The Sweet Victory of Suffering on Top of Suffering

After a recent Saturday training run, a few of us were talking with our coach Amy Begley from Atlanta Track Club about the unexpected women’s results in the 2018 Boston Marathon. She said she believed what helped the top two women was that, unlike their competitors, they were used to suffering. When we stared at her for a second with looks like, “Really? Isn’t any marathon training a form of suffering?”, she added, “I mean, they’re not just used to suffering; they’re used to suffering on top of suffering.”

She went on to explain that many of the elite runners who were favorites to win came from fair-weather states with more favorable training conditions. The top two women did not. The first woman to cross the finish line, Desiree (Desi) Linden, lives in Michigan. (If you think our winter in Atlanta has been cold, talk to a Michigander.) The second woman to cross, Sarah Sellers (who basically was a no name in the running world until April 16), is a nurse anesthetist in Tucson, Arizona. Given her schedule, she had to begin her double-digit-mileage training runs at 4 am before work or at 7 pm after a 10-hour shift at the hospital.

Marathon training in ideal conditions involves suffering. But when having to train in snow and frigid temperatures in the dead of winter, or when having to train well before sunrise or well after sunset, before or after being on your feet all day for work? That’s suffering on top of suffering.

Yet what better preparation for race day – and ultimately for victory?

When the forecast on the day of the Boston Marathon called for gale-force winds and freezing rain, they were ready – because they’d been there. They knew what it was to suffer. As a result, when the real test came, they could handle whatever the race required.

There’s a reason Scripture often compares our life with Christ to a race – and I would add that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Like many of us, I’m good at staying the course when conditions are favorable. When life becomes a tough climb, I may whine or complain some. Add a little rain to that uphill battle, and I might begin sending out invitations to a pity party.

Some of us have said that April has been a hard month for our congregation. We’ve experienced several deaths and cancer diagnoses. Others have said it’s not just the past month. The past year has been hard. Two pastoral transitions, financial challenges, and more. Nevertheless, we’ve stayed the course. We’ve endured. We’ve persevered. We’ve trusted that, in the words of Romans 8:38-39 that our youth shared with us on Youth Sunday, nothing can separate us from the love of God. If God is for us, who or what can be against us?

And I intentionally use the pronoun “we” – because there’s another factor that gave Linden the edge.

Race commentators were surprised when favorite Shalane Flanagan stopped at a porta potty. They were even more surprised when Linden stopped to wait for her. Linden could have seen Flanagan’s pit stop as a chance to get ahead of her competitor. Instead, she saw it as a chance to help her teammate.

According to sports psychologists, Linden’s willingness to support Flanagan and other American runners and get them back on pace allowed her to take her focus off her own pain and suffering and re-direct her energy toward the goal. In Linden’s words, “when you work together, you never know what’s going to happen.”

When going through a difficult season, it might be tempting to do whatever is needed to take care of myself and make sure I come through it ok. Especially in those times, Scripture calls us to a larger vision. When we look beyond ourselves and focus on those around us, when we remember who we are and whose we are, what amazing victory might Jesus accomplish through us together?

….and no offense to Desi, but I’m pretty sure that victory far exceeds the one she received in Boston.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

-Romans 5:1-5

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