Our Spiritual Race Course

By Ernie and Mary Kroeger

We’re all acquainted with the excitement and national pride the Olympics evoke.  Athletes from various countries of the world have been training for years in order to participate in this prestigious event!   They have been building up their muscles, putting into practice their trainers’ advice and participating in various competitions – all in preparation for the great event - and their whole life revolves around the race.  The competition is so close; often only a fraction of a second separates the top competitors!   However, in each event only one competitor, or one group of competitors, can be awarded a gold medal. 

Races were also common in Paul’s time.  The participants had to train continually, and each participant was eager to win the victor’s crown.  Winning that crown was so important, for it was a symbol of triumph in the games or some such contest.  It was a reward or prize, and only one person in each event could win it.  “And every man that strives for the mastery is temperate in all things.  Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.” (1 Cor. 9:25)

Paul saw a spiritual counterpart to these races, and our curiosity is aroused.  What type of race course are we in?  If only one competitor for each event gets a crown, then what are our chances of receiving one?  Maybe the apostles already have them all.  But if this were the case, why would we be exhorted to try for the prize?

As I was meditating on this, the Lord showed me that our race course is not like that of the Olympics, for each participant has the opportunity to win a crown.  It is not a competitive race; it consists of overcoming all the obstacles that hinder us from reaching God’s goal for us, namely, to be transformed into the image of Christ!  It is an obstacle course in which each Christian has his own individualized course to run. 

In order to be conformed to the image of Christ our thought life has to be transformed.  This requires an ascent out of the natural, carnal mind into the mind of Christ.  The obstacles that are to be overcome are the fleshly thoughts of selfhood and disobedience that insist that their way of dealing with the difficulties in life is better than God’s way.   Since each believer has his own race course, a crown of gold awaits each overcomer.   Gold symbolizes divinity, and a crown is placed on our head - the highest part of us.  Our thinking takes place in the highest part of us, so a crown of gold symbolizes that our thinking has become one with God’s thinking. 

The goal of an ordinary race is to see who will get to the finishing line first in obedience to the established rules.  Those who don’t obey the rules are disqualified.  The goal in our spiritual race is to be changed into the image of Christ. (Romans 8:29)  This means we have to become like Christ in love, humility, obedience and submission to our Father’s will!  If we are ignorant or unaware of God’s goal for us, we’ll establish our own. God does not accept substitutions even though they may sound good to us.  A long list of variations on this theme of goals could be cited, but none of these goals match the goal God has ordained for us!  Just imagine!  We are to be changed into the very image of Christ! 

In order to become like Christ, our thinking has to become one with His thinking!  This involves a big change!  Christ never did His own will – and how important doing our own will is for us!  A German proverb illustrates this beautifully, by stating that humanity’s heavenly kingdom consists of doing its own will.  No wonder humanity is so taken in with its rights and every infringement of its rights by others!   Christ did not subscribe to that thinking.  He had ears to hear the Spirit and a will that only desired to do the Father’s will!  Obedience was etched into the very fabric of His being!  In obedience, He humbled Himself to being ridiculed, tortured and nailed to the cross!  The demonstration of His invisible attributes of boundless love and forgiveness was manifested on earth by His obedience to the Father’s wishes and desires.  This is also God’s goal for us!  What a high calling is ours in Christ!  

Not only is our natural mind opposed to truth, but it cannot even receive truth!  (Cor. 2:14) Therefore all our natural understanding of spiritual realities remains in the darkness of religiosity.  The natural mind is concerned with self-improvement.   It wants us to become entangled and ensnared with things that look attractive but are not life-giving - like rituals, laws, self-effort, religiosity, creeds and doctrines.  It wants to remain in charge of our lives!  If it is successful, it would prove that God is unable to fulfill His purpose to make man in His image.  Unknown to the enemy is the fact that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose,” and that each time we overcome an obstacle, our race course continues on higher ground.  We don’t ignore the obstacles – we overcome them!

The natural mind is completely centered on self.  It looks at situations and opportunities in terms of how they can enhance the self -image, and how they can help us fulfill our dreams.  In contrast, God’s will for us centers on getting rid of the mind of unbelief that is focused on self!  He puts obstacles in our way that will reveal the areas in which our faith needs to grow and mature, and thus help us to attain His goal for us – the perfect image of Christ!  If we fail to see these obstacles from God’s perspective, self pity, though very destructive, will look alluringly desirable, and we fall prey to the discouragement it feeds on, and the obstacle reaches an insurmountable size in our eyes!  Discouragement and self-pity rush in where faith is lacking, and we focus on our inability instead of on Christ’s ability!   We need to be believers of the truth that God can cause everything to benefit us spiritually.  He wants us to see that every obstacle is also an opportunity to overcome fleshly thinking. By faith in the power of the indwelling Christ we can overcome the difficulty and rise above it! 

The obstacles in our race course consist of the “loves” of natural thinking – loving our ego, loving pleasures, loving an easy life, loving control over people, loving our own way, loving prosperity, money and power!  These “loves” are gods to the natural mind.  All the plagues God sent against the Egyptians were against their many gods, and these plagues were to bring freedom and liberation to the Israelites (God’s children) from the tyranny and bondage they were suffering.  Similarly, the obstacles and difficulties in our life are to free us from our bondage to natural thinking.

Even as the Israelites could not free themselves from the power of Egypt, so we cannot free ourselves from the power that the natural mind has over us!  We need God’s intervention and power to free us from the gods our selfhood has created.  God knows our need, so He has given us Christ as our life, to be the power and strength that overcomes every obstacle and hindrance that would stop us from being transformed into the image of Christ! 

Our participation in the course set before us is not optional.  We can embrace the difficult situations, and walk through them in the enabling power of Christ, or we can fight them rebelliously.  The understanding that God only wants what is good for us, and that He empowers us to be overcomers is so important in maintaining the right attitude!  Paul recognized this, so he said, “Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”  (Eph. 6:17)  Do we understand what the will of the Lord is?  Do we understand that we need to be liberated from our dependence on self, and recognize the fact that our natural intellectual wisdom is foolishness in God’s sight?  Our Father God wants children who depend on Him in every area of their lives! 

God has given us Christ to be our wisdom!  Adam and Eve thought their wisdom was superior to obedience, so they ate the forbidden fruit and received the serpent’s mindset of disobedience.  Only in obedience to Christ’s directives can we overcome the deceptive call to disobedience that resides in the carnal mind.  

Since the natural mind is always against the mind of Christ, it tries to lure us into disobedience by planting wrong thoughts in our mind about the difficult situation we are encountering.  It tells us that we can arrive at God’s goal for us by choosing an easier pathway.  Why should we go through all these difficulties when there is an easier way?  The natural mind is very persistent and overbearing.  It promises to bring us to our goal in a pathway of honor and ease.  Obeying that voice keeps us eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - the realm of selfhood and choice.   Wrong thoughts are roadblocks in our ascent into the mind of Christ.  Every thought that originates in selfhood becomes a stumbling block if it is accepted. 

A very prominent stumbling block is called “choice”.  The world tells us that we are to make right choices.  It says that we have the ability to do that.  In other words, self has this ability even though it is embedded in lies and deceit and has no knowledge of the future.  Adam and Eve tried that, and they received the serpent’s mindset, and this mindset has been passed on to all their descendants.  Humanity still thinks it can make itself better by making right choices – by pulling itself up by its own boot straps.   It overlooks sin by just calling it a bad choice.  In making choices, we don’t have to submit our will to God; we don’t have to align ourselves with God’s will.  God calls that disobedience.  The thinking that says we have the ability to make right choices originates in selfhood.

Obedience, on the other hand, recognizes that we have to submit ourselves to God’s will, for He alone has the perfect plan for us. Jesus Christ demonstrated obedience. He did not yield to the temptation to evade suffering; He would rather be called an evildoer than disobey His Father!  He believed that God’s pathway was the only true one, and he remained steadfast in His faith!  Therefore God crowned Him with honor and glory, and seated Him above all the heavens, and gave Him all authority and power!

Closely linked to choice is the dependence on self!  It comes to us in religious garb!  It goads us into doing good works to prove that we really are good Christians, and then it tells us that we should do more. It tells us that we can do better if we try harder. The guilt that accompanies our failures keeps us in the “try harder” mode.  Many evangelists thrive on piling on the guilt and bringing people to the altar for prayer.  By the next week they need prayer again!   God’s way is so different!  He releases us from guilt by giving us His righteousness!  In Christ we have everything we need! 

Our race course leads us in a spiritual upward climb.  In Phil. 2:13b-14 Paul writes, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  Paul instructed us to have a forward and upward look!  What would happen if we were constantly looking back at the obstacles we had passed or failed to overcome instead of looking at the goal?  That would spell disaster!   Yet many Christians are entangled with past mistakes, hurts, unfair treatment, etc., instead of keeping their eyes on the goal - on Christ!  Paul could have kept his mind on the Christians he had persecuted or on all the persecution he had suffered - but he didn’t!  He kept his eyes on the goal and the prize, ever heeding the upward call of God in Christ!  What a lesson for us to learn! 

In order to reach the goal of this race, we have to learn to function in the mind of Christ – the mind of obedience to the will of the Father.  We cannot overcome our fleshly thinking and desires by self-effort.   Paul wrote, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”  (2 Cor. 10:5)  It often takes an earthquake or a bolt of lightning to open our eyes to see that the things we hold dear are actually against God.   For example, our love for beautiful worshipful music can keep us from looking beyond the music and seeing God; it can cause us to worship the music instead of God! Anything that obscures our focus on the true knowledge of God has to be destroyed.  This includes the pride of life, all fleshly lust for ease, comfort, honor, prosperity, pleasures and anything else that stands in the way of our obedience to Christ!   God knows exactly what each of us needs to overcome, so He sets up situations that will help us to discover our need and to find that Christ is enough for every situation! 

How do we visualize Christ Jesus?  Do we still see Him as the Man who walked the dusty streets of Galilee and Judea during His earthly ministry of teaching, healing the sick, opening blind eyes and causing the lame to walk again, or do we see Him beyond the flesh and see that He is Spirit now?  Do we think that in order to be changed into the image of Christ, we have to do the same type of miracles He did? Do we desire to do the same visible works He performed, or do we only desire to do the works the Father has planned for us? Do we want a great ministry like others have, or do we want to enjoy the same relationship with the Father that Christ had?  

An image is a replica of someone.  The Man Christ Jesus was the exact image of His Father. “He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature.” (Heb. 1:3)   His nature brought us the revelation of the invisible God.  This did not refer to His physical being; the physical can never represent the spiritual – and God is spirit!  Jesus said that He is the way, the truth, and the life!  He is the resurrection!  To be transformed into His image we have to be in Christ, and receive His nature experientially.   He has given us His mind, but we have to learn to live out of His mind.  This process involves submitting our will to His will; it is the pathway of obedience. Only in obedience can we overcome all the fleshly suggestions that come to us from our carnal mind. Only in obedience can we do what the Father shows us to do, even as Christ did!  Christ walked the pathway of obedience and this is the pathway He has for us as well!  Only in obedience can we learn to live in the mind of Christ!

In our transformation into His image we need to let truth replace the lies we formerly believed, and let Christ’s nature of faith, trust, love, grace and forgiveness overcome all our selfish thoughts.  As we entrust ourselves to God in every circumstance, we come into agreement with His will and His plans. How difficult it is for us to give up our own will and accept the Father’s will for us!  Our own will is one of the great obstacles in this race course!   Jesus overcame this obstacle by aligning or submitting His will with the Father’s will.  He was conscious of the fact that the Father’s will for Him was best, and obedience was not an option – it was a must! 

Jesus never accepted the serpent’s thinking!  Our natural mind contains the serpent’s thinking, so our minds need to be cleansed of that thinking!  The serpent wants us to think that we can reach God’s goal for us and be transformed into the image of Christ through self-effort.  This is the great deception and stumbling block!  We need to recognize that this is a big order and far beyond our ability to perform.   The obstacles in our race reveal our weakness and inability.  This opens us up to hear the Spirit’s teaching that victory is ours only in union with Christ and in the power of His strength.   This requires faith and obedience!

In earthly races, athletes are taught to depend on themselves and on their own ability.  In our spiritual race we are taught that we can do nothing of ourselves.  Our strength lies in recognizing and believing that we are united with Christ, and that we can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens us!   We generally pray for God to help us instead of letting Him do it through us.  We want Him to make us strong so WE can perform, instead of letting Him be our strength.  We ask Him to help US to become better, instead of believing that He is our righteousness.  We want Him to make US smarter instead of recognizing that He is our wisdom.  We want glory for ourselves instead of acknowledging that all glory belongs to Him.  We need obstacles and challenges in order to recognize that all self-effort is in the death realm.

God has a made-to-measure course uniquely designed to fit the needs of each individual.  We are not in competition with others; we are on a unique course that requires a change of thinking and dependence!  If we resist change we will not make the grade.  Self-satisfaction is a no, no.  Lustful pride in our accomplishments has no place in our spiritual race, for all works have to flow out of the Christ in us!    Only Christ’s “Well done!” will satisfy us, and give us the true joy of victory! 

The obstacles in this race consist of the lies we think are truth.  In order to recognize the lies we need experiences that will reveal the emptiness and error of lies, so we can ascend into truth.  Every obstacle is aimed at striking down our unbelief and revealing God’s great ability!  This revelation brings us the mind of Christ. His mind was always in agreement with the Father’s will.  He never argued with the Father; He never said the cost of doing His will was too great!  In the Garden He faced the greatest obstacle.  There He prayed until He was willing to become united with sinful humanity and become the sin-offering for the sins of the world – even to be separated from the Father, and suffer the excruciating pain of crucifixion!  Our race course is designed to rid us of our old thinking and to teach us to live in the mind of Christ.

Every obstacle is an opportunity to grow in faith and to experience the power of Christ in us.   It is also an opportunity to reveal the nature of Christ to those who are dead in their trespasses and sins!  It is an opportunity to let the light of Christ shine into the darkness and depravity of the human heart. 

When we feel discouraged, downtrodden and disheartened, it’s important to investigate and recognize the source of those feelings.  In this examination we have to be careful that we do not examine the Adamic nature!  2 Cor. 13:5 tells us that we are to examine who we are in Christ.  “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless indeed you fail the test?” Is Christ in us?  When Christ is in us, we have everything He is to overcome the difficulty we are encountering!  

Looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, will keep us from depending on the flesh, and from blaming self or others for our difficulties.  We need to remember that Christ is in us, and that all His thoughts and plans for us are perfect.  He has given us the Holy Spirit to lead, guide, direct and encourage us. Our Father loves us and is always ready to help us!  He is a creator God, and He creates a way where there was no way!  He is worthy of our trust!

As we grow in the true knowledge of who the Christ within us is, we are encouraged in our faith and ready to receive correction and encouragement!   Our growth in the confidence of our Father’s love gives us the courage and willingness to be changed, and to walk in obedience to His calling!  In the natural we enjoyed fulfilling our lust for power, honor, greed, pleasure, intellectual greatness, and things like that.  Now we enjoy doing the will of the Father!  When we were obedient to the natural mind, we were engaged in the things that promoted the self-life with its many loves.  Now the love of Christ is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and our self-centeredness is replaced with Christ-centeredness.  No longer do we just think of a good deal for ourselves but also for others!  Our fight for our rights melts away, and grace and mercy replace it. When we see these changes taking place in us, we know that we are learning to live in the mind of Christ! 

Let’s look at some of the rewards for overcoming.  We receive the crown of righteousness!In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.”  (2 Tim. 4:8)  A crown symbolizes authority or victory.  It is worn on the head – the highest realm of our body.  That is also where our thinking takes place. The crown of righteousness indicates that a change in our thinking has taken place.  We have overcome the idea that we have to work for our righteousness when we realize that Christ is our righteousness, and we function in this knowledge.  Notice that it does not say, “a crown”, but “the crown”.  There is only one crown of righteousness, and that is the righteousness of Christ!

We also receive the crown of life! “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)   “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  (Rev. 2:10) ” The crown of life symbolizes our victory over our old thinking, for in Romans 8 we read that the carnal mind is death.  Our old mind has been replaced with a new mind – the mind of Christ!  There is only one mind of Christ, one crown of life!

The crown of glory also awaits us!  “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”   (1 Peter 5:4)  In Col. 1:27 Paul wrote, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”   Christ in us is our glory!  When our life reveals the Christ within us, the chief Shepherd is made visible to the world! It is difficult for us to believe that a crown of glory awaits us when, in the midst of being misunderstood, rejected and persecuted, we remain loving and forgiving.  This is the glory of Christ living and working in and through us! 

These crowns await those who are faithful until death, (Rev. 2:10) Christ in us is our righteousness, strength, ability, wisdom, redemption, sanctification, and hope of glory!  He is the source of everything we need!

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