“You see me limpin’, I know you see me limpin’
You can’t tell on these CD’s, but, bro, I’m knee deep in it
I’m wading in my weakness, He made me dependent
I’d be lyin’ through my teeth to say I don’t resent it
Even as I write these lines I’m close to tears
My body ain’t been workin’ right for 7 years
So miss me with that, “Keep your chin up, try to smile”
Bro, I’m 26; I should feel better by a mile
Keep all your anecdotes and cute quotes
I’ll pass on cliches for true hope, it’s too dope
Trip Lee wrote these lyrics for his song “Sweet Victory,” about his battles with chronic fatigue syndrome and how the medical condition he’d lived with since high school had become for him the “thorn in the flesh” Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 12. The song rebuts perceptions others have of Lee’s life as a successful hip-hop artist, in intensely personal language that evokes the Psalmist’s prayers of anguish and hope. And in recent years, it’s become a staple on my running playlist.
I don’t mean to sound melodramatic; while the act of running brings physical benefit through the body’s response to fatigue, it is in no way comparable to a chronic illness that tests physical and mental stamina in ways that those of us who run frequently simply don’t experience. And yet, it was through this song, and a thought it brought into my head before a race two years ago, that helped me realize the ways running orients our hearts toward God in worship.
The reason humans fatigue while running, put simply, is so we don’t die; as our hearts, lungs and muscles reach their maximum capacity, fatigue enters the process as a means of slowing us down and protecting us from working ourselves to death. It’s endemic to our mortal condition, in other words. No amount of training, no new workout plan, no new gadgets — and this is coming from someone who’s tried all three — can shelter us from the fact we are in limited, finite bodies as a result of the fall. Sin’s curse produced thorns and thistles from Adam’s work; it means flagging muscles and burning lungs for us runners. And yet, as “Sweet Victory” played in my mind and these thoughts rolled through my head during the second lap of a mile race at St. Louis Park High School two years ago, I’ve rarely felt such comfort on a track.
I’ve coached track and cross country at my alma mater (Apple Valley) since 2012, and the process of training with teenagers every day has helped me break through the running plateaus I simply couldn’t get past in high school. I broke 5:00 in the mile and 18:00 in a 5K for the first time when I was 31, and I’d planned a summer of mile races two years ago (when I was 35) to see what more I could do before time eventually got the best of me. I hopped in a USA Track and Field all-comers meet on an unseasonably cool June night at St. Louis Park for my first race of the summer, and rode the shoulder of a twenty-something runner through the first lap with hopes of running 4:55. Rather than letting me draft off of him for all four laps, he smartly pulled back about 120 meters into the second one and let me go to the lead. As I tried to stay in a groove through the middle laps of the mile — the ones where all the negative thoughts start to creep into every runner’s head — the thought I’d been ruminating on during my warmup popped back into my head: God uses my physical limitations, in the midst of a sport I love, to show me my weakness and my need for his perfect power.
Over and over again, we see running used as a metaphor in Scripture: Paul talks in 1 Corinthians of the race for an imperishable crown, and frames his pursuit of Christ in Philippians 3 in terms familiar to a distance athlete: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Hebrews 12 and Romans 5 use the principle of endurance through trials and sufferings; Ecclesiastes 9 warns us that confidence in our own flesh is folly by saying, “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” And the famous promise of God’s providence in Isaiah 40 assures us that while “even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted,” those who wait for the Lord “shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
Why do we see Old and New Testament authors return to this metaphor so frequently? I believe there are several reasons: Running, like the Christian life, is meant to be done with endurance that is enhanced through community. It’s far easier to finish a long run or clip through a race when you have somebody alongside you; it’s easier to hold up through suffering or confront sin with a community of believers nearby. Running highlights our physical limitations every single day, in one form or another, reminding us that we are Adam’s descendents, conceived in iniquity and left feeble by the consequences of sin. And it points us back toward Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who endured — there’s that word again — the cross for the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus is the only one with the right to sit on the throne because he’s the only one who ran the race perfectly, and his perfect endurance is the only power by which we can stand in right relationship with God, in hopes of running forever in glorified bodies with no hint of fatigue. I’m a running nerd, but that thought makes me want to shout for joy!
The twentysomething, in case you’re curious how the race ended, set me up perfectly; he let me lead him into the final lap, when he bet that he’d have enough speed to pass me and stay in front, and he did. He finished in 4:52, while I fought him until he broke away from me in the final 200 meters. But I finished second, in the 4:55 time I’d been hoping for, and walked away with a big smile after we’d slapped hands congratulating each other on a hard-fought race. In that race, God had used a good gift (my love of running) to remind me of a better one: the fact He made a way for me, even in my weakness, to press toward the crown of righteousness Paul talks about in 2 Timothy 4 for those who have finished the race and kept the faith.
True worship, John Piper says, comes when our knowledge of God’s character leads us to an emotional response that enjoys Him and prizes Him above all things. We worship a creative Father who uses common things like those we do with our feet to reveal more of Himself and invite us into a deeper relationship. Our sweet victory, to paraphrase Lee’s final rhyme, is not in the state we’re in; it’s in the fact we ran with Him.