‘Catching Kayla’ reminds Christians that weak runners must finish strong
by Peter Benyola
This week went viral on social media a video telling the remarkable story of a young athlete who has achieved being one of the top long-distance runners in North Carolina. By all appearances, Kayla Montgomery is a healthy and normal 19-year-old, except that she has a disability known as “multiple sclerosis,” or MS. Wanting to remain athletic after her diagnosis, she was unable to continue contact sports such as soccer, so she chose to take up running. Despite her condition, she competes anyway, and her resolve usually triggers an attack of her MS, causing her to lose feeling in her legs, lose motor control, and fall into her coach’s arms at the finish line.
MS is an autoimmune disease affecting the body’s nervous system, in which the brain does not properly communicate with the spinal cord, which can disable other organs and extremities. MS can be extremely debilitating and has no known cure. There are several main types: one in which symptoms are relapsing-remitting, another in which the symptoms get progressively worse, and in some cases, types where relapses become worse and more frequent, progressing the effects of the disease.
Kayla apparently deals with the episodic version of the disorder at this point. A friend of my family named Nick suffered with a progressive form of the disease, which many would consider much worse. Earlier in his life, he walked with a cane, then a walker, and by the time I was a child, Nick was in a wheelchair but was able to sit up at a table and eat and talk on his own. Within a few years, he was completely bedridden and lived in an assisted-living facility. When his family, my family and I went to visit him on Sunday every few weeks, he could not move and could barely speak on his own, but he was completely lucid and his joy was palpable when he got visitors. As far as I know, Nick never complained about his condition and he held out hope of recovery until he succumbed to the effects of the disease on his vital organs. I remember seeing an old black-and-white portrait of Nick with his cane standing in the middle of a large number of his students in front of the school in the Bronx where he used to teach.
Kayla and Nick probably come from very different walks of life, but what they both had in common was a disorder that affected their lives and chose to make the best of it. I don’t know if either of them were Christians, but I can’t help but compare their stories with the race that each and every single Christian is called to run to the end.
Running to win
It would be impossible here for us to explore every reference in Scripture to the Christian’s race — Hebrews 12 contains a rich metaphor of the endurance required for runners as the endurance of the Christian life. But a good place to start is the first epistle to the Corinthian church. In the 1st century, Roman athletes would spend months conditioning for the Olympic Games and the Isthmian Games. Apostle Paul was probably the first of many teachers to capitalize on the popularity of sporting events among his listeners as analogies to the gospel of Christ. Comparing the race to the believer’s life of perseverance and faithfulness, the apostle said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (I Corinthians 9:24-25).
The apostle encourages believers to be as focused and disciplined as the athletes competing in those games. In our temporal existence, our motivation should not be for a trophy that will tarnish, but for a crown that will last forever: one that we will inherit and then cast at the feet of Christ.
Of course, Paul’s exhortation was put to the test when he faced obstacles on his path by the world, the flesh and the devil (Ephesians 2:2-3). At the twilight of his ministry, he wrote to his protégé, Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (II Timothy 4:7-8). Paul wasn’t commending himself for having run the full distance — he was referring to the grace of God which empowered him to make it as far as he did. Elsewhere, Paul said, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). Paul knew what his purpose was and what was expected of him, and he fixated on the figure of Christ at the finish line.
By declaring “I have finished the race,” Paul was telling Timothy that even though his race wasn’t quite over, he had done everything he could with what he had to promulgate the gospel throughout the known world. If anyone was a spiritual “juggernaut,” it was Paul, but he was quick to acknowledge that any momentum he had was afforded by God (I Corinthians 15:10, II Corinthians 10:17-18, Colossians 1:28-29). He completed the course set before him, passed the baton to Timothy, reminded him whence he should look for strength (II Timothy 2:1), and was ready to collapse into the arms of his Savior.
Of course, as with most Scriptural analogies, a slight breakdown occurs in Apostle Paul’s. He states that there is only one winner of the race (I Corinthians 9:24), but every Christian is appointed to win his race (John 6:37-40). No matter what strengths and weaknesses are apportioned to each believer, we are not called to compare ourselves to those running alongside us, but to judge our pace by the standard of Christ, finish the race with what we’ve been given and receive an equal reward (cf. Matthew 20:1-16, John 21:21-22, II Corinthians 10:12).
Disability in the race
Revisiting the factor of disability, some of us, such as Kayla and Nick, bear more visible weaknesses in this life than others, but the fact of our sinful nature actually makes each one of us a runner who is disabled (Hebrews 12:1). We all rely on God’s grace to quicken us to be able to move, and make us sufficient in our insufficiency (II Corinthians 12:9). When we see Christians running their race who have special limitations, we are really looking into a mirror of our own broken state before God. The word “autonomous” comes from the Greek nomous meaning “law”; and auto, meaning “done on its own.” Only God is truly “autonomous,” truly a law unto Himself; we are heteron, separate but dependent beings, and subject to the law of God. Since the law excites sin and sin is a fact of our lives (Romans 5:18-21), we all are spiritually crippled and in need of someone to hold us up. How easily and how often do we forget how debilitating sin is and that it’s a hereditary condition for us all. Those who live with disabilities serve as a reminder of how much each one of us needs Christ to sustain us to the end (I Corinthians 1:6-9, I Peter 4:11).
In an interview with Tabletalk, Dr. Michael Beates discussed how God can use disability to magnify His glory: “A well-known saying is: ‘God is good, all the time; all the time, God is good.’ In John 9, Jesus corrects a common mistake people make. If someone lives with a tragic disabling condition, it must be the result, so we think, of someone’s sin — either that person, or perhaps that person’s parents. But Jesus offers a tertium quid, a third way: some people live with disabilities so that the glory of God might be displayed in and through them. I have called this ‘the Mephibosheth Principle.’ In 2 Samuel 9, David, serving here as a type of Christ to come, brings Mephibosheth to the king’s table, even though Mephibosheth remained lame in both feet. What a picture this is of the goodness of God for us. We, though we remain broken and sinful, are invited to the King’s table. We are given a status and honor beyond what we deserve or merit, just as with Mephibosheth. As we grasp this truth, and as those who live with radical brokenness are brought into fellowship with God and His people, the goodness of God is made manifest before the watching world.”
Human autonomy is truly an illusion. Even for the healthiest, most robust, most virile members of the body of Christ, our own strength is a veneer, for “… he himself [God] gives to all mankind life and breath and everything … for ‘In him we live and move and have our being'” (Acts 17:25-28). No matter who we are, the only reason Christians endure in the faith is because God loves us and permits us by His strength (Psalm 28:8, John 6:27, 63, Philippians 1:6, 29, 2:12-13, 4:13,I Corinthians 1:6-9, 15:10, II Corinthians 4:7-12, Colossians 1:11-12, II Timothy 2:12, I Peter 4:11).
Rather than eschew our brokenness and weaknesses, we can acknowledge them as means by which God glorifies Himself. Like Kayla Montgomery, simply persisting to run will exacerbate the inherent weaknesses that threaten to hinder us along the way. But if we stay the course, then even on our last legs we know Who is ready to catch us at the terminus.
(Philippians 3:10-14) “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”