A few years back I resolved to run a half-marathon. I’ve never been much of a runner, but I secretly longed to put one of those hip 13.1 stickers on my car.
Being my first race, I didn’t know what to expect but was encouraged to find markers along the route updating the runners on our progress toward the finish line. The markers were placed at predictable points—each mile was clearly marked, as was the mid-way point in the race. These markers provided encouragement that the finish line was approaching and a reminder that I’d come a good distance without dying.
The markers, while helpful, were somewhat arbitrary if you step back to think about it. The step before you reach the eighth mile is no more significant than the step you take to cross the marker. Each is merely one step closer to the finish line.
The same is true for a new year. Today is no more significant than some random day in the middle of July. Every day counts the same. Yet, the new year is a significant marker that provides us with space for reflection and renewed focus. Like runners, this marker can provide encouragement to keep running with passion and intensity.
The words of the writer of Hebrews come to mind:
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 12:1–2).
The pronouns in this passage give us insight into the way we should go about running in the new year and why most of our efforts end up leading to guilt, shame, discouragement, and ultimately to failure.
Think about the way we typically run after our dreams. We find things we aren’t doing well—aspects of our lives that are hindering our race—and resolve to do better or try harder:
- I need to spend more time with my family.
- I should to get up earlier in the morning to spend time with God.
- I want to save more money.
Each of these are laudable goals. They are clearly vital to run the race that is set before us. But the pronouns are wrong.
This is not what the writer of Hebrews says. He actually encourages “us” to run the race that is set before “us”. The image is not of a singular runner throwing off hindrances and persevering towards the finish line. It is a picture of a group of runners, collectively determining to run the race together.
This is why you need a good ‘ole Southern accent to run your race in a new year. You don’t run alone. Y’all run together. The race is one that is set before us all. Contrary to the individualism that pervades our modern culture, you will only run your race successfully if you abandon the notion that it is your race in the first place. It’s our race.
I was reminded of this recently when reading the book of Philippians. Paul spends an inordinate amount of time in the second chapter of that letter talking about two people: Timothy (2:19 – 24) and Epaphroditus (2:25–30).
It is clear that from Paul’s perspective his mission hinged on the faithfulness of these two brothers. They ran the race with Paul—encouraging him with the state of the churches he’d started, reminding him of the hope of the gospel in spite of his circumstances, and meeting a host of practical needs that he had while in prison. Paul—the ultimate race-runner—points to others who have served Christ through their service to him.
If these three men were actually running a marathon we’d expect Paul to win his age bracket (or every age bracket), Timothy would likely win a medal for the under-30 group, and Epaphroditus would be the sweat-drenched dude sitting on the sidelines sipping Gatorade.
Epaphroditus seems inconsequential to the race from our perspective, but not from Paul’s. Paul considers him to be a “fellow worker” and a “fellow solider,” one who faithfully fulfilled the “work of Christ.”
He esteems Epaphroditus so much that he calls the Philippian church to honor him by modeling his sacrificial service to one another. Paul knows that his race was not possible, at least from a human perspective, without Epaphroditus.
It takes men and women like Epaphroditus for us to run our race as well. Most Christians would aspire to run like Paul in 2017 (well except for the beatings, shipwrecks, snake bites, and other not-so-pleasant happenings). We long to be faithful to the mission we’ve been given.
But we forget that it’s not my race, it’s our race. It’s too easy for us to tap out if we’re running alone. But, if we consciously and intentionality invite others in our lives and ask them to run with us as we, together, run the race that God’s marked out for His children, then odds are we’ll run with greater passion, intentionality, and focus.
So who plays the role of Epaphroditus in your life? Who knows the ways you missed the mark last year? Who knows what you are trusting God for in this coming year? Who is praying and helping you toward these goals?
Perhaps a better place to start isn’t with finding someone like Epaphroditus but by becoming an Epaphroditus for someone else. Sure, you might not know a guy like Paul, but you can rest assured that every genuine follower of Jesus needs others to come alongside of them as they run.
All people need concrete forms of spiritual and physical care in order to run well. Rather than asking, “Who is my Epaphroditus?”, maybe we should start by asking, “For whom am I Epaphroditus?”
- Who am I helping to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment (spiritual care)?
- Who am I loving and serving in tangible ways (physical care)?
- Who is running after God and His mission with greater passion, intentionality, and faithfulness because I am in their life?
- Who am I helping to run?
The more you and I prioritize others in this New Year the more likely they are to run faithfully, and paradoxically, the more this selflessness will aid us in running our own race.