The group of runners carefully approached the starting blocks, doing last-minute stretches before placing their feet in the blocks. They each knew that it was a privilege to have a real chance to participate in such an experience. No activities up until now had even come close to such an opportunity. They breathlessly awaited the start of the race.
"On your marks; get set." Everyone was crouched in perfect readiness. "Pow!" went the pistol. All bolted forward simultaneously; they were off!
Then, an amazing thing happened. Within a step or two of the starting line, everyone stopped running! There had been no false start indicated; nevertheless, everyone pulled up from a resolute running posture, to relax while walking around slowly! Gigantic grins of satisfaction spread across each of their faces.
A multitude of excited spectators watched in consternation as these fully-equipped, top-notch athletes began to produce gold medals on bright ribbons and hang them around one another's necks! Triumphant music was in the air as casual victory laps were engaged with colorful flag waving. A few in the crowd, people familiar with nineteenth century literary nonsense, might have been reminded of the "Caucus-race" in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In this ridiculous episode, a Dodo had announced a free-for-all exercise of undetermined "running around in circles," after which, everyone got prizes. That fictional absurdity is reminiscent of this modern non-race – now starkly displayed before open-mouthed crowds, all bewildered by such meaningless futility!
But it must be true that nothing like the above scenario has ever occurred, has it? Surely, no runners have ever collectively started a race only to casually give it up within a few steps, have they? As preposterous as such a sight would be, this is exactly what multitudes of modern observers have witnessed in the example of many who profess to be serious Christians!
Sadly, along the lines of the above model, the runners have sincerely been trained (according to distinct approaches, systems, and styles) to believe they are doing the right thing by not running the race. They were all truly and undoubtedly aware of the momentous honor involved in being invited to participate. Nevertheless, for different personal, cultural, and theological reasons, they were all persuaded that their role in the race was to stand around, proclaiming that it's already won (without running it) or to assume that it was incapable of being run! They did know that one man (Jesus) had already successfully initiated and completed this race. Nevertheless, due to tremendously faulty training, the practical application of this truth kept eluding their understanding. Tragically, this whole misguided disaster (as illustrated by the absurd analogy) has served as an extremely shoddy example to flabbergasted fellow-runners on the track, as well as to puzzled onlookers who were not yet motivated to begin this race!
The good news is that it is not too late for living and breathing participants (and also for skeptical observers) to reconsider the nature of the race, the invitation to participate, and the all-important stakes! Yahweh, the One who is merciful to deliver anyone from even the most complex web of misunderstandings, beckons all to change and simply run the race.
Upon considering the Scriptural usage of symbolic "running" within various contexts, certain truths might be wise to consider. Though Biblically-minded Christians know they are "saved by grace," "works" should not be seen as a "dirty word," as if "good works" were a polar opposite to the concept of salvation by grace. Such a perverse misunderstanding is often behind the travesty portrayed above: the imaginary non-race that no one tried to run! Though we know that having been offered salvation (through the Messiah's accomplishments) has nothing to do with having earned such a privilege (through one's previous actions), Christians are repeatedly asked to be constantly "zealous for good works" (such as in chapters 2 & 3 of Titus). The New Testament is replete with commands to make continuous, diligent efforts concerning necessary "good works." James 2:18-26 outlines the futility of relying on a so-called "faith" that is not held in proper correspondence with active "works."
For example, constant, repentant efforts to "put off" previous sinful patterns of behavior, along with proactive "work" to do good, helpful deeds (as enabled through Christ) are never discouraged in any new covenant writings! Such efforts are never scolded as if they were "carnal" attempts to earn one's salvation "by works." (1) In fact, such obedient "works" are exhibited as essential to "running the race." In that future day when the king sits on his glorious throne (as seen in Matthew 25) to separate the "sheep" from the "goats," no one will be judged as a "goat" for doing too many kind, loving things from a heart overflowing with God's love! No one will be condemned for exaggerating in efforts to "put off" the flesh of past, selfish behavior!
The "work" efforts that are definitely discouraged, and even reprimanded, are the inappropriate use of "works of the law." A perusal of Colossians, Galatians, Acts 15, Hebrews, and other Scriptures makes it all very clear. In light of Messiah's completed works, continued insistence on previously required circumcision, old covenant food laws, the Mosaic system of calendar observances, the system of animal sacrifices, etc. are to be sternly rejected! The Apostle Paul took a firm stand on this truth, not yielding to any opponents who wanted to wrongly sabotage believers!
Another "running" truth might be stated this way: "Do the right things for the right reasons." As a fellow believer essentially taught recently in my presence: don't forgive others merely because it is of benefit to you! (Don't do it just so you can breathe deeply and feel a sense of relief.) Honor God and forgive others to benefit them! Don't practice giving in order to get material benefits from God. (Don't follow a misguided "prosperity gospel" with an eye to your personal gain.) Honor God, be unselfish, and give to help others! Don't seek recognition or applause. Remember, Yahweh has been far more generous and loving than all of us put together - since before any of us existed! (He certainly takes care of us.) We love and give, not to extract anything from Him, as if we were applying a set of "Biblical principles" for our profit. We are free to love, not in order to get love, but because He has always had our best interests at heart - in His unfathomably vast, loving intentions. Not putting the cart before the horse is vital! We truly benefit when we win the race, but our focus is to be on loving God in first place - and secondly, on loving others.
Don't you know that when people run on the racetrack everybody runs, but only one person gets the prize? Run in such a way that you'll win it. Everyone who goes in for athletics exercises self-discipline in everything. They do it to gain a crown that perishes; we do it for an imperishable one. Well then: I don't run in an aimless fashion! I don't box like someone punching the air! No: I give my body rough treatment, and make it my slave, in case, after announcing the message to others, I myself should end up being disqualified. [1 Corinthians 9:24-27 - KNT]
In the setting of striking models of selfless service in Philippians, one can view the particular context of encouragement that believers humbly and seriously work to bring about their own salvation, while trusting God Himself to be at work within them: providing the will and the energy to do what pleases Him. Another use of the Apostle Paul's "run" symbolism caps off some relevant exhortations. Even if his life would have been totally poured out as a drink-offering, he would not have run in vain; this fact was a motive, not for sadness or loss, but for rejoicing to celebrate with these people.
There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you'll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging to the word of life. That's what I will be proud of on the day of the Messiah. It will prove that I didn't run a useless race, or work to no purpose. [Philippians 2:14-16 - KNT]
Thus, several metaphorical uses of running involve fearless, faithful, proactive work to stand on the truth, while being self-disciplined to live according to the message we proclaim. Our loving priority before God means selflessly regarding others' needs as more important than our own (as seen in Philippians 2:3, 4). Jesus, Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus were willing to live this way, with this mindset, even to the point of extreme suffering. Other believers, before the first coming of the Messiah, were willing to risk all to be faithful before Yahweh, persevering in the hope which He provided. Some of these believers are listed in Hebrews, chapter 11; clearly, we are to emulate their recorded examples which provide a "great cloud of witnesses." We do so while running the race, looking unto Jesus.
What about us then? We have such a great cloud of witnesses all around us! What we must do is this: we must put aside each heavy weight and the sin which gets in the way so easily. We must run the race that lies in front of us, and we must run it patiently. We must look ahead, to Jesus. He is the one who carved out the path for faith, and he's the one who brought it to completion. He knew that there was joy spread out and waiting for him. That's why he endured the cross, making light of its shame, and has now taken his seat at the right hand of God's throne. He put up with enormous opposition from sinners. Weigh up in your minds just how severe it was; then you won't find yourselves getting weary and worn out. You have been struggling against sin, but your resistance hasn't yet cost you any blood. [Hebrews 12:1-4 - KNT]
When the Apostle Paul knew that that his time of service was coming to an end, he once again combined the imagery of "being poured out as a drink offering" to "the course," or race-track.
In fact, I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I've fought the good fight. I've finished the course. I've kept the faith. From now on there is laid up for me the crown that shows I have God's approval. This crown is what the Lord, the truly just judge, will award me on that day, and not only me, but also all who have set their heart on his appearing. [2 Timothy 4:6-8 - KGV]
(1) Raymond C. Faircloth, How God Works in Human Affairs, 69-73 (chapter 15: Does God Require No Works of Us?)