February / March 2018 - Vol. 96

runners in the
Christian Perseverance and the Strength to Finish Well 
By Don Schwager

What is perseverance?
A key Greek word for “perseverance” (kartereo) which was used by the ancient Greeks, as well as by the New Testament writers, literally meant “to be strong,” to be courageous,” “to persist at,” “to hold fast to something,” “to occupy oneself diligently with something,” “to endure steadfastly,” “to suffer.” In connection with persons it meant “to stay by,” “remain with,” and “to be loyal to someone.” The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews used the analogy of a race to describe how perseverance is essential for staying the course and finishing well: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

Another key Greek word for perseverance (hupomene) described the inner quality of patiently enduring and courageously bearing up under trials and suffering. It was described as “manly constancy or strength under trial.” For the Greeks this virtue depicted strong, courageous, and brave resistance to some hostile power, and the endurance of pain and affliction with a steadfast spirit that would not be bowed down with grief or despair. The Letter to the Hebrews encourages Christians to follow the example of Jesus who patiently and courageously endured the cross for our sake:  “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or faint-hearted” (Hebrews12:3). 

C.S. Lewis describes how perseverance in the virtues builds strong character in people:

There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man. Someone who is not a good tennis player may now and then make a good shot. What you mean by a good player is a man whose eye and muscles and nerves have been so trained by making innumerable good shots that they can now be relied on. He has a certain tone or quality which is there even when he is not playing, just as a mathematician’s mind has a certain habit and outlook which is there even when he is not doing mathematics. In the same way a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of all “virtue.” 
                                                   - Mere Christianity, Chapter 12, “The Cardinal Virtues” 
Perseverance as a character trait 
The virtue of perseverance is the patient determination to stay the course and to finish strong in the pursuit of what is good. It holds fast and persists in pursuing the good in the face of difficulty, discouragement, setbacks, or suffering. It does not vacillate, waver, hesitate, or falter in pursuing what is good. And it resists quitting in the face of difficulty. 

Perseverance is the mean between giving into “softness” – seeking the path of least resistance, ease, and comfort on the one hand, and the stubborn, unyielding insistence of holding fast to one’s personal opinions, preferences, or self-serving goals.

Patience and courage
Perseverance is also connected to patience and courage. Patience enables us to bear affliction without anxiety or discouragement. Patience is courage borne out over time (James 1:2-4; Luke 21:19). 

Courage also requires that we be ready to die for the sake of what is right. We must be willing to die rather than sin. The martyrs, by laying down their lives for the Lord Jesus Christ and the spread of the gospel make the supreme act of courage. 

Examples from the Bible
In the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament we read the story of two remarkable women, named Ruth and Naomi. They steadfastly stood by each other in a time of suffering for the people of Israel. Ruth was determined to remain loyal to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and persisted in following Naomi back to her home town of Bethlehem where she could serve Naomi and her people. 

The Lord Jesus told his follows that he would honor as his true and loyal disciples those “who continue (remain steadfast) in his word” (John 8:31).

In the parable of the widow and the unrighteous judge, Jesus told his disciples to “persevere in prayer and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). He also explained that those who persist (persevere) in “seeking, asking, and knocking” will receive the answer to their petitions (Luke 11:5-13). 

Paul the Apostle also taught that perseverance was a necessary condition for prayer: “be constant (persistent) in prayer” (Romans 12:12), “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2), and “keep alert with perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18).

Running the race with perseverance
In the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 12, the author exhorts his fellow Christians to persevere in running the race set before them.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
What is the race – the particular course or goal – which the Lord Jesus has set for you, and for all of his followers as well? The image of a race used in Hebrews 12 could refer to a foot race in a stadium or to a long distance run (a marathon) which was often used in battles and for sending messages between distant towns or provinces. A long distance run required great endurance, stamina, discipline, and mental concentration. The author of Hebrews sums it up with the word “perseverance.” 

Why is perseverance needed? Runners can get tired, distracted, wearied with sore muscles, or hurt with cuts and bruises. And then there were often obstacles along the path – rocks, ravines, steep hills, flooded streams or rivers to cross, maybe bad weather conditions, or maybe even enemies waiting to ambush them. In the life of a disciple there are many obstacles and challenges that must be faced and overcome if we are to stay on course and finish well. What might be some of the obstacles and challenges which you have experienced?

We do not run the race alone. There is a cloud of witnesses to encourage us to stay the course and not quit, or lose sight of the goal. These witnesses include those who have run the race before our time – our forbearers in the faith who persevered in their faith and calling to the very end of their lives. Our fellow Christians who know us – our  brothers and sisters in Christ – also witness the race we are on. They, too, encourage and help us keep our eyes on the goal – the finish line of the race. How can you better draw strength and encouragement from your brothers and sisters in the Lord?

And best of all, the Lord Jesus is the “pioneer and perfecter” of our race. He has gone ahead of us and marked the way for us. We can be sure we are on the right path if we keep our eyes on him. Do you trust the Lord Jesus to show you the way forward? Ask him to free you of any obstacles that might keep you from fully trusting in him.

Hebrews says that Jesus was made perfect through suffering. Through his suffering on the cross he completed the work the Father sent him to do, to redeem us from our sins and win for us eternal life. Jesus is the goal, the one we go to meet and he is the companion who accompanies us on our journey. We struggle with sin and like a runner we must shed whatever would impede us in the race. We must part with old habits, self-indulgences, and associations which keep us from following Christ and his way of holiness. But we do not struggle alone. The Lord Jesus is with us and he disciplines us for our good that we may share his holiness. Discipline comes from the same root as disciple. If we want to be true disciples of Christ that we must allow the Lord Jesus to train and form us into the kind of men and women he intends us to be. We can resent discipline, approach it with self-pity or in rebellious complaint, or we can accept it as coming from a loving Father.

Joy and perseverance
We face many tests in life – but the most important test is the daily choice and decision to put our faith and trust in God – to rely on his power and strength, rather than relying on our own human resources. As disciples of the Lord Jesus we can expect trials, challenges, and difficulties. The world, the flesh, and the devil are at war against the kingdom of God and against those who serve it’s king, the Lord Jesus Christ. God allows testing – not to fail us – but to make us strong, mature, and complete. That is why perseverance is necessary for passing the test. Perseverance keeps us going strong, not giving up, not quitting, not giving into despair, discouragement, or sadness when difficulties or setbacks try to weigh us down. 

Like the long-distance runners, those who persevere in their faith win the “crown of life” when they complete the finish line. James also tells us that they receive a very precious gift right from the start of the race – the gift of joy – a spiritual fruit of the Holy Spirit. 

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2-4, NIV translation). 
This joy is a spiritual source of strength and consolation – as we struggle, work hard, and patiently endure trials and wait for God’s kingdom to become fully manifest. The Lord himself gives us a joy that no sadness can diminish, no trial can defeat. It is a joy that is also contagious –  that draws others who want to share in it and to discover its true source. 

What is the source of this supreme joy and happiness? When Jesus began preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, he taught his disciples the beatitudes (Luke 6, Matthew 5). The word beatitude literally means happiness or blessedness. Jesus' way of happiness, however, demands a transformation from within –a conversion of heart and mind which can only come about through the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

How can one possibly find joy and happiness in facing trials and in suffering for the Lord Jesus? If we want to be filled with the joy and happiness of heaven, then we must empty ourselves of all that would shut God out of our hearts. God reveals to the humble of heart the true source of abundant life and happiness. Jesus promises his disciples that the joys of heaven will more than compensate for the troubles and hardships they can expect in this world. Thomas Aquinas said: “No person can live without joy. That is why someone deprived of spiritual joy goes after carnal pleasures.” Do you know the joy of persevering to the finish line in God’s love and strength?

> See related articles in Living Bulwark by the author

Don Schwager is a member of the Servants of the Word and author of the
Daily Scripture Readings and Meditations website.

Training in Excellence book
Training in Excellence: 

How godly character forms young people and strengthens Christian communities

by Don Schwager
published by Kairos Publications 
paperback, 131 pages
Available from Tabor House

The book is intended as a study aid for those who have a direct role in helping to form Christian character, especially in young people. It is directed to youth workers, pastoral leaders, teachers, and parents. It aims to help people better understand what the Scriptures say about Christian character and the virtues and helping the young to apply them.

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