It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it means that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is his splendor. – NICHOLAS WOLTERSTORFF

A friend of mine ran in the Los Angeles marathon, so I followed the event quite closely. There were 18,000 runners—18,000 brave, motivated, skinny, overachieving, masochistic people.

With the event being held in California, we can expect that some of the runners were a little out of the ordinary. One guy ran in full circus makeup and called himself “T-bone the Clown.” Another contestant ran as “Flower Man.” Thirteen people draped themselves in a specially designed costume and competed as a human centipede.

The starting line was a sight to behold. T-bone was shaking hands with the crowd and laughing and waving. The centipede looked friskier than any centipede has a right to be.

Then the race began. The first phase of such a race might be called the pleasure stage. At this point running is fun. Your body is loose, your heart is pumping, you are “one with the cosmos”: The blood is flowing, the head is clear, the lungs are breathing deeply, the birds are singing, the sun is shining, the fish are jumping, the cotton is high, Daddy’s rich, and Momma’s good-looking. You are functioning like a well-oiled machine.

How long this stage lasts depends on the runner’s conditioning. For me, it lasts twelve or thirteen feet.

After the initial rush of pleasure, running becomes drudgery. After drudgery it becomes effortful and laborious. And if you keep going long enough, you reach the point when the temptation to stop is overwhelming. Your feet are protesting vigorously, knives of pain are stabbing through your calves, your lungs have burning coals at the bottom of them. Runners speak of this experience as “hitting the wall.”

To run at this stage—to hit the wall and keep going—is the ultimate test of a runner. Races are won or lost, completed or abandoned, at “the wall.”

At this stage, the LA marathon really became interesting. T-bone wasn’t laughing with the crowd anymore. The human centipede was hanging over the fence, and it didn’t look good—all thirteen centipedal stomachs united in collective revolt.

At the finish line, people came dribbling in one at a time. Some didn’t make it at all.

The start of a race is enjoyable. It is easy. Finishing is hard work. To finish well—that’s glory. Finishing well is what counts.

How will we run the race of life? Will we finish well?

The capacity to finish well is what the New Testament writers called endurance, or perseverance. It is the virtue by which we become increasingly able to honor commitments that ought to last a lifetime. It is especially the ability to honor commitments when honoring them becomes difficult.

A wife says to her husband of fifty years as they lie in bed one night, “When we were young, you used to hold my hand each night.” Slowly, a little irritably, his hand reaches out until it finds hers.

“And when we were young,” she goes on, “you used to snuggle up against me in bed.” A little more slowly, her husband’s body creaks and turns until it is nestling against hers.

“And when we were young, you used to nibble on my ear.” Abruptly the covers are thrown back, and the man lurches out of bed.

“Where are you going?” she asks, a little hurt.

“To get my teeth,” he grumbles.

To nibble on an ear when you are young and full of romance and bubbling hormones and the room is scented with eau de something or other is one thing. To still be nibbling when the ear holds a hearing device and the room is scented with Ben-Gay and you have to get up to get your teeth—that’s something else.

Ortberg, John. 2009. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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