Last year when we registered as a family for a 5K, my children didn’t understand that I was not doing it with the goal of winning the race, but I understood their disapproval of my unimpressive goals of “Run without walking, and “To not come in last place.” My husband and I always tell the children that Burkes “play to win.”
My son, ever competitive, gave me a pep talk (twice actually) and told me I could do better than second to last place. He challenged me to aim to place in the top three. I didn’t know whether to hug him for his faith in me or to laugh in his face.
I gave him all of my excuses. My physical fitness level was equal to anyone who hadn’t run for many years. I bear the scars of complicated foot surgeries on both of my feet because of the arthritis that plagues my joints. I’ve had a lot of difficult pregnancies that took a toll on my body. Running is hard.
After my first run, my lungs burned so badly I thought I was going to die. We started running several times a week as a family with the goal of me going even just one step farther. After a few months when I finally felt like I actually could run some, I wondered if I could make it three miles before it was time for the race. Failure seemed like a real possibility.
But success and failure can be subjective words. A faster, fitter person might only count it a success if they cross the finish line first, and any other result a failure. Running a 5K and all the training—if you’ll allow me to call my exercise regimen that—would not be wasted regardless of what place I finished. I knew I’d complete the race stronger and fitter and healthier than I was five months earlier when I could only run for two minutes.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t win. I didn’t even come close to winning. In fact, my three children who ran the race all beat me. One of them was six at the time (in my defense, she was very fast for a six-year-old), and she beat me by three minutes. My oldest beat me by ten minutes.
So why run this race if I wasn’t playing to win?
There’s another thing we always tell our kids—maybe a more important expression: We do hard things.
We do hard things because that’s how we grow, because we need to grow. We exercise and train because it is good for us. Our muscles need resistance to get stronger. Our heart and our lungs need exertion for their health. An untested, unchallenged person does not get stronger and fitter. Their muscles become weak as they atrophy. Their physical endurance declines and wastes away.
Our spiritual needs are similar to our physical needs. Without trials and hardships, our faith doesn’t have the opportunity to grow. We don’t have to learn how to depend on God for all of our needs. We never learn how sweet the gospel is unless we taste the bitterness of living in a broken world first. The Bible makes it clear that trials and hardships are for our good. James wrote,
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Trials anchor our faith in the one place it will be safe. They push us along to perfection and completion. They reveal areas of our heart that are clinging to idols. They show us where we are lacking to teach us about our God who lacks nothing. They teach us contentment and joy even when our experience is a great loss. Trials are for our good.
We don’t get to choose what our trials and hardships are, but choosing to do hard things intentionally is a lot like our off-season training. Most of the best things in life can be difficult. Marriage, parenting, relationships, ministry all have a way of exposing our sinfulness and our need for God. But that’s the point. When we seek after hard things, the kind of things that will remind us of our need for God, we often stretch our faith. We are reminded of our limits and God’s limitlessness.
We do hard things not so we can boast about ourselves, but so we can depend on God more and boast about him. We do hard things not to be able to brag about our accomplishments but because of what Christ accomplished on the cross. We don’t do hard things to build up our resumes but to reveal our weaknesses. We do hard things to point to the One who is faithful to us always and proves himself more than ever when we are in need.
My husband and I have asked our children to do a lot of hard things in the last two years. When we’ve put a hard thing in front of them, our children have often doubted whether or not they could really finish what we were asking them to do. And we’ve asked them to trust us that they were ready to grow in their challenge, that they would end up better off because of the hard thing.
When God puts a trial in front of us, it can seem like we can’t make it through it. But our faithful God is asking us to trust him that it is for our good and his glory. We go through trials, we choose hard things because we are not yet complete. We are not yet perfect. We are running the race to the end when we will be in glory.