By, Sara Hall
One of the themes Ryan and I hear most in messages from other runners, and especially recently, is ‘how does your faith in Christ affect your running?” As much as we would love to respond to each individually, our life is rather limiting and I thought a blog would be a good opportunity to address the topic. I by no means have this all figured out so please do not see me as being up on a soapbox, but I do love to share the things I have learned so we can learn from each other.
** Warning: This blog is long and there are no fun pictures, so I won’t be offended if you don’t read on! **
My faith in God began at a young age, but just as with any relationship with a person it has grown and evolved in depth. Thus, how it has affected my approach to running has also evolved. As a high schooler first entering the sport I had a deep desire to use my running to bring God pleasure, but I didn’t always know how to do that. I knew part of it had to do with my heart, how I was holding running. It also had to do with who received the credit, or “glory”, for whatever success came.
But 16 years of walking this out with God, through the ups and downs of my career, has evolved my perspective on what it means to follow Christ while having running be such a large part of my life. I have by no means arrived when it comes to this subject and likely 16 more years from now I will look back on this time with different perspectives, but this is where I am at personally in my journey so far and I hope that God will highlight to you the things that resonate with your spirit!
** Before I go any further, let’s start with the basics: God designed all of us to be his children and live in an intimate relationship with Him, but when the first humans chose to sin and it entered the world, we lost that perfect connection with Him. So he sent his son, Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life on earth and be the perfect sacrifice for all past and future sins to make things right again between humanity and God. He showed us how to live a perfect life, which is only possible through His spirit that he left here to help us when we choose to put our faith in Him. Trusting in Jesus means believing He is God, He lived and died and paid the price for all of our sins, and giving him your life. That’s where following Him begins, by speaking to him and listening to His voice, reading the words he speaks in the Bible and following the way he lived, and worshipping Him with your whole life. He made us all unique, with different gifts and passions, including athletics, and He delights so much in seeing us live these out, and ultimately he wants all these things to lead us back to connection with Him. He wants to live with us forever in Heaven, starting right now on Earth, and through him is the only way to live the life that your heart longs for because He created your heart that way!
Where is your treasure?
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” Matthew 6:21
I absolutely believe that God doesn’t want all of us to just sit around and sing songs to him all day, that part of our worship can be going after things, to have goals and ambitions and pursue things that he puts in our hearts at the highest level. However, how you hold these in your heart makes all the difference in whether that goal is an idol (something you worship and bow down to), or whether refuse to worship anything but God. Everything else will fail you at some point, but God is the only prize worth living for that will never fail you.
A good heart check for me came when my pastor Kris Valloton said “an idol is anything that you have to check at the door before following what God tells you to do”. Following Jesus means giving him all of us, and if He tells us to lay something down for a season of life it can be hard but it is for our best. I look back on times where I have done this well and many times where I have not. One that stands out in my mind is my senior year of high school. I felt He was calling me to go on a missions trip to Holland the summer before my senior year, and while there I didn’t get in the preparation I really needed to do for the season and had a very rough start to that year. But I refused to take down the picture of my goals on my wall- becoming the first CA runner to win 4 state cross country titles and to win the Footlocker National Championship. It looked very unlikely as I was losing my dual races, and lost almost every important race leading up to it, but in the end I did win these two races, the biggest races of the year. I’m not saying that God helped me win, but I do think He used it to create a milestone in my life of putting him first above everything else. That doesn’t mean you will have running success as a result, and my career is a great example of that as I have probably failed more than I have succeeded, but having Jesus as our greatest treasure is the only way to experience the satisfying, fulfilling, “abundant life” here on earth (John 10:10).
Working hard, but not Striving
I’m one of those over-achiever, more-is-better personalities. I feel my early success in running came not because I was especially talented but because I have always been willing to outwork everyone else. I would run to practice, do practice, and run home and do hill sprints on the way home, and this is in middle school, a time where most kids just hid in the bushes and picked blackberries during practice. Needless to say, in my walk with Christ I have always loved to “do things for God”, things that Jesus did and that are good for us. A lot of Christianity focuses on this, doing good works, but really it reinforces a culture where we are performing for love rather than doing them because of love. I had to learn how to operate out of rest- that no matter if I never did anything for God the rest of my life, He would still love me the same. And there is a fine line between working hard and striving. Striving is where you are trying to force something, instead of working hard with God’s grace enabling you for the task. There are many moments in my career where I tried to force things in my own effort and got run down, burned out, and the results were the opposite of what I wanted. It can look the same externally, as obviously to be good at running you have to work hard, but it is really more of an internal state- one of peace, versus one of insecurity and anxiety. Jesus said his “yoke is easy and burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) (a yoke is the heavy apparatus on the neck of oxen use to plow). So I remind myself sometimes when running feels like a burden, “oops sorry Jesus, I picked up the wrong yoke! Yours is easy. Here you go, you can have this burden and I’ll take the easy one!”
What bears fruit?
Matthew 7:19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
I want my life to be like a healthy tree, with different “branches” representing different aspects and all holding good, ripe fruit. “Bearing fruit” in the Bible represents a sign of health, having impact, and being a blessing to others. Good fruit comes naturally from a tree being healthy, it doesn’t have to force the fruit to produce, it is a byproduct of life flowing to those branches. Running is one branch of my life, and I want it to always bear fruit, to be something that impacts the world around me in a positive way. God didn’t intend for it just to be something for my own enjoyment and satisfaction. Creating goals just to have something to chase is empty- it will be like chasing the wind, always needing something else to chase to feel a sense of significance. But when you know that what you are doing is bearing fruit, having impact, and blessing people around you you can go through hard seasons where parts of the branch get pruned off, knowing that it is all part of staying healthy and producing bigger fruit and bigger impact. Often when I am debating whether to keep something in my life, I think about the fruit it is bearing, the positive impact it is having (or lack thereof). The minute I feel my running is no longer bearing fruit in my own life and the lives of others is the minute it’s time to focus that time and energy on something else.
How do you define success?
Determining the fruit your running is producing is in part possible by defining “what is success?” When I first started running I pretty much only experienced winning. My first year in high school I won the League, Section, and State Championships in cross country and won both the 1600 and 3200 in the track State Championships (for all division in all of California). Without realizing it I had created a very narrow window of success for myself- anything outside of winning was failure. As I continued in college and professionally often coaches would communicate what that window of “success” was, whether a time or place in a certain range was or making a certain team. But over the years, God has showed me that this is not the mindset he intended me to have and though those goals can be helpful objectives, success is faithfulness. If I take the amount of talent and desire he gives me and work hard and hold it rightly in my heart all the while and then go out and compete to the best of my ability, that is success, no matter what the results sheet says. In our sport results are so easily quantified and compared, and one of the biggest traps we can fall into is measuring our achievements by comparing ourselves to others. Don’t get me wrong- I want to make Olympic teams and run records and all that is very quantifiable. But at the end of the day, whether or not I was successful is less about those results to me as whether I was faithful in the process. I think of the repercussions, like the doping epidemic, which would be impacted if we adopted Jesus’ view of success.
Who are you running for?
As I mentioned early on in my high school career I experienced blissfully easy success, but in doing so created some very high expectations for myself, both from myself and others. Those expectations have been something that now, nearly 20 years later, have become a norm in my life, but the inevitable pressure they come with was not always easy to handle. I was already aware of others’ expectations but that pressure felt amplified when somehow one day I stumbled upon some newly formed website message boards where I was surprised to find that I was being picked apart by anonymous people. All of a sudden I felt afraid that if I failed, I was going to be criticized by these anonymous hordes of people that in my naïve youth seemed to matter so much to me, along with my hometown and the many others I had already been aware of. It is a natural thing to want to be liked by others, especially as an insecure high schooler, so as I entered races in the back of my mind I was thinking of the criticism I’d receive if I didn’t win.
Whereas competitions used to be a fun, exciting opportunity to win, at times that felt overshadowed by the fear I’d lose and be criticized. In the years following, God has taught me so much in this area and restored that joy of competing. The first step was to cut off being exposed to that criticism as much as possible- not reading articles about myself or negative websites all together. But some things you can’t just cut off, like a coach or person you don’t want to let down who places expectations on you, so avoiding things is only a small part of the remedy. Getting to the root of this in me took experiencing God’s fully unconditional love, really understanding that he can’t love me any more or any less by how I perform, and His opinion is what matters. At the end of the day and after the race looking to him for affirmation and feedback.
One of my favorite quotes is by my pastor Bill Johnson, “If you don’t eat from the praises of man, you won’t die by their criticisms”. I realized that I had become addicted to others praises- I had been getting them since I first started running and had made a steady diet out of them. But if others’ praises carry weight in your life, so will others’ criticisms. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who does this better than my husband and I am forever grateful in learning from his example in this! Also, my pastor Bill, who gives the analogy that when you receive the praise (for example after a good race), accept it graciously like a rose. At the end of the day, when you are on your own, offer all the roses in a bouquet up to God and say, “All these belong to you, you deserve all the glory, it is only by your grace that I am even in the position to be doing this and perform well today”. I love that image and have made a practice of it in my own career.
Giving the bouquet of roses up to God as a symbol of any glory you receive really belonging to Him is the perfect example of one of the most important aspects of living like Jesus: humility. Pride is a funny thing because it can be so subtle, and one way I have seen it creep into my life is in the area of self-promotion. My pastor Eric made an astute observation that Jesus never promoted himself. His life had the greatest impact on world history by far of anyone who has ever lived, and yet he did nothing to pump himself up and garner popularity. He actually said things he knew would offend people and make him less popular. He was confident, he knew who he was, but he was not prideful. The need to promote oneself comes out of insecurity really. For example, one are I feel the temptation to promote myself is social media.
“Building my brand” (I really dislike that term) is often considered part of my job description as a professional athlete, but long ago I stopped feeling comfortable putting out anything I didn’t genuinely feel inspired to share. Even still I ask myself at times as I create a post,“why am I wanting to post this? Is it really because I want the response of others?” Do I get the urge at times to brag about a workout I just crushed on social media or some other achievement, absolutely, but God convicts me that this boils down to pride. I have thus tried to really reign in any form of self-promotion in my life, whether on social media or interviews or elsewhere. I trust God to bring opportunities and financial provision my way without me trying to strive to make them happen by “marketing myself”.
Everyone is different in their convictions on how they use social media so I don’t judge anyone on this, but I know for myself, it crosses the line when at the heart of my motivation it is really a need for affirmation from others. It also doesn’t mean you never share about the successes (as well as failures) as you go along your journey. It just goes back to what is your heart intention in it and who are you running/living for? I love and appreciate so much the people who have followed my running journey and cheer me on, but even if that crowd shrunk to zero I hope that I would have the same zeal to do this sport unto God alone, for His audience only.
“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Galatians 1:10
As you can tell, I could probably talk about this forever as it is one of my life’s passions, but I’ll end it there. I would absolutely love to hear from you on how your life with Christ has affected the way you pursue running!
May God bless you richly and meet you wherever you are on this journey!