I was recently blessed to participate in the Two Oceans Ultramarathon in Cape Town; blessed to have the health, the knees, the hips and the ankles to do so. It was exciting to be one of among some 27,000 runners who descended on the Mother City to run either the 21- or 56-kilometre race. I was happy to have completed the longer distance in a decent time. In fact, I was just happy when it was finished! But two of my best moments actually had nothing to do with me.
As we lined up for the race, my daughter was seeded among the elite runners. Her qualifying time had earned her this distinction. As we walked toward the starting pens, and as I saw her line up in the A grouping, my eyes grew misty with joy—for her. I was so delighted that her hard work had brought her to this point. As her father, I was proud, but not in a self-centred way. I really was proud of her and so glad for her. I have had my days of “glory,” but now it is her turn. I simply wanted to cheer her on.
Later in the race, one of my fellow church and team members came alongside me. We ran together for about twelve kilometres. On one occasion, he suggested that if I felt like pulling ahead that I should do. I appreciated that, but I had neither the inclination nor the ability (!) to do so. It was clear, however, that Albert was in a position to do so. And so, a couple of times, I told him to go ahead and to not hold back on my account. Eventually, he did pull away, to my great delight. It was a great moment for me. I was really happy for him. In fact, I prayed on a couple of occasions, “Lord, please let Albert run the race of his life.” The funny thing is, after the race, some of his first words to me were, “I had the race of my life.” Perhaps I should take some credit for his success in finishing well ahead of me! But seriously, wishing him well earlier in the race, in a sense cheering him on, reminded me of the need for Christians to cheer each other on in the race of faith. We are not competing with one another; rather, we are co-runners encouraging one another to do well, to the glory of God (Hebrews 12:1–2).
During the race, I was exposed to many examples of this principle. We runners experienced great encouragements from the large numbers of well-wishers who lined the route. Some even had pom-poms and literally cheered for us! Complete strangers called my name (our names were boldly displayed on our race numbers) and said things like, “You are looking good!” (I wanted to respond, “Looks can be deceiving!”) Children lined the way to high five us runners. “You can do this” and “Only ten kilometres to go” (easy for them to say!) were some of the cheers that we all encountered. Some people handed us sweets and other foods to help us along the way. When I entered the rugby field at the University of Cape Town, there seemed to be thousands of people cheering me to the finish line. Though I received a medal, along with all the other finishers, it really was a team effort. Not merely my literal teammates, but the thousands of spectators along the route that cheered us on. All of this served as a reminder of the biblical admonitions to encourage one another as we run the race of faith.
One of the most debilitating factors to spiritual growth is the sin of envy. To overcome this, we are given several practical commands, such as “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15) and “in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4). These are practical ways for us to cheer others on, to be happy for those who are members of the “A” team. This concept, this principle, has far-reaching applications and consequences, from the pulpit to the pew.
Those who preach should be happy for those who preach better. The pulpit is not a place of competition. And if it becomes one, then you can be sure that its power will wane. Older preachers, such as myself, should rejoice that others—even much younger preachers—are more gifted. After all, such giftedness can translate into more effectiveness for the glory of God. So, rather than shrivelling up in jealousy, we should expand in joy that God has so blessed others. One day I will finish my ministry at BBC; I will be replaced by someone far more gifted and effective. I trust that I will then happily “cheer him on.”
Again, as fellow Christians, we are in this race together. It is a race against the world, the flesh and the devil, who seeks to derail us from finishing. We are to cheer one another on and be praying for one another that we would run the race of our life. We should be encouraged when those who were new Christians have so grown that they outrun us; not because we have slowed down in our zeal, but because they have been enabled by God with more giftedness and effectiveness and perhaps even with more opportunities. As their affection for the Lord Jesus Christ grows, we should hang on to them and grow in our love for Him with them. By “cheering ’em on,” you may be simultaneously cheering yourself.
Cheering one another on does not only consist of kind and “nice” words. Sometimes cheering others on includes words of rebuke, even strong ones. But when expressed with heartfelt concern, it can make all the difference between continuing or quitting. At one of the worst hills on the course, around 46 kilometres, many of us runners stopped to walk for a bit. As the pain dug in and the energy abated, it seemed like such a good and wise option! But one spectator, to his credit, kept saying things like, “No, no. You don’t stop. This is not about walking, it’s about running!” I heard of one runner who then felt this man’s hand on his back pushing the runner up the hill. Wonderful! And this is what we must sometimes do with one another as we run the race of faith. We sometimes (often?) need to hear the hard thing and sometimes we are called upon to say the hard thing. But such hard words should be accompanied with helping hands.
Who do you know that is doing well in the Christian race? Please, cheer ’em on. Who do you need to help to push up the hill? Lend a hand. One day, we all stand at the heavenly victor’s podium rejoicing that we finished the race. And the loudest of cheers will be for the one who “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame and who is now set down at the right hand of the Father” (Hebrews 12:2). We will also perhaps more fully appreciate that, through our race, it was Jesus Christ, through His people, who was cheering us on.
On several occasions, I have written and spoken on the need for Christians to affirm one another. We all need, at different points in the Christian race, to be encouraged by others. As we cheer one another on, we are strengthening each other to persevere. When was the last time you helped someone to keep going? Perhaps the time is now. Pick up a phone, or write a note and “cheer ’em on.”