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  • Writer's pictureJodie Ryan

Running The Race Set Before Us:

Spiritual Discipline and The Christian Life


The cadence is steady. A constant rhythm in his ears – his own breathing and the shuffling of his feet against the earth below. Although there are miles left to go, the sheer duration of the contest has taken its toll on his body. His heart hammers within his chest. His lungs burn. His stomach churns. His leg muscles contract beneath him, threatening to seize up at any moment. Blood seeps through the fabric of his shoes from peeling toenails and blisters torn open again and again from the relentless friction produced by each successive stride.

The race, we see, is not for the faint of heart. Many set out, yet few receive the prize. The Apostle Paul exhorts the saints in Corinth toward Christlike spiritual discipline with this imagery. It’s possible that Paul has in his mind the Hemerodromi, an ultra-marathon held yearly in Ancient Rome, finding its origins with the so-called “day-runners”, or running messengers of Greek antiquity. For the Hemerodromi, running is not simply a past time. The training is continuous; it’s a daily endeavor. The image the Apostle is invoking for his readers is one of focused intentionality. It’s not aimless or haphazard. It invites, or more accurately it self-inflicts temporary discomfort in the pursuit of something of greater, lasting value (1 Cor 9:27, 1 Tim 4:8).

"But it’s Legalism" (?)

In a modern evangelical context, discipline is a word that causes many to bristle at its mere utterance. After all, effort is synonymous with earning, isn’t it..? So, discipline is synonymous with legalism, right? “I mean, come on, the Pharisees had tremendously rigorous spiritual discipline and we see how they’re regarded in scripture”, goes the argument.

Is the Apostle Paul confused? After all, he was (prior to his conversion) on track to becoming the Pharisee par excellence. So, is his appeal to (lit.) “pummel” oneself (1 Cor 9:27) simply a temporary relapse into a pharisaical way of thinking?

Here we must acknowledge that our largely consumeristic, 21st century Church context has fostered and sustained many unhealthy presuppositions, and the labeling of biblical discipline as legalistic is no insignificant example.

“Did you know Carrie stopped coming to Zumba because she gets up at 6 AM every morning and prays for an hour?” “Legalist.”

“Did you know Tom and Samantha force their kids to turn off all electronics at 5 PM so they can have family devotion time?” “Puritans.”

“Did you know Kurt and his friends meet up in between classes for half an hour every day to talk about the Bible and a commentary by some old dead guy?” “Intellectualists.”

The primary misconception at play here is the belief that intentional effort is, in fact, synonymous with earning. In other words, so many professing Christians in the contemporary church have forsaken spiritual discipline because they have misunderstood or they outright deny that the New Testament is replete with this reality: the necessary and natural byproduct of redemption in and through Christ is a striving in, a walking in, a working out of our new life in Him.

Like Paul, the writer of Hebrews invokes the imagery of a marathon to illustrate the lifelong, disciplined pursuit of the race set before us:

1 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, 2 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. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Therein lies the seeming contradiction of the Christian life. We are to pursue, with all the vitality and vigor within us, that which has already been freely granted to us - namely, Christ himself. It is fundamentally important for the Christ follower to understand the diametric difference between working to earn God’s favor (legalism) and working from God’s merciful favor, lavished upon His chosen people in and through God the Son.

Consider the following passages as case in point:

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 1:17)

In short, the gospel is by no means anti-effort, nor is it anti-intentional in its implications.

More Than Mere Quiet Time

Our approach to spiritual discipline in our frenetic, modern environment is often to carve out a small segment of time amidst a deluge of daily responsibilities, activities, events, and to-do's. Within this segment of time, we may pray, we may read the Bible, or we may do a little of both. While not inherently wrong, this is a practical understanding of spiritual discipline that the writers of the New Testament and most of the saints throughout church history would likely find strangely deficient.

The imagery invoked by both Paul and the author of Hebrews harkens to something far more comprehensive than mere quiet time. This is not to say that intentionally setting aside time for scripture reading, prayer, and quiet contemplation is not fundamental to the practice of spiritual discipline. It is to say that it seems the biblical prescriptive goes well beyond this. While largely abandoned or misunderstood in a modern Western Church context, this is something our forerunners in the faith intimately understood. Take, for example, the spiritual disciplines of Jonathan Edwards. We know from his writings that this pastor and theologian of the first Great Awakening aligned spiritual discipline with essentially every aspect of his life, both privately and in relationship with others. In Edwards, we’re provided with a more holistic and biblically robust example of spiritual discipline. So, what does it look like to run this way?

Run the Race in Private

Christ himself modeled private prayer and fasting. Scripture reveals numerous occasions in which the Lord intentionally went away alone to commune with the Father (Luke 5:16; Luke 6:12-13; Luke 22:39-44; Matthew 14:13). One of Christ’s imperatives for His followers is that we should spend time in private prayer (Matthew 6:6).

If we are willing to be honest with ourselves, seeking solitude is no easy task. The seventeenth century philosopher Blaise Pascal once mused that “so much of mankind’s misery is derived from his inability to sit alone in a room”. If it could rightly be observed over three hundred and fifty years ago that the fallen man has an indwelling aversion to solitude and quiet, how much more of a hindrance to spiritual discipline might this aversion be amidst the noise of our modern world?

Spiritual discipline in the private life largely looks like running away, even if only briefly, from the innumerable distractions of our day and running toward the sweetness of solitude wherein we might see and hear God in His Word and speak with Him through prayer. In example, in addition to reading and memorizing scripture, Jonathan Edwards devoted a significant amount of his waking hours to meditating on God’s word while walking in solitude or while traveling on horseback.

Run the Race in Community

Participation in the life of the local church is itself a form of spiritual discipline. Faithfully engaging in corporate worship (Hebrews 10:5), opening one’s home in hospitality (1 Peter 4:9), establishing patterns of one-on-one discipleship (Proverbs 27:17, Titus 2:4, Colossians 3:16), and serving others (Galatians 5:13, 1 Peter 4:10) are some examples. Spiritual discipline in community looks like running alongside other saints in a local church context, as well across the globe and the expanse of time (Hebrews 12:1).

In our present-day context, some of the intentionality required here involves faithfully stewarding our time. It involves our guarding against the lesser things of this world that might supplant the eternally profitable endeavor of life-on-life, arm-in-arm spiritual discipline in Christian community.

Jonathan Edwards recognized the discipline of time as foundational to other disciplines and in his famous Resolutions, he writes:"Resolved, never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can."

Run The Race in Opposition to Indwelling Sin

One of the most essential forms of spiritual discipline in the life of the believer is the Spirit-enabled practice of progressively putting to death (lit. mortifying in the old KJV language) the sin that remains (Romans 8:13). Edwards understood this well:

“Many men are brought to restrain sin, and to give it slight wounds, yet they are not brought to the point of killing it. Wicked men are reluctant to kill sin. They have been very good friends with it since birth and have always treated it as one of their most familiar and best friends. They have allowed it the best room in their hearts and have given it the best entertainment they possibly could - and thus they are quite unwilling to destroy it. But until this is done, God will never give them true comfort.”

The intensity of Edwards’ language echoes that of the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian churches: “I pummel my body and subdue it so that I myself will not be disqualified after I have preached to others” (1 Corinthians 9:27, EXB).

The word pummel literally means “to strike repeatedly with fists”. Those particularly persistent sins that gnaw at the Christ follower are not neutral in their effect. While they hold no ultimate sway over the eternal security of the one who is truly in Christ, they are particularly effective in wreaking temporal havoc on us and those around us - like pernicious thieves, they would see all our joy in this life utterly filched away.

Edwards’ point is that God would have more for His people. And so, in His mercy, the Spirit indwelling us will not allow us to be at peace with languishing on the sideline as others run by. Hear again the writer of Hebrews describe what it looks like to run in opposition to indwelling sin:

“…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…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Are you prone to lust? Kill it. Cast it off.

Are you given to an uncontrolled tongue? Mortify this clinging sin and shed it from your back.

While putting specific sins to death may look practically different in the lives of different saints - for example, establishing specific safeguards, or making a habit of confession and accountability with other believers – the overarching premise is the same. To pummel, to mortify, to kill indwelling sin denotes Spirit-enabled intentionality. It denotes grace-driven effort. As John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

Run the Race in Worship to God

“…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…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The writer of Hebrews says the key to casting off the sin that encumbers us, the key to running well, is found in the object for which and to which we run. The Christ follower does not run aimlessly, not like one who doesn’t know where they are going are why they are running. No, we run with fervent intentionality toward the prize set before us - the certain and sure hope of our blood-bought union with Christ himself. Daily we’ll be tempted to veer off course and run toward lesser things, which necessitates the daily practice of guarding against this veer.

Discipline in this sense looks like the continual stoking of our affections for the One we are running toward. It’s to direct and redirect our gaze to the glory and beauty of our Savior and King. In practicality it is interwoven with so many of the disciplines already mentioned: saturating oneself in scripture, times of intentional prayer, active participation in the fellowship of the saints and corporate worship. It is a deepening knowledge of God that cultivates a deeper affection for God, and it is this deeper affection that buffets and keeps us running the race set before us.

Jonathan Edwards understood this well, and so he wrote:

Men will trust in God no further than they know him; and they cannot be in the exercise of faith in Him one ace further than they have a sight of His fullness and faithfulness in exercise.”

Saints, what a treasure we have set before us. Oh, that we might run the race well. That when our running is done, bruised and battered as we are, we might too be able to agree with these last words of the Apostle:

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

By God’s grace alone might it be so. Run, saints. Run.

Jodie Ryan


2008. ESV Study Bible. Crossway.

2016. The Expanded Bible (EXB). Thomas Nelson.

Edwards, Jonathan. 1746. The Religious Affections (Reprint). Dover Publications. Edwards, Jonathan. 1722. Resolutions (Reprint). P & R Publishing.

Owen, John. 1667. The Mortification of Sin (Reprint). Puritan Paperbacks.




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