I went horseback riding for the third time in my life a few weekends ago. Unlike the first two times, this time I wasn’t atop a horse that was following another horse, which was following a few other horses, which were ultimately following a lead horse. It was just me and the horse in a rather large corral (if that’s the right term). I essentially got to control where and how fast the horse traveled.
Early on during my little ride, I struggled to control the horse. I had a hard time getting him to travel straight. I initially steered him to the left toward the edge of the fencing. As I saw us getting a little too close, I steered him to the right. But that ended up being too much so I went back to the left.
I went through a good three or four rounds of that before I realized what was wrong. I was holding the reigns a little too tight. I had choked up on them too much so that each time I directed the horse to the left or to the right, he was going way left and way right. I didn’t understand just how sensitive the horse was to subtle directions.
I wouldn’t say I held the reigns too close and tight because I was anxious about my first independent ride; I was more so just inexperienced. On my previous two rides, I hardly had to hold the reigns at all because the horse just followed whatever horse was in front of it. This was a different experience. The horse was pretty well behaved (unlike the other one available that day), but it still required a bit of getting used to.
I’ve been thinking about that lately because I see a parallel or two in my walk with God. I think I’ve been holding on too tightly. Looking back, I see a lot of striving and performing in my life this last year or so. That isn’t to say I haven’t experienced exceptional growth in my relationship with God over the same span, because I certainly have. But I feel that I’ve not taken the shortest distance between two points to arrive at the destination God has for me. I’ve strove a bit to the left, performed some to the right, tried real hard again to the left and then got all frustrated and yanked back again to the right.
I feel like striving, performing, perpetually trying harder and yanking are all signs of immaturity and insecurity. I understand that there’s a fine line, because sitting idle and having no work to show for your faith is immature, too. Actually, it’s sin. And I also know that God is certainly okay with trying and failing. But I believe that with a mature faith in God and the work of Christ on the cross comes an ease and confidence that empowers people to live effective and impactful Kingdom lives without beating the air all the time.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24-26:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air.
As one who recently completed a 1/2 marathon, I’m familiar with what it means to train for a race. I suppose I don’t know what it means to train with the intention of actually winning a 1/2 marathon, but I do know a bit about training. And while it’s probably harder to do so than undertraining, you certainly don’t want to overtrain. You run too hard or too long too early and you’ll injure yourself and be out for weeks.
A few weeks ago, God dropped the word “temperate” into my spirit and I just now understand why. Paul says “everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things.” Traditionally, I had looked at that verse (which is also translated “exercises self-control in all things”, “conducts himself temperately and restricts himself in all things”, “disciplined in their training”) and thought that it meant that you should restrict all the “bad” stuff from your life. Elite athletes obviously follow very strict diets. They sometimes give up recreational sports lest they suffer freak injuries. They don’t have loads of free time to burn; they live their sport.
But they also need crazy amounts of rest–more than the average person. I didn’t follow this rule, but they say when you’re training for a distance run like a 1/2 or full marathon, you should sleep an extra hour or two a night. So, in a given training day, you not only loose an hour or two running, you also loose another hour or two sleeping. Training isn’t all about killing yourself. It’s also about resting.
An article I read on RunnersWorld.com when preparing for my recent 1/2 marathon was titled “Slow Down to Speed Up: The key to running faster? Lots of slower miles.” It reported the results of studying eight national- and regional-level runners from Spain as they prepared for the Spanish cross-country championships.
As a group, the runners spent 71 percent of their time training at low intensities. In comparison, they only spent 21 percent of their time at moderate intensity, and eight percent at high intensity. When it came time to lace up the spikes and race, the runners who had logged the most time training in the low-intensity zone fared the best.
When I trained for my first half-marathon, I had a hard time restraining myself from running faster than I was supposed to on my “long runs.” My program gave me target paces to run at to prepare me to beat my goal. And most of the time, they were slower than I was accustomed to running. I didn’t understand the point of training at a considerably slower pace than I’d run the race. The way I figured, the more hard, push-myself-to-the-limit miles I ran, the better. Little did I know there was a point to all those slower miles.
So, all that to say, when Paul says “temperate in all things,” I think he truly means all things–not just things we’d qualify as “bad.” Temperate means: “marked by moderation; keeping or held within limits; not extreme or excessive.” There’s a time to push to the edge, strive and try harder, but it isn’t all the time. As Solomon says, there’s a time for everything.
I think Jesus was the most temperate person ever. Sure, he was extreme in many ways; sure, he had his moments of rage and passion; sure, he snapped at people. But he was also restrained. He wasn’t frantic and he didn’t panic. He operated in certainty and he didn’t beat the air. He prayed simple prayers and they worked.
Can you imagine the pressure, as a blood, sweat and tears human being, Jesus must have been under being the long-promised messiah of his people? The pressure to fulfill needs and meet expectations? The pressure to “answer his call”? How daunting it must have felt as he started digesting all the prophecies he’d fulfill in his lifetime? Surely, during his 20’s, he must have been tempted to think “I better get going on this! I have a lot of work to do!”
But yet, with little detail, we know that he was content to remain in submission to his parents, “growing in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52), until the appointed time. He waited until he himself heard “the voice crying in the wilderness.” He wasn’t about to get things started prematurely (unlike Saul in 1 Sam. 15:1-15).
And even when John the Baptist appeared on the scene, he wasn’t frantic to get things rolling. Luke 3:15 says “the people were in expectation” for Jesus’ arrival. Yet, he didn’t feel pressured to run out and meet that expectation. Luke goes on to say “When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized.” “It came to pass”?!? Can’t you just see Jesus, the answer to their centuries-long prayers, just mozying into the wilderness, finding John, and getting baptized, much ado about nothing?
I believe Jesus was capable of such temperance, such confidence, such ease, because of the assurance He had of his Father’s love and approval. I’m aware of no miracles Jesus performed prior to his baptism, where God poured out His Holy Spirit upon Jesus and spoke the most powerful words a father can say to his child: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life” (Mark 1:11, MSG). The Father was bursting with pride (or brimming with joy or “well pleased,” depending on the translation) simply because Jesus was His son, not because he was about to endure 40 days of temptation, cast out a demon, heal a cripple, teach in the synagogue and eventually rescue humanity from its fallen state.
And I don’t think this was a new revelation to Jesus. I think what kept him doing only what he saw the Father doing and saying only what he heard the Father saying before his baptism was the same thing that led him to the cross: deep intimacy with the Father. Jesus was obsessed with his Father’s will because he knew the bliss of true intimacy with the Father and never wanted to experience life outside His deep affections. He didn’t do the Father’s will out of duty or obligation; he did it out of desire and passion. It was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross.
We know that out of one’s heart, the mouth speaks. John records Jesus’ referring to “the Father” 48 times in chapters 14-17, his last time teaching the disciples before Calvary. That’s once every 2.5 verses. That’s a pretty thick concentration. The Father was on Jesus’ mind.
And that’s the reality I want to experience: I want to be obsessed with the Father. Because I know that when that’s a reality, that will mean I’ve encountered the Father’s love in an utterly irresistible way. And that love will have empowered me to live more confidently, boldly and temperately.
I just want to know Him more. I really do. I know there’s deeper places to go in Him. I know there’s more freedom to experience as my revelation of His love for me grows deeper. And I know that I need that freedom am I ever going to do any significant Kingdom work. I’m just finding I’ve maybe pursued that freedom the wrong way: by striving for it, performing for it, trying harder for it. Doesn’t work. Ever try real hard to fall asleep? That doesn’t work either.
It’s time to ease up on the reins a bit.