I enjoy endurance sports, especially triathlons: swimming, cycling, running. Honest confession: Swimming is not my favorite sport. In a triathlon, however, one needs to survive the swim in order to get to the other two. Perseverance is an important part of this discipline. Imagine sweat-drenched athletes limping over the finish line after months of intense training that includes early morning runs in the darkness, cycling through bad weather, rigorous training schedules, aching muscles, and motivational thoughts while alone in a pool. It can get very lonely out there.
Why would anybody in their right mind put themselves through this? There are, of course, some rewards: the incredible feeling of having persevered and crossed that finish line; the camaraderie along the way (no competitiveness at my level); the crowds cheering the weary athletes; my wife waiting enthusiastically for me to arrive at the finish line; and, oh yes, maybe receiving a commemorative medal that my youngest son likes to abduct and repurpose.
Perseverance is also part of our Christian vocabulary. We encourage one another to persevere in times of adversity: “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12, NIV). We rightly talk about holding steadfast, but I wonder if we might sometimes be focusing too much on our own efforts. Could it be that we subscribe to the questionable concept of Christianity being a religious version of an endurance sport, something akin to the survival of the spiritually fittest? While Paul uses the analogy of a race that needs to be run with endurance (1 Cor. 9:24-27; Heb. 12:1), he balances this image by describing Christ as our forerunner, who has gone before us (Heb. 6:19, 20), and a cloud of witnesses that surround us (Heb. 12:1). Maybe the spiritual race is not that lonely after all.
There is one book in the Bible that represents a cross-section of public and personal faith, spanning a period of approximately 1,000 years, expressed through hymns and prayers in response to God’s actions. The Psalms tell us the story of their authors’ perseverance in their walk with God in very intimate and personal ways as they struggled through joys and sorrows, experienced blessings and curses, and met with good fortune and adversity. No other book in the Bible opens for modern readers such a wide angle into ancient faith. Let’s take a look at three struggles for perseverance in the book of Psalms.
Psalm 37 focuses on perseverance in the context of the righteous being under attack from the wicked. This is a frequent topic in the Psalms and maybe also in our lives. Verses 1, 7, and 8 repeat the exhortation “Do not fret.” The Hebrew phrase translates as “don’t show yourself angry” or “don’t let your anger burn yourself up.” It carries reflexive connotations pointing to a self-consuming, inward-turned anger that eventually can become self-destructive. Perseverance amid pressing adversity or adversaries can lead to anger and frustration, and the reader is encouraged rather to “trust in the Lord” (verse 3), to “delight yourself also in the Lord” (verse 4), to “commit your way to the Lord” (verse 5), and to “rest in the Lord” (verse 7)—all good advice to replace the inward-turned frustrations with divinely directed positive actions.
What about our innermost struggles, when we doubt the very existence of God, let alone His interest and intervention in our lives? The psalmists know these moments when, for example, a life-threatening illness chokes our breath, and we can only whisper a hoarse “How long?” (Ps. 6:3). This question echoes 20 times through the Psalter and reflects the emotions of the psalmists’ as they try to hang on when God seems to be absent.¹ Felt absence, however, is not necessarily real absence. As Jesus used the psalmist’s words (Ps. 42:5, 6; 43:5) in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:38), during a pivotal moment of perseverance in adversity, His Father and angelic host were at His side even though Jesus felt sin’s utter separation: “But God suffered with His Son. Angels beheld the Saviour’s agony.”² Our perseverance is met by God’s presence (Ps. 73:17).
WAIT ON THE LORD
One phrase that best illustrates the quest for perseverance in the psalms is the exhortation “Wait on the Lord,” which occurs together with similar expressions 15 times in the Psalms.³ The Hebrew verb means “to wait, look eagerly, hope for,” and is mostly connected to Yahweh as the object of our hope (e.g., Ps. 71:5). The national anthem of modern Israel is called “The Hope”, expressing an ancient hope for a modern nation. Thus, to “wait on the Lord” means to fix our hope on God, “leaving everything in Yahweh’s hands, expect everything from him, and trust in him alone.”⁴ Another insight into the Hebrew word qawah is its secondary meanings as “gather, bind” and, as a noun, “line, cord,” communicating the idea that to “wait on the Lord” is to bind ourselves to His promises as one would bind a weaker branch to a stronger one with a cord in order to strengthen the weaker. Psalm 27:14 expresses this tight connection: “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (NIV).
THE FINAL LEG
For the past nine years I have run the 7 Bridges Marathon in Chattanooga, a beautiful race over 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) that crosses the Tennessee River seven times. My wife, Thandi, runs the half-marathon and finishes long before me. Normally my perseverance begins to get tested severely between miles 21 and 24, a lonely stretch along the Tennessee Riverwalk. Legs are aching and energy runs low, but I know that I just have to “wait for Thandi,” who has returned to the course and is waiting for me at mile 24.5. She runs with me all the way to the finish line, encouraging me at every step. I have bound my waning strength to her still-existing one, and together we persevere. The psalmists found the secret of “waiting on the Lord” as they fixed their eyes on Him and bound their feebleness to His strength, leaning on the everlasting arms (Deut. 33:27).
¹ Psalms 4:2; 6:3; 13:1, 2; 35:17; 62:3; 74:9, 10; 79:5; 80:4; 82:2; 89:46; 90:13; 94:3; 119:84. ² Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 693. ³ Psalms 9:18; 25:3, 5, 21; 27:14; 37:9, 34; 39:7; 40:1; 52:9; 62:5; 69:6, 20; 71:5; 130:5. ⁴ G. Waschke, “qwh,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. G. J. Botterweck et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), vol. 12, p. 571.