From age 10, I’ve been told that I am a “good runner.”
Growing up, I was the quiet, awkward girl for 364 days out of the year. On Pacer Test Day, I was the hero of gym class. Naturally, I clung to this identity; as soon as I could, I joined a local USATF club team and signed up for intramural cross country and track through my middle school.
During my freshman cross country season at Lincoln East High School, I earned an immediate spot on Varsity — along with pride issues I’d grapple with for years. At age 14, I helped my team win state. At age 15, I raced on a record-setting 4×800 meter relay. At age 16, I received letters from college coaches, and I couldn’t help imagining myself becoming an All-American someday.
At age 17, I signed to run Division II cross country and track at Augustana University. As I dragged my pen across the National Letter of Intent, I wrote not only my name but my entire athletic future into existence — the future I’d dreamed of since I was 10.
Trajectories are strange. We expect smooth, steady progression. We expect the past to predict the future. We expect a direct correlation between effort and results. In short, we imagine our athletic careers to look something like this:
When we get older, we realize that life isn’t a straight diagonal line. A teammate gets a stress fracture. A friend becomes anemic. A coach passes away. With these unexpected, yet attributable setbacks in mind, we adjust our goals accordingly:
But, even this perception is flawed. Life is messy, and we’re not robots operating under a direct input-output system. Nothing is guaranteed — not even the promise of an upward trend. After nine years of competitive running, this is the most accurate graph I can draw:
It’s confusing. It’s unpredictable. It makes absolutely no sense, and that’s the point.
Last night, I watched a sermon from The Porch’s “Instagram Theology” series, in which the pastor analyzed the popular hashtag #GoodVibesOnly. He spoke about The Prosperity Gospel — the belief that God rewards faithful Christians with worldly accolades, such as money, fame and health — and why this theology is misleading. God actually never promised an easy life for His followers; He promised exactly the opposite! In John 16:33, Jesus tells his disciples that they will struggle in this world. Yet, through His love and sacrifice, Jesus has overcome these struggles. Sure, the Bible alludes to prosperity in verses like Jeremiah 29:11 and Romans 8:28. But, this reward isn’t a new car, a healthy baby or a championship trophy; it’s God’s ability to renew our spirit during messy seasons. Besides, His view of “good” and “bad,” of “success” and “failure,” is so far beyond our understanding.
The Prosperity Gospel affects athletics, too. Too often, we hear extravagant comeback stories — athletes who overcome obstacles, surpass mediocrity, smash records and become superhuman. We love these stories, and we are especially inspired when the comeback involves prayer.
But, what does it mean when we don’t get better? Do we need to work harder? Eat less? Pray more?
It’s easy to analyze our athletic failures and ask, “What am I doing wrong?” Sometimes, we can tweak our training. Sometimes, we can sleep more. But there are only so many factors we can control; we can be the most disciplined person in the world, but the results will always be in God’s hands. No matter what, God loves us and He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t reward our faith with PRs, and He doesn’t punish our unbelief with DNFs.
I believe that God has blessed me with the opportunity to compete in collegiate athletics — but not because He wants me to be an All-American. Through cross country and track, God has renewed and refined my faith. When I’m injured, He teaches me patience. When I’m emotionally vulnerable, He loves. When I’m frustrated, He showers me with grace. And when I feel completely alone, He leads me back to my teammates and coaches, through whom I continually see His virtues.
I have a purpose on the Augustana cross country team. I may never understand exactly what that purpose is, but I have faith that God knows what He is doing. It’s painful to let go of monstrous individual goals. But, the release from such weighty expectation is freeing. As of September 5, 2019, my love for running does not depend on the little numbers on my Garmin. Most importantly, I will be content as long as God can use my life to show Himself to others.
And by letting go of these goals, I am in no ways limiting myself. Rather, I am opening my mind to what God can do in my life — on and off the course. I might become an Olympian. I might be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Most likely, I’ll fall somewhere in between.
Regardless, I am eager to race at Twilight tomorrow evening with my strong, fearless friends. As a (still awkward) 21-year-old, I don’t know much. But, I know that I love my team and I know that I love my God.