Running Toward Christ

I’m almost there. At least that’s what I keep trying to tell myself. But it doesn’t seem to help. The back of the person I’m closely tailing seems to be the only thing stringing me along, because my own strength is wavering. This feeling has become all too familiar lately. As a runner, how can it not be? As my energy starts to ebb away even more quickly, I look around for any sign of hope I can use to keep me going, and I find it immediately. Lining the fence parallel to the track are dozens of spectators: teammates and friends, cheering and screaming my name and egging me on to pass the single runner in front of me and take first place. And all of a sudden I’m in a completely different race. I pick up my stride, begin to drive my arms, and start to close the ten-meter gap on the person ahead of me. I tap into an extra reserve of energy I didn’t even know I had. All I know is that I have now closed the distance to about a half-stride’s length and that the race is almost over. I am vaguely aware of a crescendoing cacophony of cheers all around, because the two of us were level with a hundred meters left to run. At this point, I’m gritting my teeth and pumping my arms even more fiercely than before, and the sound of the bellowing crowd is all I can hear. It’s this moment that every runner knows too well: when you’re flying down the homestretch and trying your hardest to keep your form and stay strong. Because despite its insignificance in the grand scheme of everything, this race seems to be the only thing that matters during those few tense moments when you’ve got the finish line in your sights.

Running has shaped what I believe is my role as a Christian in this world. Not only has it taught me how to put my faith in God as I strive for success in races, but it also has helped me realize the importance of serving others. Having been raised in the church, I have always known this concept of servanthood was crucial to the Christian life. Every week in Sunday school, my teachers told me to put others before myself. Yet sometimes these kinds of lessons don’t fully sink in until later when they reveal themselves at certain, unexpected points in life. That’s how life seems to work—at least for me. And as I came to later realize, that’s also sometimes how God reveals Himself to us.

The question of my role as a servant in God’s heavenly kingdom was one with which I grappled for quite some time, and one which I am still uncovering. And although many people have been helpful in sharing their insights on this matter, a few have given me exceptionally eye-opening advice. One of those people is my father. He was driving me home after a frustrating day of middle school and we were discussing the thoughts with which I was struggling at the moment. Even then I was going through a bit of an identity crisis. Just like many other young teens, one of my main goals was to be validated by my peers. My father gave me a single piece of advice that he had been telling himself his entire life. He said: “Be yourself, build meaningful relationships, and pass everything you know to your children.” But since I was only thirteen at the time, he altered the last bit to say, “Leave this place better than it was before you got here.” It was toward this direction that my father desired I steer my faith life: to do good and have a positive impact on the world in the name of God. I appreciated this piece of advice from my father, but I didn’t see how any of it would help me land a seat at the popular table during lunch. At the time, I didn’t believe my father’s words to be particularly profound or relevant. However, as I said before, some lessons only sink in and reveal their meaning in unexpected moments, often when you need them the most.

That moment came not too long ago, at a running camp where I briefly volunteered this past summer. This program was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn life lessons from a host of inspiring speakers. Over the course of the week we heard from past Olympians and coaches who gave their unique takes on how running was so closely intertwined with their lives. But it was on the penultimate day of camp when I heard what made my father’s words click. One man shared: “I involve myself in the sport not so much for myself, but to serve others.” He went on to speak about how he had trained for the Olympics on behalf of his loved ones, his coaches, and his fans. He also mentioned the charitable contributions he had made to improve public school education in impoverished areas. Finally, he told us about the critics he encountered when he decided to become a professional runner and take a shot at the Olympic Trials. His response to them was simple: “When you have a big enough ‘why,’ you can push all the ‘whats’ off the table.”

That was it! Suddenly, my father’s words came rushing back: “Leave this place better than it was before you got here.” There was my ‘why’: I run to serve others. I can say I have been of service to others when I glorify God and inspire those around me through my athletic efforts. But running is not the only way—it is just one of the many aspects of my life that I try to channel for the good of others and as worship unto God. As a Christian, my direct role is to be a servant to others by acting through Jesus Christ. Luke 6:38 states, “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” Faith should mobilize us into action. We shouldn’t wait for goodness to present itself, just like we shouldn’t simply pray that God mend our lives while we sit idly by and take no action to help ourselves. One of my ‘whats’ is my commitment as an athlete to being a runner, but it needn’t be that for everyone. Your ‘what’ need not even be an activity that directly focuses on service—it should be something about which you are passionate. As 1 Peter 4:10 instructs, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

This servant attitude is what I think lots of other athletes who exalt God have already discovered. I’d like to think that this is not because they’re simply going through the motions, but because they’ve truly figured out that the purpose of their achievements is in their acts of service, whether it be directly mobilizing change through acts of charity or inspiring others to succeed. This is their ‘why,’ the reason that these individuals keep going—to live for others in the Lord’s name.

I consider myself blessed to have had so many people throughout my life whom I have been able to touch through my actions. I have been a servant of my church and my school through the community work I have done, just as I am a servant unto my family and friends in the kindness and honesty I always try to display. And in turn, I am a servant unto the Lord.

If you’d like to know, I ended up losing the race that I mentioned earlier. But it’s okay, because I was not running for my own affirmation. I had learned to examine my motives for doing anything, whether it be sports or writing or anything else, and to always challenge myself to make sure that everything I do is a form of service unto others and God. Reminding myself of the words of the Olympic runner and the advice from my father helps me stay focused on others instead of myself. Only when I put others first can I leave a better mark on this world in the name of Jesus Christ.

 

Johanan Sowah (SEAS’17) is an enthusiastic and motivated young individual who loves to talk to people and travel to new places. A lifelong believer in Christ and a staunch supporter of Arsenal Football Club, he can often be found doing anything outdoorsy. Outside of schoolwork and writing, he enjoys being an NCAA Division I Track runner and engaging with Chopin and Bach on his Baby Grand.  

Running Toward ChristImage: Beautiful Things by Sam Gutierrez, Swarthmore Peripateo, Spring 2013.

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