Jesus has for me (1 Corinthians 9:24).

The Bible affirms that many who start well don’t end up strong at the end.  Think of the Jewish nation that came out of Egypt under the blood of the lamb and saw the Egyptian army drowned in the sea.  Only 4 (Caleb and Joshua, and I think their wives as well) out of about 2 million adults entered the Promised Land.

Then there is Isaac who started strong, trusting his father and God to bring him back to life after his father killed him, but who ended up lonely, manipulating his sons and not being obedient to God.  King Saul also started well but faded fast.  Solomon, too, was close to God at the start, but riches and women distracted him.  The same is true of many others, like King Hezekiah, King Asa, even Judas himself.  The list goes on and on.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.  Men like Peter, Abraham and Mark struggled during the early stages of their race but finished strong and faithful.  Daniel finished very strong, and so did Esther.  And no one finished stronger than Jesus!

Paul, at the very end of his life, could look back and say, “I made it!”  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8)  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to say that at the end of life?  It doesn’t mean living a perfect life, but it means continuing to move ahead with Jesus no matter what.  Then the same reward as Paul received is available for each of us as well.

I’m sure we’d all agree we want to finish strong.  But how are we to do it?  Saying is much easier than doing.  How can we avoid the obstacles that try to trip us up as we progress through the course in life God has marked out for each one of us?  There are 5 obstacles we must watch out for.

Obstacle 1: PRIDE  Pride is one of the first and most difficult obstacles we must overcome to run a successful race for Jesus.  When we become self-confident we overestimate our ability and forget our total need of God and His help and power.  We start operating in our own strength alone and disaster follows.  When we put ourselves first then we focus on our comforts, our needs and our wants.  We come first.  When God does do something good in or through us we take credit for it.

King Uzziah did an outstanding job of building the army and bringing prosperity to Israel.  Everyone was impressed with him, and soon Uzziah was impressed with himself.  Then it all fell apart and he lost everything.  The turning point is stated in 2 Chronicles 26:15-16, “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall.”  Uzziah started spending more time and attention on the externals instead of the internals.  His character did not keep pace with his accomplishments.  He was tripped up by his own success!  The result: God judged him with leprosy because he dared to do what only the priests were to do – burn incense on the altar.  He ended up dying a lonely, painful death (2 Chronicles 26:16-18).

Symptoms of pride include arrogance, expecting more of others and turning from accountability.  Self-pity, feeling sorry for yourself and putting yourself down in front of others is also pride.  Seeing ourselves as better (or worse) than others puts us in a special category and that is pride.  Proverbs 16:18 says it comes before a fall, before destruction.

If we are to finish our race we must avoid the obstacle of pride, but how are we to do so?  We must keep our focus on God, not on ourselves, on others, or on the circumstances we are going through.  Pray for humility and ask God to show you any pride in yourself.  Make it your goal to humble serve others.  And especially spend a lot of time in God’s Word for it is God’s mirror to show us sin in our life.  It’s only through being immersed in the Word that we will be able to successfully finish the course before us (Joshua 1:8).

Obstacle 2: LOOKING TO THE PAST  Any runner who wants to make good progress must face the front, not be constantly looking behind him.  He can’t look back to past accomplishments and performances, no matter how good they were.  They don’t guarantee victory in the present challenge.  The same is true of the Christian.  Perhaps you’ve been doing quite well in your Christian life up to the present time.  You can see how God has used you and how you have grown and changed over the years.  It can be easy to start taking a bit of credit for that (pride!) instead of giving all the credit to God.  It can be tempting to start thinking you’ve done enough for Him and deserve a break today!  Expecting Him to give you an easier, all-downhill course the rest of the way can result. So don’t look back.

Now what if your Christian life to this point hasn’t been nearly what you wish it had, and you are disappointed in yourself.  The enemy tempts you to think you won’t ever get it right, that God will never help, that you’ll mess up and fail again – so why bother trying?

How can we avoid looking to the past and keep our eyes on the future?  Paul says we are to forget those things which are behind and to strain toward what is ahead, to press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called you (Philippians 3:13-14).  That means we must make a conscious, sustained effort to learn from the past but not dwell on it.  Each day, each step is a new challenge and we are to keep pressing on to becoming more like Jesus each day.  Paul didn’t start well.  He had to forget his past of killing Christians and persecuting the church if he was to move ahead.  He had to forget his accomplishments and the way God had been using him as well.  The only day we can live is today.  We can’t live in the past, nor can we change it.   We can’t move to the future until it gets here.  We can only life in today and we must make the best of that if we are to finish strong.

At the start of World War II the USA was in bad shape.  The country had to forget its success (WW I) and failure (Pearl Harbor) and instead keep its eye on the future it was moving toward by making the most of every day.  That happened or we probably wouldn’t be here!

Obstacle 3: SLOW DOWN, COAST  Starting a race is always much easier than finishing it.  The start is full of strength, freshness and optimism.   But as we move along we start to feel weak.  At the beginning of our walk of faith there is unending enthusiasm and motivation.  God’s power and protection are evident everywhere.  He bails us out from our mistakes and provides for our needs.  The Christian life seems marvelous, who couldn’t run this way until the end!  But God allows the opposition to get stronger to test us and teach us to depend on Him.  The continuing battles take their toll.  We don’t want to be stretched any more, no matter how much growth it takes.  We want to take a vacation from challenge of daily living for Jesus.

In a long race it’s natural to long for the finish line as the end approaches.  We want to be there now.  We want to be done with the race before we’ve covered the territory.  It’s been a long course, so why not slow down and coast.  I’ve run hard for a long time, I can afford to back off and take it easy for a bit.  After all, look all that has happened in my life.  It’s been full, not I can slow down a bit.

While that sounds tempting, it is a very dangerous position to be in.  Do you know when the most dangerous time for trapeze artists is, when they get hurt more than any other time?  It’s not while they are doing their amazing tricks and stunts, it’s just before they take their last step to safety.  It’s at the end of the routine, when the hard death-defying acts are finish and they are coming home.  They let their guard down, lose their focus a bit and become careless.  Never let your guard down.  The longer you live for the Lord the more important it is to keep focused.  The enemy will slip in a temptation you aren’t expecting and down you will go.

You might think you deserve a break, but Satan certainly won’t give you one.  He’ll take that opening and use it to bring destruction.  After 14 years of running and hiding from Saul, and then 20 years of great success leading Israel to the greatest state they have ever experienced, David was cut down when he was 50 because he didn’t go out to war in the spring but slowed down, stayed home to coast.  He saw Bathsheba, killed her husband and plunged his family and the nation into a downward spiral they have not yet fully recovered from.  So don’t slow down, don’t coast.  Keep going!

How are we to do that? Live life one day at a time, one hour at a time, even one minute at a time when needed.  Pace yourself, life has its downhills and uphills, so don’t expect it to be all one or the other.  Pace yourself, stride by stride, so you can keep going.  Paul says, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 1211).  We do that by keeping god’s Word fresh in our mind, remembering His promises that He will never give us too much and that He will always be with us and give us enough grace and strength to endure.

We keep from slowing down by keeping our eyes on the goal at the end.  Remember that life is short compared to eternity, and we will be there soon enough.  This is the only chance we have to grow, stretch, serve Him and win over sin and Satan.

Another way to keep from slowing down is to make sure you don’t run alone.  The only thing that kept me going at the end of the 5K on Memorial Day weekend was my son-in-law running with me.  Without him I would have slowed a bit for sure.  Make sure you have good Christian friends, close intimacy with strong believers who can run the race with you.  Make it a priority to find such people and develop close relationships with them.

A great role model for me is Dr. Howard Hendricks, a professor I took many classes from at Dallas theological Seminary when getting a ThM in 1975 and then a DMin in 2006.  He has been teaching at DTS for 60 years, and while slowed down a bit lately, he continues to teach, mentor and travel.  During a DMin class he fell off the stage while speaking and we all assumed the worse.  He was helped back up on the stage and said, “I guess I got your attention now!”

Dr. Dwight Pentecost is another great example.  He taught at Philadelphia Biblical University for 7 years then at Dallas for 56 years.  He is 96 but still travels and speaks.  These mean are examples of what it means to finish strong.  They aren’t workaholics who push no matter what, but servants of God who serve in any way they can.

Obstacle 4: GET WEARY, QUIT  I have several favorite routes I have run over the years.  I’ve run them many times and enjoy them.  However as I think back over each one I realize that they all follow the same pattern: they start by going downhill but the last part of the run ends up being all uphill.  Life can be that same way.  Progressing from first grade to college means the material gets harder, not easier.  One grade builds on what was learned in the previous year.  The challenges are deeper and the work tougher.  That’s how it is in our life as well.

Previously we talked about the danger of slowing down a bit, but some get tempted to do more than that; they are tempted to get out of the race entirely.  Perhaps they’ve slowed down and find that life is still hard, so they want to just get off the course and try something else.  They may still attend church, wearing their Christian mask so no one knows they’ve stopped and hassle them about it.  Or they may disappear from church and Christian circles entirely.

Don’t think that any of us are exempt from that temptation.  Just remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint.  The writer of Hebrews says we are to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (12:1).  The race is lifelong, so we need to pace ourselves.  A personal favorite story of mine is that of the tortoise and the hare.  That has helped shaped by approach to life and ministry.  It’s not fast starts and then periods of inactivity that bring us to the finish line but steady, consistent perseverance.  The tortoise teaches us how to run with perseverance.  That’s what God wants from us.

Historians tell us that in the year 490 BC, a Greek dromo, a runner-messenger by the name of Pheidippides, was dispatched by a Greek general to inform the citizenry of Athens that the Persians had been defeated at the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides supposedly ran a route that took him south along the coast and up and across a series of coastal foothills before descending into Athens, a distance of about 26 miles from the plains of Marathon. According to legend, as he arrived in Athens, Pheidippides announced, “Rejoice. We conquer!” Then he fell down dead!   In honor of Pheidippides the ancient Olympic Games, of which the Apostle Paul was familiar, held several long distance runs. But it was the modern Olympic Games which resumed in Greece in 1896, which actually initiated the modern marathon of 26.2 miles in honor of old Pheidippides. How different a marathon is than a 100 yard dash.

The way to run a marathon, like a tortoise, is to keep our eyes Jesus Who is our example and who awaits us at the finish line.  “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)  Think about Jesus, read your Bible regularly, pray, meditate, worship, praise – focus on Him and you’ll keep going no matter the obstacles or the weariness.

Obstacle 5: STUMBLE AND NOT GET UP  Sometimes we fall, either in sin, weariness or laziness.  “See to it that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (Hebrews 3:12)  There will be times when we stumble, sometimes just a little trip that breaks our stride, other times a major crash where we hit the ground hard and have pain and scares that stay with us forever after.  I’ve had both kinds of falls, and I think most Christians have had as well.  Stumbles, falls will happen.  The important thing then is what we will do after we fall.  Will we lay there or get up and get started again.

The story of Eric Liddell, the 1924 Olympic 400 meter gold medalist, is widely known through the 1981 Academy Award winning film Chariots of Fire. Liddell, the son of Scottish missionaries to China, himself became a missionary serving Christ in China. Like Paul, Eric Liddell was imprisoned and died for his faith and witness for Christ. Like Paul, Eric Liddell was also committed to “run for God and let the whole world stand in wonder” (a quote from Chariots of Fire, 1981).

The 1981 movie Chariots of Fire portrays him when he competed for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics before becoming a missionary.  One memorable scene that appeared to be Hollywood fiction actually happened. A year before the Olympic showdown, Liddell ran in a meet between England, Ireland, and Scotland. In the 440-yard event, moments after the gun sounded, Liddell tangled feet with J.J. Gillies of England and tumbled to the track. Dazed, Liddell sat there, not knowing whether he could get up, when the official screamed, “Get up and run!”

He jumped to his feet and pursued the pack, now a full twenty yards ahead of him.  With forty yards to go, he pulled into third place, then second. Right at the tape he passed Gillies, stuck his chest out, and won the race, collapsing in total exhaustion.  The next day The Scotsman newspaper reported, “The circumstances in which Liddell won the race made it a performance bordering on the miraculous.” Some described it as “the greatest track performance they had ever seen.”

Some of us have been knocked down by foolish decisions, by a person, or even Satan himself. When we’re down on the track, we’re ashamed and depressed. The only real shame is to stay down. God’s word compels you, “Get up and run!” Forget what lies behind and run for the prize God has waiting for you.

Philippians 1:6 doesn’t say, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day you fail and flop on the track.” It says, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.”

The Bible, too, has many examples of those who have stumbled but got up to finish strong. Samson had a terrible start in life but finished strong when he finally humbled himself to God and His will and destroyed many Philistines.  Moses killed an Egyptian at age 40 and ran to hide in the wilderness, then 40 years later was hesitant to obey when God called him to lead Israel from bondage, but ended up being a great servant of God.  David sinned with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, but turned back to God to become deeper and stronger in his faith.  Peter denied the Lord and hid but went on to lead the early church and stand courageously for Him.  Mark quit on Paul during the first missionary journey and went back home, but later became one of Paul’s most dependable helpers.

If you stumble, God will be there to help you get back up and continue on.  It was Monday night, August 3, at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. About 100 meters into the 400-meter semifinals, Britain’s Derek Redmond crumpled to the track with a torn right hamstring. Medics rushed out to assist him, but as they approached Redmond, he waved them off, struggled to his feet, and crawled and hopped in a desperate effort to finish the race. Up in the stands, a man wearing a T-shirt, tennis shoes, and a Nike cap with Just Do It written across the front, barreled out of the stands, hurled aside a security guard, ran to Derek Redmond’s side, and embraced him. He was Jim Redmond, Derek’s father. Arm around his son’s waist, Derek’s arm around his father’s thick shoulders and neck, they continued down the track. Derek’s mom and sister were watching back home on television. His sister, who was pregnant, went into false labor. His mom wept. At the stadium, the crowd rose to their feet and cheered. Finally, arm in arm, the father and son crossed the finish line. If that’s the way an earthly father responds to his son who is determined to finish the race, how much more does our Heavenly Father support his son or daughter who says, “I’m finishing, no matter how much it hurts.”

Never quit.  Get up and keep going when you stumble.  God will carry you if you make your best effort to move ahead for him.  He will send others to help you.  But whenever you stumble get up and keep going.

Remember, it’s not just how you start the race, it’s how you finish.  Recently the US Women’s soccer team advanced to the finals by coming back and beating Brazil and France.  They continued strong to the end against Japan, only losing in a kick-off after regulation and overtime.

Many times I’ve watched on team get far ahead in the first few minutes of a game, only to lose at the end.  They begin well but decline and fail to keep going.  Starting strong is good but finishing strong is better.

Dr. George Sheehan in his book Running and Being writes, “I am at my best nearing the finish of a race. Until then I am just another mediocre distance runner. Just one of the many run-of-the-mill competitors well back in the pack. Just one more old man trying to string together six-minute miles and not quite succeeding. But with the finish line in sight, all that changes. Now I am the equal of anyone. I am world class. I am unbeatable. Gray-haired and balding and starting to wrinkle, but world class. Gasping and wheezing and groaning, but unbeatable.”   An accomplished cardiologist, author and marathon runner, George Sheehan lived his life with passion and purpose. Even when confronted with terminal cancer in 1991, he demonstrated courage and determination. He ran life’s race and he finished strong.

That doesn’t happen to me when I run, but there is a competitive edge (male ego?) that keeps me going to the end.  When I go for long bike rides, though, I find I get stronger the longer I ride.  My blood flows, my leg muscles are limber, adrenaline pumps, and the last few miles are must stronger than the first.  That’s how I want it to be in my life and ministry as well.

At the end of his life Paul writes, “I have finished the race” (I Timothy 4:7).  God doesn’t just want us to start, to jog along for a while, then to coast or fade at the end.  He wants us to finish what we start.

In the fall of 1968, on October the 20th, in Mexico City, in the Olympic Stadium, it was beginning to get dark. Cool weather had come, and the last of the Olympic marathon runners were being helped by first aid attendants. Over an hour before, the Ethiopian runner had crossed the finish line seemingly as strong as he had begun. There were a few thousand spectators left an hour later when, all of a sudden, a lone figure entered into the coliseum. Attention turned to that gate. He was wearing the colors of Tanzania. This runner came limping into the stadium. His name was John Steven Aquari. He was the last man to finish the marathon in 1968. His leg was bandaged. It was bleeding because he had taken a terrible fall and injured himself severely. All he could do was limp the last lap, and the crowd all stood up and applauded him. When he finally crossed the finish line, one man put the question to him: “Why didn’t you quit, friend? Why didn’t you just give up?” And, with that wonderful east-African dignity, he said, “My country didn’t send me seven thousand miles to start this race. My country sent me to finish.”

Jesus didn’t redeem us just so we could START living for Him; He redeemed us so we could finish the whole course for Him.  God died for us and chose us; He gives us salvation and lives in us. He didn’t do all that just so we could quit on Him.  Jesus finished strong for us on the cross.  We must finish strong for Him!

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

C t O Rev. Dr. JERRY SCHMOYER
Christian Training Organization
jerry@ChristianTrainingOrganization.org
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