A few years ago when news services blitzed social media with an image of a heavily clothed young man running down a paved path, the world was introduced to Leroy Stolzfus.
Stolzfus, dressed in traditional Amish attire with a race number pinned to his shirt, confounded the world by running a 26.2-mile marathon course in work shoes, long pants, long-sleeved shirt, and suspenders.. Amazement notwithstanding that the 22-year old Amish man was able to complete the course, he did so by logging a noteworthy 3 hours and 5 minutes time, shaving 5 minutes off his previous PR!
It makes you wonder what his final time would be if he laid aside the cumbersome running clothes. He says the heavy attire didn’t hold him back, but I can’t imagine how it didn’t slowed him down, impeding him in his race.
This is just the picture we need to help us flesh out Hebrews 12:1-2:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and 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.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done any running, but I do remember that I needed pretty compelling motivation to get me out the door, propel my steps forward, and entice me to the finish line. Overwhelmingly rigorous self-discipline characterizes the lifestyle of a runner preparing for a race. It calls for a determination not to slack off on the physical training and mental strategies that will culminate in a successful run and a satisfactory finish.
For the Christian running the spiritual race, as described in Hebrews, there is a glorious prize awaiting at the end of the course: Jesus. This “whole-hearted endeavor,” says Arthur W Pink, writing in An Exposition of Hebrews*, “call[s] into action . . . every spiritual faculty possessed by the new man.” All the training, self-denial, and rigor of time-consuming practice is worth it. All the exertion, the ache in the muscles, and the constriction of the lungs is forgotten as the glory of heaven comes into view, as the runner casts his eyes toward the end of the race, “looking to Jesus.”
Do you yearn for the finish line? Is the prize of Christ attractive to you? How hungry are you for the victory banquet that honors Jesus and celebrates His glory?
Is it enough to lay aside every weight and sin?
We expect the biblical writer to exhort us to lay aside sin. Why would we encumber ourselves with obstacles that obscure the way and bog us down? We know the Divine Race Trainer has a running regimen for us: The way to plot the best course, the best speed, the straightest path, is to rid yourself of sin. It won’t be easy; it will cling to you, beset you, refuse to be dismissed so easily. Sin will whisper in your ear and try to convince you that these hindrances are merely weaknesses, that you’re entitled to them because you’ve worked so hard at obedience, that everybody makes mistakes and nobody can be perfect.
Do not be deceived. God’s holy and righteous commands are not mere suggestions, and sin is not simply unsightly blemishes or cringey failures. Sin wars against the soul (1 Peter 2:11), and the flesh and mind provide sin with an ample killing field when we minimize its deadliness and danger. Running with sin clinging to us, slowing us down at every step, is a sure way to lose this spiritual race. A coach would be suspicious about a runner who takes to a race with burdens on his back and wonder whether he really wants to complete the course at all. He’d bark sober warnings to his runner similar to those in Hebrews to “take care” (3:12), “let us fear” (4:1), and examine ourselves “today” (4:7).
What we don’t expect is how urgently the writer to the Hebrews exhorts us to “lay aside every weight.” He writes, “weights and sins.” It could be a repetition of the same, but it’s more likely he considers a weight to be a different matter than a sin. What would be not as bad as a sin but bad enough to lay aside for this endeavor? Things that I feel are slowing me down in my race? Things that would make my race easier if they were eliminated?
I am all ready to throw off weights that make me feel less like Christ or that work against my goals of attaining my best life now. I nod my head at the popular meme, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” and sympathize with other popular maxims:
Life is too short to spend time with people who suck the happiness out of you.
When you delete the unnecessary people from your life, good things will start happening for you.
You can’t expect to live a positive life around negative people.
Surely the writer of Hebrews doesn’t want me to be burdened in my ministry by putting up with all the negative people in my life?
But there is nothing in scripture about divesting myself of duties or people.
An inadequate understanding of sin is one side of the slope which could slip us up when we try to manage these weights on our own. Legalism is the other.
A while ago I was reminded of this process of de-weighting ourselves spiritually when I noticed that my niece was posting pictures of her car and her TV on social media, looking for buyers. When I asked her what her plans were, she said that she had bought both when she was flush with income from a good job, but now that her employment situation had changed, she felt she needed to pass them on. Her new position was a good job, too, but “good” in a different way, one in ministry that fed her soul, brought her closer to the Lord, and helped her stay on the race of life. She found the car payments and the cable subscriptions were hindrances to her attention to her mission work, and so she laid them aside.
There was nothing evil or wicked about Holly’s car or her TV. Neither is there anything sinful about many of the things which weigh us down in our spiritual lives—sports, hobbies, entertainment, accomplishments, family, friends. The list could go on, but be not devoted to merely making lists and checking them off. This is a misplaced confidence in external matters. The rich young ruler was adept at checking off the rules on the list that he kept faithfully and very publicly. But the inclinations of the heart are where the Lord rebuked him in the end. (Matthew 19:16-30)
It is not in the elimination of the TV that Holly’s heart is more focused on the race, but in the elimination of an idol. The weights being spoken of here in Hebrews are in the heart, things that we are, as Pink says, “at liberty to cast aside, but which instead we choose to retain.”
Interestingly, when Leroy Stolzfus was interviewed about how his racing gig began, he candidly admitted that he “got ‘involved with some stuff’ he said he shouldn’t have. His brother-in-law suggested he start running instead when he was tempted. He took the suggestion to heart, and went out for a run.”
“I ran between two and three miles, and I thought ‘Wow, this is hard,’” he said. But he stuck with it.
In order to lay aside the sin that was clinging to him, Leroy Stolzfus took on the strenuous and rigorous discipline of running. He got on the course because of the putrid, cloying stench of sin in his life. We join the race when we despise the sin that killed our Lord, and we stay on the course when we throw off the weights that blur our vision of the finish line.
Pink asserts that not only should we shake off all that hinders us, sins and weights alike, but that when we dither about the insignificance of this behavior, or the mildness of that temptation, or the unintended negligence toward that duty, we are trifling with semantics. This “wrong attitude of mind” weighs down the sinfulness and
retards our progress, anything which unfits us for the discharge of our God-ordained duties, anything which dulls the conscience, blunts the edge of our spiritual appetite, or chokes the spirit of prayer. The “cares of this world” weigh down the soul just as effectually as does a greedy grasping after things of earth.*
Weights are things which “mar communion with Christ,” and we enter into communion with our Savior through contentment and obedience. As tempted as I may be to get rid of unpleasant people, projects or situations, they are often the very thing that I need to learn contentment and obedience and to progress in holiness.
Opposition in the home from ungodly relatives, trials in connection with . . . daily work, the immediate presence of the wicked in the shop or office, are a real trial (and God intends they should be — to remind us we are still in a world which lieth in the Wicked one, to exercise our graces, to prove the sufficiency of His strength), but they need not be hindrances or “weights.” Many erroneously suppose they would make much more progress spiritually if only their “circumstances” were altered. This is a serious mistake and a murmuring against God’s providential dealings with us. He shapes our “circumstances” as a helpful discipline to the soul, and only as we learn to rise above “circumstances,” and walk with God in them, are we “running the race that is set before us.” The person is the same no matter what “circumstances” he may be in!*
Being accurate in my tax filings because I am told to render unto Caesar all things that are Caesar’s is a duty and not a weight to excuse myself from because I don’t support how Caesar apportions the money. This is God shaping my circumstances to delight in his providential dealings. Conversely, when I am anticipating a family gathering and determining not to waste my time with those who provoke or annoy me, I am denying the means the Lord has provided to help me run my race.
What a merciful Trainer He is! His strategies and tips and exercises are sufficient for the day. Sometimes they are grueling, sometimes they are tedious—and I am never more certain that I am in the race than on those days that I discover “new” weights that previously never hindered me. It means my conscience has become more sensitive to those things which are holding me back from a straighter path, a speedier arrival at the finish line. Sometimes I achieve my PR for this leg. Sometimes I struggle, and I need the promises of Jesus and the hope of his resurrection to keep me on the path, moving forward, knowing that somewhere up ahead is the completion of this journey.
Jesus provides the strength and grace to carry on. He has traversed this course ahead of me and crossed beyond the veil. He has endured the crushing pain of sin and death. The loss, which would have banished me to eternal damnation forever, was temporal for him: He was the first to rise from the ashes of shame and defeat to sit in majesty in the celestial realm, bringing the whole pack of glory-bound runners across the line, perfecting and completing for me, on my behalf, this earth-to-heaven race.
No runner quits just because he’s reached a better time or run an improved race. The end is promised to the one who perseveres. Tomorrow’s always another day, another leg along the race. Lay aside these weights that impede your obedience to the course and look to your glorious finish in Jesus.