How Trail Running is Like the Christian Life

I’ve been a runner for about 20 years, and an avid trail runner for the past 2 years. Saturday (Jan. 17th)  I completed my second ultra distance trail race (50 kilometers). My first 50k was about six weeks earlier at Oak Mountain and that race was a great experience. Yesterday’s race at Lake Lurleen, however, was miserable. Don’t get me wrong, the race was superbly well organized and the volunteers were great; the misery was all on me. I started feeling badly at about mile 13 and never really recovered. The first 12 miles were great; I felt great, ran great, and kept the pace I’d hoped to keep. But at about mile 13 everything went south. My left calf started to cramp, I wasn’t hungry, I had no energy in spite of the fact that I was well hydrated and nourished, I started wheezing and it got worse with every mile, and everything within me wanted to stop at the half-way point. Almost none of these things has ever happened to me in any of the more than 50 races I’ve run. But in this race, at about mile 22 I was reduced to walking off and on to the finish with an overall time that was an hour slower than what my fitness level should have allowed. The final 9 miles of the race were a total mind game, and to stay focused but detach from the pain, I came up with this post comparing trail running to the life of faith. Here are the lesson I’m learning from experiences like yesterday.

1. Some things you can’t control. I like running in the cold and enjoy the variation of steep climbs that take their toll on your legs but allow you to use different muscle groups. By contrast, yesterday’s race was warm and included no steep climbs. I was tempted all day to think that I’d perform better if circumstances were different. The truth is, it doesn’t help you go one bit further or faster to fret about race conditions.

Life will give you plenty of circumstances that you’d prefer not to face. You can’t choose the pain, but you can choose how to respond. The life of faith means that you live not on the basis of what you see, but with hope and trust in the One who sees beyond your circumstances.

2. Pace yourself. In an ultra distance event, if you start too fast you will pay a severe penalty later. My pace for the first half of the race yesterday should have been correct, but it wasn’t. My body wasn’t right, and I probably ran the first 10 or 11 miles in denial about that. I should have swallowed my pride and started slower than I’d planned. I didn’t, and by the time I realized fully what was going on, it was too late.

The life of faith is a marathon not a sprint. When the scripture says to “run with endurance the race set before you” (Hebrews 12.1), it means that you should move through life in a way that is sustainable for a long time and distance. Not everyone runs at the same pace, but everyone has a maximally efficient pace given the circumstances. Slow down, monitor your spiritual health, and humbly readjust as needed.

3. Keep moving forward. If you race long enough, you’ll eventually have a day where your time goals goes out the window and your only goal is to finish. No podium finish, no possible PR, and not many people at the finish line when you get there. I’ve heard that for years, but yesterday I experienced it first-hand. All I could tell myself was don’t quit. Finish. One step at a time. Any form of forward movement is success. It feels like it takes forever, but eventually you get there if you keep moving forward.

The life of faith is not an easy life. True religion is not an opiate. Following the way of Christ doesn’t immediately solve all of your problems. Jesus taught his followers to pray for their “daily bread, “and he said “don’t worry about tomorrow.” So stay in the moment. Sometimes everything goes wrong and you want to quit. Don’t. Keep moving forward, one small slow step at a time if necessary.

Are you a runner? Do you see other parallels between running and the Christian journey?

[Update: On Sunday, I visited Urgent Care where I tested positive for the flu (second time this winter, strain B this time) and a sinus infection. I suppose that partly explains Saturday’s race!]

Running Suffering

Myths Christians Believe (finale)

Completing my multi-part (and too long) series on the subject of Myths Christians Believe, here’s the latest installment.

  • For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2), go here.
  • For Part 2 (myths 3 and 4), go here.
  • For Part 3 (myths 5 and 6), go here.
  • For Part 4 (myths 7 and 8), go here.

Myth 9: A Christian place is an easy place to be a Christian.

The first Christian school I attended was seminary, and in my first week of classes I observed a fellow student cheating on a Hebrew quiz. Cheating in seminary. Let that sink in. The experience struck me as totally ridiculous, but also taught me that seminarians are people, and just like people everywhere, some are dishonest. Many seminarians played the religious game. They discussed theological topics, engaged in religious activities, but they were in it for the money. The seminary degree was their ticket to a job that would pay the bills, or in some extreme cases, help make them rich and famous mega-church pastors. Seminary shattered my idealistic notions of Christian education. I needed my idealism shattered, but I sometimes found it difficult to maintain a genuine faith and not become cynical.

Now that I work and teach on a campus with a Christian identity and mission, I see some students playing that same religious game, and other students becoming cynical. Some students are shocked that their roommates use profanity or alcohol. Some are appalled by the obscenity they see from their classmates on social media. Others are generally irritated by all the Christian bragging they hear, the Bible studies, mission trips, small groups, etc. that people use to build their résumé. I sometimes talk to students (usually upperclassmen) who are so tired of the Christian culture that they find it all difficult to stomach.  Some ask, “Shouldn’t a Christian place be different, better, or more genuinely Christian?”

Some of the diversity stems from the fact that the school where I work doesn’t hand pick its student population so that every student fits a particular mold, religious persuasion, or ideological perspective. Some of the frustration comes from the unrealistic expectations of people who expect a Christian school (or church or organization or family or whatever) to be a utopia. It turns out that Christian schools are full of people, and people are sinful, and sinful people do sinful things. Perhaps we need a more realistic understanding of what a Christian school is.

Strictly speaking, an organization or institution cannot be “Christian,” only a person can.  A building is not Christian because it is adorned with a cross or stained glass any more than putting a Jesus fish on the bumper of my Toyota makes it a Christian truck.  A school isn’t Christian because it has a chapel on campus, a Bible verse on the front gate, or because it requires students to take a religion class or two.  In fact, it might be more accurate to talk about “schools with a Christian mission” rather than “Christian schools.” Maybe this is linguistic hair-splitting, but when you think of a school or a church or an organization in this way, maybe it eliminates the pressure to be perfect. People can be genuine about their hurts, struggles, and shortcomings. Somehow this type of vulnerability seems to lessen the cynicism. At the end of the day, even the most faithful believers are, all at once, both saints and sinners.

Myth 10: If I live well my life should go well.

The corollary to this myth is that if my life goes badly, I must have done something wrong. While few people will actually admit to this belief, they nonetheless become angry with God when life doesn’t go well. The view that a life of ease is a reward and that trauma is punishment gives rise to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The very question expresses the false belief that good people shouldn’t suffer.

In truth, there are many explanations for the existence of evil and suffering (I’ve written about that subject here) and retribution is one of them. But it is one thing to say that bad behavior is usually punished, and quite another to say that my current suffering must be punishment. If I eat bad oysters I’ll probably get an intestinal illness. But an intestinal illness may have nothing to do with oysters. We all get sick. The reality is that life is difficult and painful for everyone. Your own sense of personal virtue does not mean that God owes you a good life.

When you think about it, blaming God for pain is illogical. If God is powerful enough to be blameworthy, then he is powerful enough to have reasons for my pain that are beyond my ability to understand. Ironically, to blame God is simultaneously to credit God with the ability to be blameless. Here I am not trying to trivialize evil by suggesting that God causes all suffering as a means to a greater good. I am saying that whether God causes or allows my pain is simply beyond me. I cannot always know. I know that ultimately God redeems all pain and injustice in Christ and by Christ’s own suffering and death, but I do not claim to understand fully how that happens or when it will happen fully. I simply know that my responsibility is humble service, not to earn God’s grace but because God has given me grace beyond what I deserve. Grace persists, even in the absence of intellectual understanding.

If you are hurting, it may not be your fault. If you are doing well, it may not be to your credit. “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

Theology

The Problem of Pain

If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.  This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form.

– C. S. Lewis

The problem of pain represents the most serious intellectual challenge to the rationality of Christian faith. Many have rejected or abandoned faith as a result of the failed attempt to reconcile God’s goodness with the realities of evil and suffering. Here I want to outline briefly how Christian theologians have answered this problem and offer a few suggestions for those suffering and those seeking to offer comfort. I make no claim to provide a complete solution to the problem. I do not think such a thing exists. Every answer includes insights and shortcomings. If we examine this issue long enough, we will likely be forced to admit that we have as many questions as answers. Along with the Old Testament character Job, whose suffering is legend, I must eventually confess: “I am of small account, what shall I answer? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4) Eventually we should all confess as much, but not before seeking answers as Job did. We may not get all of the answers we seek, but in the process we may get something better.

To begin, it would be helpful to define evil and to distinguish between natural evil and moral evil. Evil is often defined as anything without which the world would be a better place. By implication, some of what we might call evil might make the world a better place. Natural evil (disasters and diseases) results from features of the physical universe that are arguably necessary for survival. Gravity keeps me from floating off into space, but gravity also means that when I trip and fall I may get hurt. The cells in my body regenerate, divide, and mutate in order to keep me alive, but sometimes these characteristics of cells lead to the spread of disease. These examples of so-called natural evil lead to suffering, but the possibility of such suffering is unavoidable in a physical world that operates according to natural laws that keep us alive, making the world better on the whole. Moral evil, by contrast, occurs when people violate divine law, harming themselves and others in the process, rendering the world worse. Of course, there are ways that natural evil and moral evil mingle, such as when drought followed by monsoon rains cause mudslides in communities with substandard housing. Poverty, climate change, unscrupulous builders, and natural weather cycles coalesce to cause suffering. For someone with a biblical worldview, however, both moral evil and natural evil find their ultimate origins in Genesis 3; they result from sin that tainted human society and the natural world.

Now I’d like to review four historically prominent explanations for suffering in Christian history, and show some of their strengths and weaknesses. Theologians sometimes call these ideas theodicy, a term that means “defending the justice of God in light of evil.” These ides have a long history and for the sake of brevity I will avoid attributions, but if you’re curious, feel free to comment. The four ideas are as follows.

Free Will – God created humans with freedom and we may choose to use that freedom for good or ill. Implied in this explanation is a kind of retribution principle – evil behavior is punished, either passively or actively. If I operate an automobile while intoxicated and wreck my car, my injuries are the direct result of my behavior. Whether my suffering is God’s punishment or the result of natural law (or both), I deserve it and few will call it unfair. But what if, in my intoxicated state, I drive my car into a crowd of pedestrians? Free will explains well my pain, but not theirs, or that of their loved ones. Why didn’t God intervene to trump my free will to protect others? Turns out, free will is a helpful explanation for some instances of suffering, but a troubling response to others.

Soul Making – God intends pain to build character, to make our souls more nearly perfect. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, yes? Or as the New Testament epistle of James states, “Consider it joy when you encounter trials of various kinds, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Indeed, some instances of pain instruct. Who will disagree? The question is whether God could sometimes teach by a less painful pedagogy. In other words, do the ends justify the means? What souls are improved, for example, by the holocaust? Couldn’t the same good be accomplished with less evil? Couldn’t an omnipotent God make it so? Soul making, while helpful in some ways, seems to fail as an explanation for the most horrific evils.

Best Possible World – An all-knowing God would be aware of all possible worlds. A benevolent God would create the best possible world. An all-powerful God is able to create the best world. In other words, our world could be either more evil or less free, either of which would be worse that our current state of affairs. The only way for God to eliminate the possibility of evil altogether would be to eliminate freedom entirely, or not create a world at all. A world without freedom is not a good world, but a morally neutral world, and surely our world is better than no world, or so the argument goes. Of course, someone with cancer might conclude that even if this is the best world possible, it’s still a pretty crappy world. Sometimes we’d all agree.

Divine Suffering – God did not exempt himself from the world’s pain. God suffers with us (in Christ, God feels what we feel). God suffers because of us (moral evil grieves God). And God suffers for us (in Christ, God took suffering upon himself that spares us). Perhaps divine suffering is less of a philosophical explanation for evil and more of a recognition that Christianity situates the solution to evil squarely in Christ. Jesus doesn’t so much explain evil as he experiences it, overcomes it, defeats it, swallows it, and ultimately renders it powerless. Exactly how this happens is a matter for another post; that it happens partially is a matter of experience; that it happens completely in the end is a matter of faith.

So what can Christians offer to a suffering world? Explanations, especially poorly timed ones, can certainly do harm. Theodicy isn’t for funerals. In the middle of Job’s pain God didn’t explain. In response to Job’s questions, God didn’t answer. Instead, God listened. God was present. Job’s final words to God affirm this: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” The final solution to evil is to see God, and in Christ we see God most clearly and experience God most poignantly. In the final analysis, this is surely better than explanations.

Theology