Why do I keep running?

This morning on my five mile run I was reminded of why I so often link this crazy, obsessive physical discipline with my Christian life: in both, sometimes I have to force myself to keep going, for no earthly reason. The Christian life can be tough. We know the way we want to live and the decisions we want to make, but during challenging times our thinking can become clouded by the irrelevant things going on down here in this life. This earthly life. I find that's a really good time to flip to Matthew 7:13-14 and remind myself that this really is a difficult walk to be on: "narow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it."

That verse never fails to encourage me. But more than anything, I want to be one of those few who pass through that narrow gate and I need to remind myself of that on a regular basis. I need to focus on them, just like I focus on my running goals. Like this morning when I hit that June pavement under the blazing sun - you know, when patches of tar on the road soften and turn gummy? Following my training plan to finish a sub-2 hour half marathon this Fall no longer seemed like a big enough payoff for the sweaty agony of this run. So I had to dig really deep and remember all the reasons why I made the decision to toe the starting line to begin with.

On this particular training run, I thought about a good friend who is a far more talented runner than I. She shared with me that during a 5k race a few months ago she not only set a personal record, but was also the first female finisher overall. Yet, she confided, she ran the entire second and third miles of the course consumed with the idea of faking a heart attack or hurt leg, just so she could stop running! For her, at that moment, the pain of continuing to run a 6 minute mile felt overwhelming and she wanted to give up. She had lost sight of the trophy waiting for her at the finish line, presumably the reason she entered the race to begin with!

So today I'm thinking about how to stay on this journey even when it becomes incredibly difficult. I am humbled by Paul and Silas, who sang hymns and praised God in prison after being beaten in the center of town. Reading those verses in Acts almost makes my heart hurt. I wonder why they didn't feel like giving up in such dire circumstances while sometimes my faith is tested under far more palatable conditions.

I personally have never experienced physical pain as the price of my Christian life, and I truly thank God for that. But I have, sadly, found myself tempted in far less significant circumstances. For example, sometimes I want to spend my money really irresponsibly. Sometimes I don't want to give 10 percent of my income to anyone other than the nice mortgage company who lent us the money to buy a vacation home in Fiji! There, I said it. I daydream about friends lounging on our private beach sipping fruity alcoholic concoctions with parasols mixed by the 2010 version of Fabio.

But my financially irresponsible daydreams don't always have to be that extravagant. I can fantasize about poor financial decisions when the J.Crew catalog arrives in my mail box. After looking at pages and pages of beautiful people in beautiful clothing having a beautiful time, I want to spend 10 percent of my income - more, if necessary - on cashmere cardigans. Dozens and dozens of cashmere cardigans, layered one atop the next. And I want to wear them while standing under the Eiffel Tower, laughing, and holding the hand of a little boy wearing knickers.

When I have these thoughts, I need to quickly reacquaint myself with Jesus's admonishment not to collect treasure on this earth which can be so easily lost or eaten by moths (an especially appropriate warning for those of us thinking of investing in J. Crew cashmere cardigans) but to set our sights on treasure in His kingdom where, Jesus tells us, His father's house has many mansions. Mansions! Did John say Mansions? Yep, you heard right, mansions. But God goes even one step further: He promises us not only a mansion in heaven, but one that Jesus Himself has prepared especially for us! Build mine with a balcony overlooking the ocean, please!

But seriously, sometimes we have to dig deep to stay on this walk, so its a good idea to have a few things you can rely on when the going gets tough. When I was in a 12-step program we talked about having a tool box with phone numbers of people we could call for help, a list of meetings in our area, or some good reading material to turn to if, or more likely when, the urge to use drugs hit. This has worked to keep me clean for almost 8 years now.

Given its successful track record, I developed similar tools to keep me running. I read magazine articles about running and train with a group of women. I stretch out regularly to prevent injuries. I have a sports doctor to call when something doesn't feel quite right. And every day I spend some time reminding myself of why I run to begin with, so when the temperatures go above 80 and my muscles are sore and I don't want to take another step forward, I have something solid to focus on, to remember why I do this.

Doesn't it make sense to have the same tool box to support us on the road with Jesus? You might start by reading His book and writing down, or highlighting, some particularly meaningful verses. Or better yet, memorize them. Find a group of people who are also on this journey and keep their phone numbers handy so you can call them when you need help. I visit some awesome websites for inspirational messages. Find what works for you, but remember to use these tools daily, whether you want to, or not.

So, what tools will you put in your box to keep you running strong?