You ever notice something you love becoming more difficult than you remembered? Dull? Difficult? Recently, I was discovering that sort of difficulty in my oft-documented love/hate relationship with running. (Yep. Sorry. Another blog post with a running metaphor. I’ll find a new one to use and abuse soon. I promise.)
I was just in a rut. Every time I would run, it was going okay. I’d have the occasional crappy run, but for the most part, I was chugging along. I just wasn’t finding any life out of it. I tried to switch up my location. I bought a new pair of shoes. I changed my running playlist on my phone. Those things helped a little. But I was still struggling.
Then something great happened. I hurt my knee. (Yes, you read that correctly.) For whatever reason, when I get a new pair of running shoes, about two weeks in my knees always start to hurt pretty badly. In typical Wes fashion, I started to freak out. Torn MCL? ACL? Knee replacement? Certainly surgery would be in my future. I’d probably never be allowed to run again. But also in typical Wes fashion, I was wrong. A week later, my knee was feeling a little better and I started to run again.
Now, being the cautious individual I am, I started to work back in slowly. Instead of beginning with a full, 40 minute run, I’d ease back in with a nice 10 minute one. That would be followed with a 20. Then a 25 the next day. Then a 30 and a 35 to finish out the week. But I didn’t just switch up my time. I also decided to run at (gasp!) a slower pace. Instead of my normal 7.2mph pace (which, quite honestly, was exhausting), I slowed it to 6.7mph. I liked it so much, I actually just ended up leaving it there.
Here’s what I discovered: a slightly slower pace was way more sustainable. Though it was only a measly .5mph, it made a big difference. I was discovering that as I would draw to the end of my runs, I’d feel great. Normally I would be so overtired and sore by the end that I’d just feel terrible. But that slight change in pace left me feeling almost refreshed! Able to keep going! As I finally made a full recovery from my knee injury, I discovered that I was actually able to set some new personal bests. One Sunday after church I ran for 45 minutes and set a new record of 5.3 miles. I did another 5 mile run after work one day at the gym. A small pacing change literally changed everything.
Now I’m starting training for a 15k or 10 mile race. My natural personality says that you just keep running more and more every day until you hit your goal. But people who actually know stuff about training for running know that the key is actually to do 3 or 4 runs a week. Most of your runs are short 3-4 mile ones. And then once a week, you have a long run that typically gets a mile longer with each passing week. As I’ve begun to train with this model, I’ve actually discovered that I’m able to run farther than I ever thought. Again, it’s all thanks to pacing.
Now, while I’m sure you’re all incredibly fascinated to hear about my running practices, I think there’s a spiritual principle in here too. Running a spiritual race (see Hebrews 12:1-3) requires us to pace. As a progress-oriented person, I want to keep pushing and pushing myself. Last week I prayed for one hour… now I need to pray for fifty! Last week I read 10 chapters of the Bible… now I need to read 100! Please hear me… we need to push ourselves spiritually. It’s a continual growth and development process that needs to take place in us. But I was trying to be this Navy SEAL Christian, and it just wasn’t working. Intense is great and growing for a season. But chances are that for most of us, it’s not where we can live in any sort of sustainable way.
Maybe it’s just me, but here’s what I discovered myself doing: I’d keep pushing myself to do more and more and more, and then eventually fail. And I wouldn’t just fail in a “kinda, sorta” way. I’d fail big. Just totally unplug. And then I’d feel guilty and beat myself up about it. It’s no wonder why I’d fail… I was exhausted. I’d find myself running at an unsustainable pace. And not only would that seem to take the life out of my spiritual life in the moment, but it would almost deter me from trying again in the future. I was just burning myself out.
In Matthew 11:28, Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people that had no doubt been burnt out on religion. For years, their religious leaders had been placing on them command after command, law after law. It was all well-intentioned; they were trying to help people grow spiritually and honor God. That’s very good and noble. But it was wearing the people out. It was a crushing load for them to bear. And into this context, Jesus speaks sweet, life-giving words: “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (NIV). I love the way that a guy named Clay Scroggins put it: If my relationship with Jesus is something that is sucking life out of me instead of giving life to my soul, I’m doing it wrong.
I’m discovering the need to pace myself spiritually. Incorporating daily time is important. That’s the consistent, base-level. That’s the 3-4 mile run 2-3 times a week. But we also have a need to grow and challenge ourselves. Those are the times we get away and retreat for a weekend. When we might decide to fast about something. When we decide to really intensely seek God for a season in a way that we don’t normally. Those are the “long runs.” They train us. Shape us. Grow us. Stretch us.
I’m discovering that those are the rhythms that pace me well. They shape me and help me to grow, and they also don’t burn me out and suck the life out of my faith. And that’s important, because the Christian life isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. Burning bright for a season doesn’t make much of a difference if that means we’ll still be quitting the race later on. I don’t know what the right pacing is for you, but if you’re like me, I want to offer the encouragement that if our spiritual rhythms are sucking the life out of us, we probably aren’t pacing ourselves correctly. Maybe it’s time to step back, re-evaluate, and set a new pace heading forward that helps us to connect to our loving heavenly Father in a way that helps us to experience his grace in the greatest way possible.
How about you? Have you seen this to be true? How do you pace yourself spiritually?