Down through the ages, every valiant cause and passionate goal has had an accompanying band of men and women who were always willing to suffer, if necessary, to see that goal fulfilled or the day of victory heralded. Distance running and the associated competitive drive to do well in races has been one avenue where I have seen clearly that achieving a lofty goal or persevering through pain neither lend themselves to the fainthearted nor to those not willing to pay a price. This type of thinking--rather, this type of abandonment--is becoming rarer in our day, because we have coming at us from every direction an undercurrent that wants to sweep us up into the river of blissful, pain-free living in the most convenient and quickest way.
I’m all for modern conveniences and creature comforts, per se, but there is a danger when we stop questioning the wisdom of swallowing whole-scale the hook, line and sinker we are offered each day. The tide doesn’t stop at any one realm of our lives. Much of what we are offered each day comes with a little promise attached to it: “Buy me/use me so I can take away or fix your loneliness (pain)/hunger (pain)/illness (pain)/low self-esteem (pain)/fear (pain)/bad relationships (pain)/boredom (pain)/unfulfilled dreams (pain).”
I’m not belittling a marriage in shambles or advocating you neglect your MD’s advice for cancer treatment, mind you. I’m asking you to examine that “thing” you run to when you experience any of the above uncomfortable, unknown, or painful conditions. I’m thankful that I have not had any serious injury or illness when placed on the scale of what is possible to suffer. But, I have to wonder what it is about pain and disease, especially, that has made so many people say something like this, "I wouldn't want to go through it again, but I'd not trade that time (of pain/suffering) for anything!" What is it, then, about such a season that makes many a person even thankful for it? Perhaps it is the revelation of Christ's words to His followers that these pilgrims have come to see as true: "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and yet forfeits his soul." All the pleasure and money the world can offer falls frightfully short of being identified with the life, death and resurrection that Christ gives, even if some pain accompanies the way home.
No one sets out on a journey in order to contract cancer or makes plans to fall ill. But, there are things we can choose in our lives to remind us that discomfort and some temporary pain isn’t all bad and can even strengthen us. The choices we make each day will either serve to reinforce the desire to be free from every twinge of pain and discomfort or they will strengthen our resolve to be steadfast and unmoved in the face of any struggle or trial. You are free to choose the way of the cross or fall in line with the masses of whom Josh Garrells sings about: "How do good men become part of the regime? They don't believe in resistance." And so, they are swept up in the current, up into that path of least resistance.
Just a couple weeks ago on March 15, I followed five of my friends to Silvermine Beach on Lantau Island, Hong Kong. In total, 1026 runners set off into the mountains with our sights on covering 50 km of rugged mountain trails and arriving back in one piece on that same beach in some number of unknown hours—for me, under 6; for my friends, between 8 and 12. The mountains rose steep and unrelentingly so from the ocean’s beaches. The biggest climb took nearly an hour of technical single-track and stair climbing to ascend. Cramps set in upon 3 muscles in my upper legs at just 16 km into the race. A half-dollar sized blister accompanied me from that point onward as well. But, the race was just getting started. Between further cramping, going off-course for a km or so and nearly spraining my ankle, the race tested my mental and physical fortitude. The unique thing about distance racing is that I, the competitor, control exactly how much I hurt by how much I push my body—run (walk) slow and just finish=little to no pain vs. push very hard til I cramp and vomit=much pain and maybe a victory. I pushed as hard as I could, finished 8th in 6:38 and was very glad to be done with that race. Yet, such an experience is but a shadow of the truer things in this life and the next--things of eternity. Running differs with the race of faith in that I need not work harder to abide in Christ and glorify Him, but rather it is in the simple act of obeying and following whereby true joy and life are found.
There are, of course, less masochistic ways than racing 50km to identify with the life of Christ and the faithful through the ages—fasting, sacrificial giving, loving when it hurts and you’re not loved in return, forgiving when there’s no immediate praise or recognition for doing so, or serving selflessly when thanks is long in coming. Winning a foot race is just for a crown that is soon spent or perishes. But, Paul wrote that he trained his body like an athlete so that he would both be fruitful in his work and also not be disqualified himself from the eternal crown. When we willingly follow Christ who was tested in every way and was still found blameless, then we both get to experience the joys of life with Him, but we will also likely encounter seasons or events where pain of some kind is welcomed.
Perhaps we won’t be shipwrecked or beaten to within an inch of our lives like Paul was or crucified like Christ was. Or maybe we will. What’s it to us if our heavenly Dad decides that we remain til He returns or that we are numbered among those who did not shrink back even unto death, for only He knows what will bring Him the most glory. Next time, you have an option of choosing a little pain in your life—the forms are endless when played out—I hope you follow the way of the cross and ask what is good and pleasing to our Father who spared not His only Son, but gave Him up for us so that we can be “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory (Rms 8:17).”