“Come on! You can do it! You’re almost there!” the bystanders shout as I near the end of a competitive road race. As a distance runner, I know how agonizing the last mile always is, when everything inside of me wants to slow down, catch my breath, and give my battered legs a much-needed break. Yet, I somehow manage to push even harder, knowing that the finish line is quickly approaching and will soon be within my line of sight. I know that once I cross that finish line, all the pain and displeasure will be immediately replaced with feelings of joy and satisfaction from completing the race and receiving the reward. Whether it is a personal record time, a medal of completion, or an age group award, there is a goal in mind for every race participant, and he/she will willingly and patiently endure whatever agony it takes to obtain it.
Nearly 2000 years ago, long before the age of modern 5k races, the apostle Paul made a similar observation with the athletic competitions that were held in his day. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 he wrote,
"Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable."
Notice how Paul likens the perseverance and self-control of athletes to that which we experience in the Christian life, and he is not the only writer of the New Testament to employ such imagery. The writer of Hebrews likewise calls believers to “…lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
In light of these two passages and many others, the message is clear for Christians. To live in such a way that is pleasing to God while focusing on the eternal hope that awaits us will result in a life of agony and perseverance. The word persevere is related to the word severe, a word that is often used to describe extreme circumstances. The Latin prefix per means “through”, so the very word itself conveys the notion of going through extremely difficult situations. To persevere is to remain persistent and steadfast even when present circumstances would have us simply give up or give in. The Bible has much to say about perseverance in the life of the Christian including its source, purpose, and result. The apostle Peter even showcases perseverance as a quality of those who have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4-7).
In other words, God uses perseverance to mold us more and more into the image of His Son. When the eternally existing Second Member of the Trinity took on human flesh and became a man, He did so not in a way that a natural man would perceive as glorious or majestic. Instead, He subjected Himself to all the limitations of a man while living in a fallen world, from the very moment of conception in the womb of a virgin by the Holy Spirit to His gruesome death on a Roman cross. Yet, He persevered through it all without ever sinning! We persevere because Jesus persevered, and so “we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17). No matter what trials we face or how hard it is to lay aside our entanglements and put to death the deeds of the flesh, this is our calling as Christians. This is the narrow gate and difficult path Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 7:13-14). This is a legacy shared by the apostle Paul, a legacy he reflected on shortly before his execution by saying, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
The perseverance we are called to as those who walk step in step with our Lord is constantly challenged by our three ongoing enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. As Jesus Himself promised, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). Unlike the distance runner who must conjure up his/her own strength to persevere to the finish line, the race of faith is one we cannot win on our own. But there is good news! We have a perseverance that comes not from within ourselves but from our omnipotent and omniscient God! It is He who has sealed us with His Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13), promised to complete the good work that He began in us (Philippians 1:6), and glorified all those whom He foreknew (Romans 8:29-30). With that amazing truth in mind, Paul could not contain his joy and went on to say, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). If we are among those who are chosen by God in eternity past, our glorification is guaranteed. Every Christian’s race of faith will be different, and each of us will have our own adversities, but regardless of how intense they might be, God will supply us whatever measure of grace we need to patiently endure them and get us to the finish line. When Paul asked the Lord to remove what he described to be a thorn in his flesh, Jesus replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
This brings us to yet another purpose of perseverance in our lives: to remind us of how weak we truly are and how we need Christ every moment of every day. Feeling distressed over your difficult circumstances? That is to be expected. After all, it would be completely unreasonable to approach trials in a “Yippee! I get to go through another trial! This growing spiritually stuff sure is fun!” kind of mentality. Though distress is a right and reasonable response, what matters more is how you ultimately handle that response. To assess how you are doing in this area of your Christian walk, ask yourself these questions. Are you counting it all joy when you experience various trials (James 1:2)? Counting it all joy does not mean always being emotionally upbeat, but it does mean having a settled assurance of God’s sovereignty over every aspect of your life and trusting that He is indeed using every circumstance to cause you to grow spiritually until your final glorification. Do you find yourself habitually praying for the Lord to eliminate your trials? Be careful what you pray for, because that annoying situation you wish would just go away may very well be the means God has ordained in order to grow you in a certain area where you might be struggling. Though it is not inherently sinful to pray for relief from present sufferings, it should not be our primary desire whenever we come before the throne of grace with our supplications. Pray for the Lord’s guidance in navigating through your trials. Pray that God would supply the grace necessary to persevere through your hardships. Pray that God would use your adversity to shine more and more of His light into the dark corners of your heart where you still have residual sin. Pray that He would give you a heart of joy and thankfulness knowing that He would go to such great lengths to “work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13). I can assure you that God will honor such prayers; it is His way of being the bystander in your race of faith, shouting, “Come on! You can do it! You’re almost there!”
As amazing and full as these truths are, they merely scratch the surface of all that the Word of God has to say about perseverance. In the coming weeks, we will take a closer look at perseverance as it relates to God as its source in the life of the Christian, perseverance as the marker of all true believers, and perseverance in the midst of trials.