I am not a runner, but after I got engaged, I suddenly developed an interest in running, spurred on by the fact that I was slightly (completely) nervous (terrified) at the thought that in a few months, another human being was going to be seeing me au naturel. I hit the treadmill like a maniac and felt quite a sense of accomplishment when I could go five miles without throwing up.
One day, when the weather was particularly gorgeous, I decided to run outside. Two miles into the run and I was ready to pass out on the pavement. “What just happened?” I thought as everything went black.
Up until that moment, I had not realized how comparatively easy it was to run on the smooth surface of the treadmill. It had not dawned on me that the treadmill provided no real resistance. In fact, the only thing weighing me down as I trotted along under those false conditions was me.
After building up just enough strength so as not to collapse when I turned on the machine, I had believed I was strong enough to handle running on any terrain. Brazenly, I headed out on the open road. But a couple miles on a road that used to be flat but now was as steep as Mount Everest and I was begging for mercy. I was not as strong as I thought I was. I had been deceived by the ease of the treadmill.
How much better things would have gone for me if I had already been running on a path with some resistance, if I had already proven myself on the real testing ground! There’s something to be said for running where the potholes are abundant and the gravel is slippery. It is difficult, to be sure, but it builds real strength and reveals real weakness.
Sometimes I don’t like to admit there are weaknesses. I am content to trot along on my little treadmill, variously increasing and decreasing the speed, smugly controlling all the variables. I hop off when I’m done, wipe my forehead and think “What a great workout!” In reality, I have not done any more than I could do in my own strength. I have not tested myself, pushed myself, fought with myself. I have not grappled with any weaknesses or wrestled to win another step forward. I have been content with complacency and mediocrity and have deceived myself into believing that I’m really quite disciplined. I am really quite a runner.
But running on the real road doesn’t allow for such complacency and deception. The weather is always too hot or too cold. It rains. There’s traffic or angry dogs and construction workers who stare. I get thirsty or inhale a bug. Someone I know sees me, panting and red-faced and wishing I could die while I struggle up a “hill” they can’t see. There is difficulty lurking behind every single step.
But at the end of it, I know where I stand. The resistance, the difficulty, has made me stronger. Why, then, would I prefer comfort? Why would I balk at difficulty and complain about the hills? Why wouldn’t I run outside whenever I get the chance?
It comes right down to this: I prefer comfort to strength. I like the idea of strength, but I like the actuality of comfort, and if I let myself be comfortable for too long, I actually begin to believe that’s the way things should be. Life should be easy. God wants my life to be easy, right? And when it is hard I get wiggly and self-centered and cranky and I say things like, “Why is all of this happening to me?”
I forget that I am running up a hill that will make me stronger. I am running up a hill that is showing me that my muscles have been neglected and my heart is not as strong as I thought it was. I should be thankful for the resistance because at the end of it, when I stand on top of that hill, I will own it, and I will know Who got me there.
But I forget that life isn’t supposed to be easy. If it’s easy, I’m probably not doing it right.
When I live my life in such a way that I never have to trust, never have to wait, never have to believe, never have to grapple with things I wish never happened, never wrestle with fear and doubt and worry and forgiveness—then I’m not really living. I’m playing it safe, and I’m storing up my life as if I could really save it by holding it back. I am letting fear win out over faith.
Remember what summers were like when you were a kid? Every knee, elbow, and big toe was scraped up before June was underway. And you didn’t even mind so much because of how you got them. You ran, and you ran with joy. Skinned knees happen when you run. And because you loved to run, and nothing could stop you from running, you cried when you fell down but you got back up and ran some more.
Life is a lot like that. If you love life, you will fall down, but if you run with joy, you will get back up and do it again tomorrow: stronger, more faithfully, and with a depth to your character that you don’t earn by cautiously trotting along on the treadmill. You will find excitement in the race, delight in the change of scenery, and be overwhelmed with gratitude when you can still stand up at the end of it. You will lose your breath, not because it’s hard, but because you can’t wait to see what will happen next.
The Bible talks about two people who approached life in different ways. One ran on the treadmill. He played it safe and lived in comfort and rarely had to bother over skinned knees. The other took his run on the open road. He was a king, but most of the time, you wouldn’t know it. It seemed someone was always trying to kill him. He hid out in caves and enemy territory and woke up at night wondering if he’d live to see the next day. He ran close to God, and it turns out, that’s not always the easiest place to run.
His name was David.
David learned that when you run close to God, you get a lot of skinned knees. You run places most people wouldn’t dream of going and take risks most people wouldn’t take. You get outside of convention and test your heart on hills that seem ridiculous to attempt. You race against the dogs and let people see the sweat and trip over the potholes. You go up against giants. You lose sleep and friends and gain enemies. But you find joy, and you get up every day and you run some more because God has proven there’s something worth getting up and running for.
The other man was named Solomon.
Solomon was David’s son, and because of all the fighting his father did, Solomon had it fairly easy. One day, he even got to wear the crown, just like Dad. He was ridiculously wealthy and ridiculously intelligent…and hopelessly unhappy. Every day, he got up and ran on the treadmill and stared at the same stone wall and fiddled with the controls to make sure he never had to run too hard. He never pushed the limits. He never had to. At the end of the run, he looked out the window from his gold-plated palace and moaned, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless. I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after the wind.”
Solomon, for all his wealth and wisdom, could not see the value in running beyond his comfort level. He didn’t get out on the open road and push himself, he didn’t give more than he thought he could or put himself in positions where he had to depend on Someone else’s strength to get him through. He never ran up that hill. He ran on the flat, smooth, boring surface all his life and could barely get himself out of bed in the morning to face a new day because each day was exactly like the one before. Meaningless.
His words stand in stark contrast to his father’s, who lived a reckless life of faith. He decided early on that he’d run wherever God lead him. If he had known where that path would take him, David might have chickened out. But each day, the road went steeper and higher and took crazier turns that no sane person would follow, and each day, David got to see more and more of God until he could never, ever run on that treadmill again. He had seen too much.
Eventually, David fell captive to enemy forces. He could have given up in a heap of despair. He son would have. Instead, David wrote the following Psalm:
When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You.
In God, whose word I praise, in God I have put my trust;
I shall not be afraid. What can mere man do to me?
You have taken account of my wanderings;
Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?
Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call;
This I know, that God is for me.
In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise,
In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid.
What can man do to me?
For You have delivered my soul from death,
Indeed my feet from stumbling,
So that I may walk before God
In the light of the living.
He had run, and he had fallen. But David knew something that Solomon didn’t. He knew that the pain that comes with running on the open road produces a strength that can’t be obtained on the treadmill. It produces an intimate knowledge of God’s faithfulness that cannot be learned from a book. He was willing to take the scraped knees and the stubbed toes because he knew that in exchange, he would gain a joy that could never be taken away.
Are you comfortable on the treadmill? Maybe it’s time to hit the open road.
“Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4