You have heard it said that the Christian life is more like a marathon race than a sprint. I suspect few of us have ever run a marathon. I haven’t. I did run cross-country in high school. I did, because I had to, run 12 miles once upon a time. But that is as close as I have come to running a marathon. I ran cross-country not because I liked to run. I ran, rather, because I wanted to be in the best shape of my life for my true love: basketball, which is often more of a sprint than a marathon. I will, however, argue that distance running made me a better basketball player, especially once I regained the 10 lbs. on my already skinny frame in those days.
There is much to be said about marathon running, specifically the endurance required to do it. And endurance is a quality that has been on my mind a good bit of late. I have written previously about the notion of a “long obedience in the same direction,” a phrase authored first by Friedrich Nietzsche and then borrowed by Eugene Peterson as a title for his book on discipleship. I love the idea. I think it is critical to the Gospel story of which we participate. In fact, I grow increasingly convinced it is central. As we wait for God to do His sanctifying work through His Spirit, we are invited to do so characterized by two things: endurance and patience.
The Apostle Paul said as much in his letter to the believers at Colossae. In the first chapter of his letter, v11, he writes, May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience. I quizzed our church body a couple of weeks back by reading those words without finishing the sentence, wondering what they might expect Paul to write: May you be strengthened…according to his glorious might for what? No one said either one of these words. I would not have either. Words from people in our congregation came that imply our need to do something and of course, there is a place for that. But endurance and patience aren’t often at the top of the list of things we should be about, that we should pray for.
I was asked recently to pen a letter to a church celebrating an anniversary. These two words came back to me as I began to think about what to write. I wanted to first applaud them for their perseverance. I wanted to then exhort them toward patience. We don’t live in a patient or persevering culture. If it doesn’t do something for us, we move on. We get rid of it. As I wrote that last sentence a TV commercial reverberated in my mind. Perhaps you have seen it. I believe it is a lawyer firm, J. G. Wentworth perhaps, and it fixates on various people loudly proclaiming, “I want my money and I want it now!” That’s our culture. That’s us. Sadly, it is often possible to get what we want now, to get immediately what it took our parents or grandparents years to achieve or acquire. Patience and endurance are not needed. So, neither is at the top of the list for us or for the millenials.
They are, however, at the top of God’s list. I think it matters deeply to Him that we persevere with our faces turned toward Him. Endurance in a sense, frees us to not make it about what we are doing but to consider what He has done and is doing even when we aren't doing very well in the moment, or in the moments prior and probably the ones yet to come. I love it that in each of the 7 letters to the churches of Revelation fame, Jesus says to them, To him who overcomes. This sentence on Jesus’ part does not imply that we are victorious over sin. It doesn’t imply some sort of perfection; rather, it speaks of perseverance/endurance. Paul knows living consistent with the slow, unfolding drama of God’s kingdom will collide with the agenda of the world’s kingdom. He doesn’t want us to be deluded (2:4) or disqualified by ways that will sound profitable or spiritual but are devoid of endurance and patience, ways that fit more into the world’s system. To make it on the journey of a long obedience in the same direction, endurance will be required. There will come lots of struggle, occasions for doubt, poor choices, and a whole lot or ordinary that might be as threatening as all the others. Endurance will be required. Disappointment and aging will require it if we are to continue in the fight to the end.
The other day I read these words from Lewis: Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about. He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right. But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. He goes on to suggest that obedience then is an act of the will. Lewis asks the question, If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?’ When you have found the answer, go and do it. In other words, we persevere even when we don’t feel much and in so doing, we actually prove to ourselves our love for God. Faith has little to do with what we feel and a lot to do with persevering when it makes little sense to do so.
As I considered what to write to my friends celebrating a church anniversary patience was the second thing I wanted to suggest. Endurance with patience. I long for these people to continue to learn what it means to be patient with one another. Patient like God is patient. Not a patience where the clock is ticking and will, at some point in time, expire. God’s patience. After all, God is love and Paul tells us love is patient. Therefore, God is patient. (Is there any significance to the fact that when Paul begins to write about love, the first quality that comes to his mind is patience?) I suspect these two words go together: endurance and patience; patience and endurance. I am not sure they can be separated. To endure, we will need patience. To be patient will require us to persevere with one another. I am not sure there is a sweeter concept to me than this idea of patience. Whether true or imagined, I mostly sense impatience, though I suspect much of it comes from within. Where in this life do we encounter deep abiding patience? I recently spent time with some friends with whom I have worshiped for over 25 years. These two words accurately express what we have come to know together: patience with God’s work in each of us and a steady perseverance strengthened by deep enduring friendship. And what we know as friends is a microcosm of what God has taught us together as a church. Adorning the wall space just above our exit on Sunday mornings are these words: Be patient will all that is yet unresolved in your heart. Those words take on deeper and deeper significance each passing year. I long to be a patient pastor, a patient husband and father, a patient friend and equally I long to experience the patience of others toward me as representatives of a patient God. Is there a greater gift? I grow more convinced that this one quality has been as conducive as any other to our maturity and the development of a safe environment conducive to the Spirit’s work in our church.
I think Paul understood the unfolding drama of God such that he knew God’s people would need a great deal of patience. It is, after all, a marathon we are running, even though hobbling might at times be a more accurate description of how we are getting along. But that is okay; God is patent. His work. Patience is needed. Endurance is required. And the good news? Well, it doesn’t happen in us naturally. We aren’t by fallen nature prone to endurance and patience. But because we have the life of the Godhead living within us, because we have the Spirit of God in us, then we have the power to actually persevere and the desire to be patient with those who test our patience. Yes, really we do despite the evidence. God help us. God have mercy toward us when we are less than patient and often demanding.
Pray for both. They are necessary. And they will grow increasingly more necessary in the long obedience toward the same direction. They are also two qualities that will allow us to live and speak with the power of the Gospel.
Grace upon grace to you.