When I was 40, I was diagnosed as diabetic. The maxim ‘Life begins at forty’ didn’t seem particularly true to me at that point: this was a painful wake-up call. One of the things I was forced to evaluate was my own lack of self-discipline and I had to make pretty radical changes to the way I was living, particularly in regard to diet and exercise.
As a child I had disliked participating in the majority of sports, mostly because I felt I was not very good at them and because I was very self-conscious about how I looked when I was doing them! The only thing I had enjoyed doing was swimming, because I loved the feel of the water. Reluctantly, therefore, I decided that if I had to do exercise to improve the state of my health, swimming was where I’d better start.
The first time I went swimming was on a Wednesday evening in December, not the most exciting time of year to be starting a new way of life. I managed 22 lengths in one go (550 metres), which was considerably more than I’d done in the past twenty years put together, so I was quite encouraged by that. I reckoned that if I could do a few more each time, in a few weeks I’d be doing quite well.
Maths was never my strong point, so I was quite surprised when, on announcing that I hoped to manage 30 lengths next time, my son casually said, “If you do 32, that’s half a mile.”
That was a carrot dangled in front of me. Half a mile sounded much more virtuous than 550 metres. And once I’d achieved that, he reminded me that 40 lengths was a kilometre, and that sounded even better. And then 50 lengths didn’t seem that much more. And then, just as casually, “Did you know 64 lengths is a mile?”
Within a few months I’d managed a mile and by then I’d discovered that there was a great deal of satisfaction in perseverance and that I could do much more than I’d ever imagined. These days I swim 80 lengths most mornings and can manage 2 miles in under 2 hours. I’ve done a sponsored swim of 5 km (200 lengths) and did a Channel Swim of 22 miles in 12 sessions. There’s a lot to be said for perseverance!
Perseverance is required if we are to finish the race God has marked out for us. Hebrews 12:1 TNIV says ‘let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’ What I discovered with swimming was that if we just keep doing what is required, however boring it seems or however painful, the end result is virtue. Some days, swimming feels great. Other days, it feels like agony. But again, it doesn’t really matter what it feels like. Perseverance tells me I need to do this because it’s good for me and so I do it. Seeing the results – lower blood pressure and lower blood sugars – is reward for the effort.
Often, we give up because we don’t see results instantly or get rewards straightaway and because it’s hard work to persevere. ‘Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.’ (Gal 6:7-9 TNIV)
Rick Bass uses the analogy of a glacier to emphasise that perseverance pays off. He writes “A glacier is the most powerful force the world has ever seen. Nothing, literally nothing, can stop a glacier. A glacier is formed by the falling of snow that accumulates over a period of time. As the snow deepens, the weight compresses. Ice is formed, and then more snow, which becomes more ice, year after year after year. Nothing happens for a long time, but when the glacier is sixty-four feet thick, it starts to move, and once it starts nothing can stop it…I believe that even if your heart leans just a few degrees to the left or the right of center [sic], that with enough resolve, which can substitute for mass, and enough time, a wobble will one day begin, and the ice will begin to form, where for a long time previous there might have been none.” (quoted in Eugene Peterson’s ‘Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places’ P 338) Eugene Peterson and others talk about ‘a long obedience in the same direction’ as being one of the hallmarks of being a Christian. Perseverance takes time but is necessary for finishing the race of life, so that we can say, like Paul, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ (2 Tim 4:7 TNIV)
If we don’t give up, we will be amazed at what God can achieve through even our own ordinary efforts.