“How to Run and Box When You Are Over Eighty”
“Elsie Viren was for sixty-two years (1929-1991) on the staff of Bethlehem Baptist Church in various capacities generally called ‘church missionary.’ She was a rock of persevering faithfulness to Christ and his church.
“Near the end she lay with a slowly mending hip in the Augustana Home near the church. Her memory was limited and her eyes were dim. But she knew when we came, and she talked with customary spunk and courtesy and gratitude.
“During her final illness, I preached two messages at the church under the theme ‘Olympic Spirituality’ (because the Olympics were on everyone’s mind). The Bible speaks of ‘running the race’ (Hebrews 12:1), and ‘not boxing the air’ (1 Corinthians 9:26), and ‘fighting the fight’ (2 Timothy 4:7), and ‘pommeling the body’ in athletic discipline (1 Corinthians 9:27). I asked the question: How can Elsie run? She does not look like an Olympic marathoner these days. How can Elsie box? Or does she even have to? Are running and boxing only for the fit and hardy?
“The answer is that we all must run, whether old or young, whether sick or healthy. And this is possible for the sick and senile because the race is run with the heart, not the legs, and the fight is fought with the heart, not the fists. It is a race and a fight not against other athletes, but against unbelief. It is possible for the aged and weak to win this fight because the fight is a fight against lost hope, not against lost health.
“Here’s the biblical evidence for this. In 1Timothy 6:12 Paul says to Timothy: ‘Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession’ (RSV, emphasis added). The fight is a ‘fight of faith.’ It is not a fight to get out of bed, but to rest in God.
“It is not a fight to keep all the powers of youth, but to trust in the power of God. The race is run against temptations that would make us doubt God’s goodness. It is a fight to stay satisfied in God through broken hips and lost sight and failed memory. The race can and may be run flat on your back. In fact, it may be run and fought better by the paralyzed than by the able and seemingly self-sufficient.
“Again Paul said in 2 Timothy 4:7, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (RSV, emphasis added). Finishing the race means keeping faith. It is a race against unbelief, not against aging.
“Another way to put it is that the fight is a fight to keep hoping in God. ‘[Christ will] present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before [God], provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel’ (Colossians 1:22-23, RSV, emphasis added). Finishing the race means not giving up the hope of the gospel. It is a race against hopelessness, not against flawlessness.
“When we cheer on the diseased or aging runners who run their final laps in hospital beds, what we are really saying is, ‘Do not throw away your confidence which has a great reward’ (Hebrews 10:35). The finish line is crossed in the end, not by a burst of human energy, but by collapsing into the arms of God. And let us not forget: In the Christian race, we do not finish alone. We finish together. It is part of the rules. ‘Encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin’ (Hebrews 3:13). The more difficult it becomes for an older person to use the mind and the memory, the more we must fight with him and for him, wielding the sword of the Spirit where his own hand is weak. If any strays, we bring him back with mercy and meekness (Galatians 6:1; James 5:20). We encourage the fainthearted and help the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:14). We ‘visit the widows in their affliction’ (James 1:27)—whatever it takes to help them fight the fight and finish the race.
“Do you know an Elsie? Don’t leave her (or him) to fight alone. Remember that you too are in the body, and one day you will lie on your back alone, unable to read the Bible and barely able to think clearly to pray. Who will hold up your arm? Who will put the sword in your hand? Who will help you run?”
-From John Piper’s book Taste and See, entry 50, Published by Multnomah Publishers 1999