“I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us” (Phil 3:12-15 Message).
I remember well the 5K Cross Country meets of high school — the anticipation, the starting gun, the 3.1 miles of agony, self-discipline, pain, sickness, competition, endurance, sense of accomplishment, victory or defeat. CC runners have always prided themselves on the confused looks and baffled comments of fellow classmates who cannot imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to subject their bodies to such a seemingly miserable kind of sport. Still, those who’ve experienced some of the rewards — usually intangible — that come with this sort of personal challenge and physical test know that there is something special, something powerfully meaningful in starting, enduring and finishing a race.
The apostle Paul seems to be drawing from the imagery of an athletic race of sorts. The Christian life is a test of spiritual endurance as we fix our eyes upon the goal ahead. Paul makes it very clear that he’s still got a lot of road ahead of him. He’s well out of the gate and has plenty of miles already under his belt. The Christian race is not a 5K but marathon for sure. It’s a long, arduous challenge with many chances to throw in the towel and call it quits. But Paul is no quitter and his attitude provides a great example for us to follow in our own race towards that finish line that awaits us.
What can we learn from this passage about the race and how to run it?
1. First, we are told some extremely encouraging news: We are not running it alone. This is a relay of sorts. Paul makes clear that the Christian life of discipleship is not just exerting all of our own efforts, flexing our spiritual muscles in order to finish on our own power. No, just when we’re about to collapse we find ourselves reaching out with the baton towards Christ who’s reaching back towards us in order to take the baton and run the next few laps for us while we catch our breath. “But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me.” Christ is with us in this race, reaching out toward us in our weakness and picking up the slack on our behalf. And it’s a good thing, too.
2. Second, Paul shows us the importance of being a coachable disciple. Even the great apostle Paul doesn’t claim to be an expert on how to run this entire race. Paul says, “By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this.” He’s open to his trainer’s advice. He’s listening to his coaches on the sidelines, obeying their instructions so as to finish strong and well. He goes on, “I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus.” Yes, God is in the bleachers, on the sidelines, at the finish line, directing our way and cheering us on. Our job is to listen to God’s beckoning voice.
3. Third, we must not turn back and take our eyes off the goal ahead. This hardly needs explanation. We have all learned this lesson from preschool on. Whether it’s coloring outside the lines in daycare or taking our eyes off the ball in baseball or changing the radio station in the car, we all know that success comes when we keep our eyes focused on the goal before us. Failure results when our eyes or hearts or minds or desires get distracted and drawn elsewhere. Paul’s advice to all who desire “everything God has for us” is simple: Keep your eyes fixed on the goal. Don’t look back.
So, what is the goal exactly? Well, we should know this by now. Repeatedly throughout this letter Paul has told us that Jesus himself is both the goal and source of our faith. Remember the puzzle’s box cover from Phil 2:5-11? In the verses leading up to this passage the goal for which Paul runs is to know Christ and have a Christ-defined existence — nothing more, nothing less: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8).
So, let’s keep running — for our race is not in vain!