Now it will not surprise anyone who knows me now to know that I have never run a marathon. The nearest I got was a 21 mile walk, running the first 5 miles. Clearly I never will run one now.
As many have noted though, the marathon is a helpful metaphor for the spiritual life, and for ministry too - since we are all ministers, each one of us called to serve the God we love in whatever context he has placed us.
Starting out is usually the easiest part. We are fresh-faced and eager. Yet sooner or later, for whatever reason, we hit the wall. In a physical marathon it is generally at around 18 to 20 miles, when a runner’s stored energy in the muscles becomes depleted. Fatigue is the most obvious sign, but along with that comes an emotional toll too. The “wall” in the spiritual life is just as real.
For runners, I’m told there are various things which either help prevent or ameliorate the phenomenon, which is not inevitable. Here are just three.
Firstly, recognising it is a marathon not a sprint. Pace is important. In the spiritual life we can feel we need to be living, serving, giving, studying and even praying (at least in a formal way) at a speed which is simply not sustainable. We are not super-human. We were never called to kill ourselves for the kingdom, other than in the sense of dying to our egos. We are children of a King who is gentle with us, and understands our limitations.
Secondly, what we eat is important. We might need the spiritual equivalent of carbohydrates to keep us going and certainly we cannot, and are not meant to, keep running on empty. Space, silence, scripture, receiving in whatever way we are made are godly virtues, not selfish indulgences.
Finally, let’s not put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. The first marathon is unlikely to result in a world record. So many of us, for a myriad of reasons, live under the crushing weight of what we “should” be, “should” do. We carry these into our friendship with God like a rucksack too heavy for a child and which He would like to take off us but somehow we cling on to.
Sometimes however, even with preventative measures, we hit a wall. As unique people, we experience it differently: an exhaustion where we want to do the spiritual equivalent of lying down to rest, or a sense of ennui where it all seems a chore, our prayers like dust. We may want to hide, or to immerse ourselves in noise or distraction.
At times like this we may need someone to run with us for a while, slowing their pace to match our own until we recover, which means them sacrificing their own speed for a season. And we need to receive, take on board sustenance, as well as taking encouragement from those who cheer us on.
Most of all, we remember whose we are. As Paul, who probably never ran a physical marathon but most certainly ran a physical one, puts it:
“We look away from the natural realm and we fasten our gaze onto Jesus who birthed faith within us and who leads us forward into faith’s perfection. His example is this: Because his heart was focused on the joy of knowing that you would be his, he endured the agony of the cross and conquered its humiliation, and now sits exalted at the right hand of the throne of God!”
(Hebrews 12:2, Passion Translation)