The Summer Olympic Games of 1964 were held in Tokyo, Japan, a country that at that time was still trying to recover from the effects of World War 2. Many nations were represented, including Sri Lanka, in whose contingent was long-distance runner Ranatunga Karunananda.
Karunananda would run the 10,000-meter race; 25 laps in all. The race was won by Billy Mills of the USA, and when Mills passed the finish line, Karunananda was still 4 laps behind. It is said that he was unwell on the day of the race. The spectators expected him to quit at some point, but Karunananda kept running.
As he kept running alone, people began to laugh at him. But he still kept running.
When the spectators eventually realized that this unknown athlete was determined to finish the race, the jeers slowly turned to admiration and applause slowly began to rise. As he started on the final lap, the applause grew louder as the crowd, inspired by his perseverance, encouraged him to complete the race.
Cheers and applause erupted as the exhausted athlete eventually finished the race.
When interviewed after the race, Karunananda said, “The Olympic spirit is not to win, but to take part. I completed my rounds.” This story captured the imagination and the heart of the Japanese public so vividly that it eventually found its way into Japanese Elementary School textbooks!
Today, many Christian leaders and pastors are quitting the race and their ministries before they reach the finish line.
Discouragement, trials, moral failures, criticism, and insults all add to the problem. The numbers giving up at present are worrying, as reflected in many articles I’ve read.
In 2 Timothy 4, Paul writes to Timothy,“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7) How could an elderly man, imprisoned in a cold, damp, and lonely cell, make such a powerful statement? As we read through 2 Timothy (and especially chapter 4), we can note these following 5 steps that helped Paul finish the race well:
1. Remain totally focused on the Call given to you by God.
“This man (Paul) is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles…” (Acts 9:15)
Paul’s call was primarily to take the message of the Gospel to the Gentiles and he fulfilled that call perfectly. In Acts 26:19, he informed King Agrippa, “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.”
Beatings, threats, imprisonment, and other dangers could not stop Paul from fulfilling his call. He was totally focused on the vision God gave him. Therefore, as his journey neared its end, He could say,“But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and ALL the Gentiles might hear it.” (2 Timothy 4:17)
Pastors and leaders today, too, need to remain totally focused on the call God has given and be determined to complete the race. Is that call still clear in your heart or have you lost sight of what God called you to? Staying totally focused on the vision given by the Lord, even when the finish line seems beyond your reach at times, will help you finish the race well.
Mother Theresa felt that her call was to minister to people who were poor, helpless, downtrodden, and unloved. She stayed focused to that call right through her life. I once read an article about her based around the time man set foot on the moon in 1969. Apparently, some of the nuns with her had asked whether she would like to travel to the moon one day.
Her reply was powerful. She said that if there were unloved, uncared for, destitute, and needy people on the moon, she would definitely want to go there! That’s a beautiful picture of staying focused to one’s call.
2. Resolve to endure hardship.
“Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 2:3)
As we run towards the finish line, many hardships will come our way. There will be unexpected bumps and obstacles on the road. They can come in the form of trials, temptations, health issues, family issues, and persecution, besides others. In 2 Timothy 2:4-6, Paul uses the imagery of soldiers, athletes, and farmers who toil hard and battle through many hardships to succeed. He further advises Timothy, “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship...”(2 Timothy 4:5)
Sadly, it’s very easy to respond to hardship with a complaining or grumbling spirit, or to simply give up. What about us? Have we allowed hardships to make us weary and even consider quitting the race? Let’s resolve to endure hardship as encouraged by Paul.
Pastor Tony Evans says, “During times of trial, instead of complaining, give thanks. Sing hymns of praise and watch the prison bars open.”
Besides the many trials Paul faced right through his ministry, he was also facing the following serious hardships at the present time.
- Being imprisoned (2 Timothy 1:8)
- Being chained like a criminal (2 Timothy 2:9)
- Being abandoned (2 Timothy 4:10, 2 Timothy 4:16)
- Facing execution (2 Timothy 4:6)
Yet, he was determined to finish the race well. He still trusted God to deliver him and to take him safely to his eternal destination (2 Timothy 4:18). No hardship could therefore stop him from reaching the finish line (Philippians 3:14).
3. Surround yourself with the right friends.
“Get Mark and bring him with you,…” (2 Timothy 4:11)
2 Timothy 4:11 shows us that at this difficult time, Paul had Luke with him as a friend and encourager. He also requested Timothy and Mark to join him during his final days on earth. These were some of his disciples that would carry the torch to the next generation.
However, Paul needed their support and encouragement in the present circumstances, to help him cross the finish line. In fact, right through his ministry, he always had such friends around him; friends like Barnabas (Acts 13:2), Silas (Acts 15:40), and Onesimus (Colossians 4:9).
Similarly, all leaders need to consider having a support group of friends that they can interact and pray with, and through whom they can also receive encouragement, and even correction when necessary. Some term this an ‘accountability group’.
Whatever term you may use, you need such friends to stand with you when you face discouragement through trials, and even more, to help you through times of temptation. I personally have a group of friends who over the years have been more than friends to me. In fact, they have been spiritual counselors that I could go to anytime I needed encouragement, guidance, and prayer.
What a blessing those friendships have been to help me run the race without giving up.
“When we run alone, we run fast. When we run together, we run far.” (African Proverb)
4. Refuse to be controlled by bitterness.
Right through his ministry, many enemies like Alexander rose against Paul (2Timothy 4:14), some of them being people he had ministered to, or with. Others like Demas (2 Timothy 4:10) had deserted him at this crucial hour. He says, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me…”(2 Timothy 4:16)
However, in the same verse Paul graciously says, “…May it not be held against them.” Paul refused to allow bitterness to take hold of his heart. He placed his enemies and those who betrayed him in the hands of God, the righteous Judge.
Bitterness can easily derail you on your journey for you will then be serving God more out of our hurt than through His love. Bitterness, if left unchecked, can poison your words and actions.
Refuse to allow bitterness to control you and follow the example of our Savior who forgave those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34). Maybe it’s time to delete that email or sms, hastily typed in anger.
Maybe it’s time to humble yourself and seek to heal a severed relationship.
Maybe it’s time to forgive a wrong done to you or to release someone from a long-standing debt.
Bitterness will only hinder your progress towards the finish line.
5. Keep mentoring others.
Not only was Paul still serving God as his life’s journey was drawing to a close, he was also mentoring and releasing others to carry the Gospel.
We see this throughout his ministry. In 2 Timothy 4, when we consider that some of those he had mentored were in places like Corinth (Erastus), Galatia (Crescens), Dalmatia (Titus), Ephesus (Tychicus), and Miletus (Trophimus), it is highly likely that they were carrying the Gospel to those cities in Paul’s absence. (With reference to Crescens and Titus, the New International Bible Commentary says, “Crescens and Titus, Paul has, in all probability, selflessly dispatched on missionary work…”)
Paul also remained a mentor to Timothy, Luke, Mark, and many others. He exhorted Timothy “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; …do the work of an evangelist, discharge ALL the duties of your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:2, 2 Timothy 4:5)
Mentoring and releasing the next generation will help you stay focused on your own finish line and help to ensure that the work will be carried on when you finish your race. It will strengthen you to end the race well!
It is believed that the elderly Paul was eventually sentenced to death by the arrogant, young Emperor Nero. As we compare how they both faced their end, we see a striking difference.
While it is believed that the cowardly Nero committed suicide at the age of 30, Paul, facing an unjust execution, could triumphantly say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” The New International Bible Commentary says, ‘Morbid thoughts or distressing fears are entirely absent as Paul confidently speaks of his death using imagery both glad and triumphant.”
What a great finish by an amazing servant of God!
Surely, he would have heard the loving voice of his Savior saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your Master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:23)
Palitha Jayasooriya is an Executive/Preaching Pastor at the 4000+ strong People's Church in Sri Lanka. He also counts over 20 years of experience as a Radio Broadcaster with the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. Palitha is married to Regina and is the father of two sons, Sheriah and Sheramiah. His favorite pastimes are serving God, spending time with his family, and listening to the radio.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc.