Olympic athlete Isaiah Jewett arrived at the Tokyo Olympic Games ready to win.1 As one of the world’s most skilled athletes, he’d spent his life working and training for this moment and the extraordinary opportunity. This was his chance to shine and stand out among all the other skilled runners, win the illustrious gold medal, and showcase his talent to the watching world.
But this wasn’t how Jewett’s story unfolded. Rather than effortlessly advancing past his eight-hundred-meter semifinals and onto a chance at gold, Jewett’s hopes and dreams came to a crashing halt as a passing competitor accidentally tripped over him, causing both to fall to the ground. But viewers were pleasantly surprised by what happened next. Jewett extended his hand to his opponent. The two runners pulled each other back onto their feet, linked arms, and jogged together to the finish line. The runner who tripped Jewett allowed him to finish one step ahead.
This kind of good sportsmanship is not unheard of among the community of professional runners. When New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin crashed into United States rival Abbey D’Agostino in the 2016 Rio Olympics and both fell to the ground, audiences were moved when D’Agostino offered Hamblin her hand despite her own injury and helped her off the turf before shuffling to the finish line where the two would embrace. Hamblin later expressed pride that she could be “both a competitor and kind and responsive at the same time.”2
Stories like these remind us of our own fragile humanity, that we are always less in control of outcomes than we’d like to be. Whether we are weak or strong, we are all capable of tripping and falling along the course, no matter how skilled we are or how hard we’ve trained. When we do, we will have the opportunity to get up and keep running for ourselves and our own glory or to get up and lend a helping hand to others who have fallen.
As a runner in the race of faith, what is the goal of your race? Do you desire encouragement in order to get ahead? Or do you desire encouragement in order to work together with your fellow runners? As a follower of Jesus, you are a member of the body of Christ; every other Christian in the body is a fellow team member whose name is recorded on the roster and who runs alongside you in the same race of faith. You have pledged to run together with the people of God under the headship of Christ.
Encouraged to Run Together
Paul implores Christians in 2 Corinthians 6:1 to run together so as not to “receive the grace of God in vain,” putting no obstacle in anyone’s way so that no fault may be found with our ministry but as servants of God, commending others to Christ. Because God listens to his people’s cries and responds with salvation, we can faithfully respond by looking out for the needs of other runners as we run, willingly removing obstacles from the road or lending a hand to those who are weary or have fallen down. Paul explains, “In a favorable time [God] listened to you, and in a day of salvation [God] . . . helped you” (2 Cor. 6:2). Paul gleaned this encouragement from God’s promise in Isaiah 49:8–10, 13:
In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people . . . [to say] “Come out,” to those who are in darkness . . . they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them . . . Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth . . . For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.
Because God favored you as his child, answered you, and helped you in your race of faith, he invites you to extend his favor to other fallen or discouraged runners along the way. Are you prepared to pause in order to extend the Lord’s compassionate hand of mercy to another runner? Are you looking to lock arms and partner with both the strong and the weary and to jog together in order to uphold one another as Christ so selflessly did for you? Words of godly encouragement aren’t intended solely for your benefit—they have the chance to lift up other downcast runners and to offer refreshment to the hearts of the weary along the way.
As we conclude the discussion on finding better encouragement, I want to invite you to pause and consider your fellow runners. Who runs beside you? Imagine their names and their faces. Do the people you consider your teammates love and follow Jesus and run the race with endurance? Are you familiar with their trials and weaknesses? Ask the Lord to give you eyes to see the teammates he has called you to run beside. Are your Christian brothers and sisters your competitors? Or are they fellow runners, worthy of receiving better encouragement?
Christian, we must never become so preoccupied with measuring our own spiritual gain or tracking our own forward progress that we “neglect such a great salvation” (Heb. 2:3) and fail to provide good to others. When we are encouraged by the God of encouragement, we will desire to share with our team members the living water of better encouragement that overflows from the abundance of Christ’s riches.
God’s people are important members of his team; we run together with our eyes faithfully fixed on Jesus. We must prepare, strategize, train, and discipline ourselves to run toward the finish line together. This is the best way to encourage and strengthen one another. We are best equipped to see, encourage, and care for the runners whose paths we regularly cross. Have we made room in our hearts and our schedules to encourage these friends or neighbors as we are able? “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1). Ask the Lord to give you opportunities to notice the needs of others and to provide the refreshment of God’s better encouragement.
Christ’s team of runners must represent him.
Many of our churches are filled with runners who are weary, thirsty, and have fallen down. When these athletes accidentally chug a mouthful of sand because they’ve been led away by the promises of a pretty mirage, better encouragement guides these fellow runners back to living water. The church needs runners who are equipped to be patient with the weary as they stumble, gentle as they lead the thirsty to the well that won’t run dry, faithful in linking arms to make it to the finish line, and joyful in the hope of celebrating together as victors. Christians aren’t designed to run alone. When we run together, we encourage one another to endure.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 that Christians
do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
When we run together, we are able to help each other see what is good and true, and together we can stay the course of faithfulness. Hebrews 12:1–2 says,
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 endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder 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.
Your life is one of many encouraging witnesses. You have been joined together with the people of God in order to encourage others today, tomorrow, and possibly for years or generations to come. Through your words of encouragement, you have the opportunity to labor for the kingdom and to join in the work of building up the church. Christ’s team of runners must represent him. By running together, the strength of our collective voice becomes louder, beckoning to Christians who lag behind and testifying to unbelieving onlookers. Our unified, steady strides and our eagerness to care for one another are a strong and notable testimony to others. When we run with our eyes fixed on the will of the Father, he will give us eyes to see the people in our path and his Spirit will give us words of grace to encourage them.
Receiving encouragement for yourself shouldn’t be your end goal. God provides his people with better encouragement and a longer-lasting source of hope so that you will go and encourage those around you. He strengthens his people one by one in order to strengthen his church. By encouraging you, God equips you to run, to endure, and to encourage his entire team to victory.