Sprinting Towards Difficulty Instead of Shrinking From It
By JASMIN HOWELL
It was a hot summer’s day in 1923. A young Scotsman named Eric Liddell took his place at the starting line next to the other runners, gearing up for a challenging 400-meter race as an expectant crowd watched from the sidelines. As the starting pistol cracked, he bolted from his position like a bullet, tearing down the racetrack with incredible intensity. But as he rounded the first bend, disaster struck. A nearby runner veered too close to Liddell, causing him to trip and fall off the track. By the time he was back on his feet, the last of the other runners was a whole thirty yards away. Winning the race now would be next to impossible. But Liddell didn’t hesitate for a moment. He attacked that thirty-yard distance with such astounding ferocity that he overtook the lead runner just three yards from the finish line to win the race, before collapsing to the ground in complete exhaustion. The crowd was on its feet in an awe-struck frenzy over the amazing scene they had just witnessed. Liddell’s astounding win in that 400-meter race would go down in history as one of the greatest track performances of all time.
Eric Liddell wasn’t just a great runner and Olympic gold medalist. He was also an amazing God-fearing man who understood what it meant to never give up. There were multiple races in Eric’s running career where he started poorly — his feet slipped out of the starting blocks, or another runner tripped him up, or the track was slippery. These setbacks would have been enough to discourage most athletes from pressing forward. But in every race Eric excelled — in spite of whatever obstacle had caused his poor start. No matter the obstacles he pushed both his body and his spirit to meet the challenge before him. Eric became well known for persevering past the hardship and never quitting, even in the face of almost certain defeat. As a result, he became a famous Olympic champion and one of his country’s most beloved heroes.
Later, after achieving unbelievable feats of endurance and strength on the racetrack, he went to the mission field in China where he had been raised and spent the rest of his short life serving Christ in the same manner. Once again, Liddell overcame difficulties and impossibilities on the mission field that would have caused most people to turn back in defeat and surrender.
My own approach to challenges has been quite different than Eric Liddell’s. I have never wanted to be uncomfortable or push through difficulties for any reason. As a young woman, I often thought that if something was hard, it couldn’t also be good for me. The value of “enduring to the end” sometimes seemed like a trait better suited to a different personality type. The discomfort I felt when pushing through personal difficulties or hard tasks led me to believe that I had the right to quit. I figured that to be uncomfortable in any way was the single worst thing I could possibly face, and warranted an immediate change. Endurance, patience, perseverance — these things weren’t for me!
In the second year of my university studies to become a teacher, the novelty began to wear off and I grew restless. Getting this degree was hard work, and my tendency to seek the easy way was tested. A few of my classes were much more difficult than they seemed when I first picked them from the course description — and the romance of becoming a teacher seemed to be fading with each difficult midterm and mind-numbing educational psychology class. In my mind’s eye, being a teacher should have looked like a scene from Anne of Green Gables — with a classroom of devoted students and an unending passion for the education of young minds. But all this hard work to get there seemed overrated! As was the pattern of my young life at the time, I set my mind on finding a way out. If completing my degree was going to be this hard — and take another two whole years of further agony before I was finished — it obviously wasn’t the best choice, right?
Somewhere in the summer between my second and third years of university, God revealed a pattern in my life that was consistent through every single difficult season. Like a runner, I burst off the starting line with a beautiful flourish and clean form, and then, when difficulty inevitably crept up and the idyllic vision in my head didn’t match my reality, I was prone to slacken the pace, slow down, and wander off the track without ever crossing the finish line. Could you imagine watching an Olympic runner — like Eric Liddell — get bored half-way through the 400-meter race and simply meander off the track to grab some snacks and hang out in the stands? It’s a laughable thought. But that’s exactly how so many of us — myself included — respond to difficulty.
However, I knew from the Bible that God’s desire for my character was not that I continue to look for the easy way through life. In Scripture I began to see that, though a life of ease and constant pleasure was what my flesh desired, it was not the will of God that I become a flake, giving up whenever things became challenging. He wanted to shape me to look like Christ and I certainly would never look anything like Him if I continued to turn away from difficulty. We are to “run with endurance … looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who … endured the cross…” (Heb. 12:1-2 ESV). My life, even in the smallest of ways, needed to start to reflect the constancy, the humility, and the faithfulness that marked the life of Christ. But I could never endure without first looking to Him!
God doesn’t simply pour a big dose of patience, joy, peace, endurance, or other delightful character traits into our lives overnight! He builds each trait in us through experiences — sometimes very hard ones, and sometimes small and seemingly silly ones. Enduring through a two-hour lecture on educational-psychology is one small, perhaps silly, example. But finishing a four-year degree and graduating with honors is another altogether. The small experiences increase our capacity to tackle bigger ones with greater strength. And each experience, big or small, is training us to endure, creating a solid foundation in our lives to prepare us for what may come.
In that season of facing big decisions, there were a few verses in Hebrews that spurred me on to finish my degree and to make it all the way to the end of that race, pushing right through the finish line with strength and joy. “‘Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves…’ It is for discipline that you have to endure … he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:5-7, 10-11 ESV).
Endurance — as the Bible would define it — is not simply “getting through” a trial or hardship. True endurance is soul-deep fortitude, with strength to persevere that comes from the indwelling power of God. The Bible says that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3b-4 ESV).
Endurance is not resignation to the situation at hand, or merely a stubborn resolve to “stick it out,” but, rather, facing whatever is before us with the knowledge that any suffering or trial is the way that God refines our character, and His desire for us is that we endure to the end. (See Matthew 24:13.)
Eric Liddell’s experience as an athlete was training for his later life on the mission field in China, where the cheering crowds were just a memory. Likewise, completing my four-year Bachelor degree in Education was the discipline God used to begin to shape endurance in my spirit. He knew I would need endurance not just for that one season, but for every season that was to follow. And there have been far greater challenges in the years since I walked across the stage to accept my degree.
There is only one way to grow in the Lord, and that is to accept discipline and correction, and to know that it will bring fruit in our character — sometimes in the short-term, but definitely in the long-term. If we are open to being disciplined, corrected, and taught to endure, then God can use that willingness to produce a more consistent character in each of us. His desire to shape us into those who can endure through difficult seasons reveals His deep love for us. Though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, this refining work is designed to bring us great hope!
When asked in an interview how he succeeded in winning the 400-meter race, Eric Liddell said, “The secret to my success … is that I run the first 200 meters as hard as I can. Then, for the second 200 meters, with God’s help, I run harder.”³ What Eric had in spades was faith in God to provide the strength to do more than he was personally capable of, and because of this, he was known for his endurance! By God’s grace he had the ability to continue running at a strong pace, even after reaching the point of greatest difficulty.
We often think of endurance as a fitting attribute for an athlete, but it is an even more necessary attribute for everyday living! When we rely on Christ’s strength to bring us through, God’s Word says we will be “strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy…” (Col. 1:11 ESV).