October 2012 - Vol. 63
Perseverance and the Strength to Finish Well
By Don Schwager
Eric Liddell (1902-1945), called the “Flying Scotsman” for his running speed, excelled in perseverance. As a young man he loved athletics, especially rugby and running. Eric was also a very committed Christian who wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps as a missionary. His passion for sports was only excelled by his passion for spreading the Gospel in mission lands.
Eric was born in China in 1902. Both of his parents came from Scotland. At the age of six Eric, along with his older brother Robby, attended a boarding school in England for sons of missionaries. In 1921 he joined his brother Robby at the University of Edinburgh. He studied pure science and graduated in 1925. He also studied theology from October 1924 to June 1925. While studying in Edinburgh, Eric joined the Scottish national rugby union team. He played 7 out of 8 Five Nations matches in Europe. Eric also excelled in running, winning Scottish titles in 100 and 220 yard sprints, and 440 yard contests.
In 1921 Eric gave up rugby to concentrate on running. He didn’t think he could give his best by trying to succeed at both. He won several running competitions between 1921-1923.
The movie, Chariots of Fire depicts a scene, during a competition between France and Scotland, in which Eric is knocked off the race course by another runner. With remarkable courage and determination Eric picks himself up and continues the race. He not only catches up with the other runners, but surpasses all of them at the finish line.
In 1924 Eric competed in the Paris Olympics. He was favored to win the 100 meter race, but declined to run in it because it was held on a Sunday. He wanted to follow his religious conviction to rest on Sunday in honor of the Lord’s Day. Eric ran in the 200 meter race and won a bronze medal. His second race was the 440 meter. He was not expected to do well in the 440 race, but he surprised everyone when he won a gold medal and set a new world record at the same time. After winning the gold medal he told reporters, “The secret of my success over the 400 meter is that I run the first 200 meters as fast as I can. Then, for the second 200 meters, with God's help I run faster."
The Bulletin, Scotland’s popular photo paper of that day, wrote: “This is the crowning distinction of Liddell’s great career on the track, and no more modest or unaffected world champion could be desired. Liddell has built up his success by hard work and perseverance, and although hardly a beautiful runner he has even triumphed over his defects of style.”
At the height of Eric’s running career, he gave it up to return to China as a missionary. He married Florence Mackenzie, the daughter of a missionary couple from Canada. Eric’s and Florence’s first two daughters were born in China. A third daughter was born in Canada, a few months after Eric had sent his wife and children to Canada during the Japanese occupation of China between 1941-1945. Eric was planning to rejoin them later, but was forced by the Japanese occupying army to a prison camp for “enemy nationals.” One of the survivors of the camp, named David Michell, who is now Director for Canada Overseas Missionary Fellowship, describes Eric’s impact on him and the hundreds of young people who were interred in the overcrowded camp during the war.
Eric Liddell’s twenty years in China were eventful, to say the least... Deliberately walking away from the fame and glory that could have been his in Britain, he responded to God’s call and went to China as a missionary with the London Missionary Society, following in his father’s footsteps. [During World War II the Japanese armies rounded up all “enemy nationals” for internment in a prison camp]...I was sent to the same camp where Eric Liddell was, along with many other missionary children.His training, hard work, and perseverance paid off not only on the track field, but even more importantly in his call to be a disciple and a missionary worker for Christ in China. The Lord Jesus was the “pioneer and perfecter of his faith” who trained him through discipline and perseverance.
Athletes and missionaries are not the only ones who need perseverance, every Christian who wants to follow the Lord Jesus needs perseverance.
What is perseverance?
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.”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.
Distinguishing True Perseverance from Its Two Extremes:
Being Soft or Spineless and being Stubborn or Inflexible
Patience and courage
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.
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
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
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 on Christian character in the Living Bulwark archives.
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