Running the Race: A Lit Lesson in Preparation for Labor Day

Man, that Apostle Paul must have been a lit teacher! Consider how well he chose his metaphors:  

In a passage of Scripture that is being intoned and memorized by homeschooling parents all over the world this week, he urges his readers to“run in such a way as to get the prize…Go into strict training…to get a crown that will last forever” (I Corinthians 9:24-25).

Is there any better image to describe the upcoming year than a race? (Unless maybe it’s “a rat race.”)  We all sense it, that anxious tiptoeing up to the starting line, waiting for the inevitable gun to go off; the vision of a prize, a crown of glory waiting for us at the end of the year; the dull fear that our eventual success is anything but certain, and that it all depends on how we run.

But I wonder if Paul was actually saying what we always assume.  What does it mean to “run the race” anyway, and what is the crown he’s talking about?  The meaning we import to these phrases says a lot about our assumptions as to the nature of homeschooling, and of our own identities, and of God.

How would you answer the question?  Does running the race well mean a whole year of consistent, faithful work in the classroom and the home?  Does it mean keeping a gracious, loving attitude towards our kids and spouses all year long?  Does it mean a whole year of good decision-making, wise choices, and correct steps? Does it mean completing the curriculum and having the kids get straight A’s?

I don’t think so, and I don’t think Paul did either.

Listen to his words in 2 Timothy 4:7 – “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race: I have kept the faith.”

In this famous phrase, Paul explains his metaphor, suggesting that finishing the race is a synonym for keeping the faith.  For trusting Jesus. For believing the Gospel.  For not forgetting what it says.

And what does the Gospel say?  That Jesus loved us to the point of death, and each of us, individually, is the separate object of his love.  That He has taken away our sins and replaced them with abundant provision for our every need.  That our identity as precious children is secure in His eyes, in His hands, and in His heart. 

If it’s that simple, you might be thinking, maybe we should question Paul’s metaphor after all.  Maybe he’s not as good at this literary business as we thought he was.  All this language of striving, training, and racing, all to describe something as easy as remembering?  Seems a little overheated.

Except that when it comes to the Gospel, remembering is hard.  Really hard.  Nearly impossible, in fact, without constant effort.  This is because the Gospel tells us something absurd, something too good to be true.  The Gospel says that Jesus accepts us just as we are, without expecting us to improve or demanding that we try, and judges us once and for all with the words “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Maybe the hardest thing of all to believe is that this gracious judgment comes not as a reward for faithful service, but as a permanent, gracious gift to sinners – right in the middle of their failure and insufficiency.

If you have ever forgotten this, you’ll understand why striving and training and racing are Paul’s metaphors of choice.  It will take concentrated effort all year long to remember that your identity does not come from your work in the class, but from His work on the cross.

And what if you succeed?  What if you finish the race and keep the faith all the way through until Memorial Day?  What if you faithfully remember His unconditional love? 

Here’s a prize worth striving for.  Eventually, when the question “Who am I, really?” steals its anxious way into the corner of your heart, an answer will spring forth unbidden from the deepest place:  “I am the one that Jesus loves – a good and faithful servant!”

Compared to this boundless grace, an annual slog for earthly recognition might just lose its luster. And you may find yourself teaching with joy and abandon every once in a while.

Let’s all get to work then.  Fight the good fight, and run the race to win the prize. But let’s remember what the fight is:  to believe the Gospel.  Let’s rememberwhat the race is:  to keep the faith.  Let’s remember what the crown is:  an identity in Jesus that we can never lose.