Within two days, this October, Kenya runners set new record times for marathons. Eliud Kipchoge broke the two hour record for men, finishing the Vienna Marathon within 1 hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds. Brigid Kosgei set a new women’s record at 2 hours, 14 minutes and 4 seconds at the Chicago marathon.
After the marathon, Kipchoge stated: “Personally, I don’t believe in limits … I’m sending a message to every individual in this world that when you work hard, when you actually concentrate, when you set your priorities high, when you actually set your goals, and put them in your heart and in your mind and in your mind, you will accomplish, without any question.”
As St. Paul described the close of his life by the image of a runner, “I have finished the race” (2 Tim 4:7). Earlier, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul used a similar comparison: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever “(1 Cor:24-25).
What connection is there between an athlete and a Christian? St. Thomas in his Commentary of the Second Letter to Timothy, recognizes that similar to an athlete, a Christian concentrates all his or her energies at achieving a goal, but for the Christian, the goal is holiness: “It is called a course or journey to holiness, because they run swiftly in order to run better, being prodded by the goad of charity” (Commentary, 149).
As often as not, we forget that the purpose of Christian life is holiness. What is holiness? Thomas Aquinas explains: “Primarily and essentially the perfection of the Christian life consists in charity, principally as to the love of God, secondly as to the love of our neighbor…” (2a2ae. 184, 3).
Is it realistic to see love as a possible goal for every Christian? The Second Vatican Council thought so: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love” (Lumen Gentium, “The Constitution on the Church,” 40). The Council asserts: “The true disciple of Christ is marked by love both of God and of his neighbor” (Lumen Gentium, “The Constitution on the Church,” 42). Love is not only the goal but love drives us, as St. Paul declares “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14).
Paul uses another athletic image: “I have fought the good fight” (2 Tim 4:6). How can a fight be “good” and who are we fighting?
St. Thomas Aquinas observes that a “good fight” concerns something good, “if it were waged on behalf of faith and justice” (Commentary, 149). Still, even though the cause is good, it isn’t a good fight unless we fight it in a good way, “… a struggle is good if it is conducted well, i.e. carefully…” In athletic events, some players don’t play in a very good way. At times, our good intentions can be excuses for acting quite differently from Jesus’ Beatitudes.
Our “fights” may be our personal challenges. Thomas points out a ‘good fight” means that “the struggle is difficult.” We shouldn’t be surprised that there are difficulties in our lives. When we set out to do something good we necessarily find difficulties. Would anyone waste time watching a race or an athletic event that was without challenges, unless, of course, the competitors were pre-school children?
The one with whom we “fight” may be ourselves and our own resistance. Paul had previously stated: “Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor 9:26-27)
As St. Paul was coming to the end of his life, greater challenges awaited him, especially his imprisonment and martyrdom, as Thomas notes: “The struggle and the journey towards death continued… he was not finished struggling or running…”
Despite what was before him, Paul asserted, “I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). He didn’t mean simply agreeing to the truths of the faith but accepting the difficulties that he would meet in living them, as St. Thomas says: “He uses God’s gifts for the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbors.”
Paul speaks of a “crown”: “There is laid up for me a merited crown which, on that day, the Lord the just judge will render to me” (2 Tim 4:8). What type of crown is this? According to Thomas, the primary “crown” is “nothing less than the joy in the truth… God is our crown.”
Thomas reflects that the just as the race involves charity, the reward will be charity: “The crown will be given for charity alone, ‘He who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will manifest Myself to him’ (Jn 14:21).” Not only will the soul be crowned but the body will also receive eternal life: “What is sown in corruption, shall rise in in corruption” (1 Cor 15:43).
St. Thomas asks why Paul talks of “merit” when eternal life is a gift? The word for “grace” in New Testament Greek and in Thomas’ Latin means “gift.” Grace is a “gift” that is given to us. Even our perseverance is a gift of grace. Paul realized this as he affirms: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect” (1 Cor 15:10).
Even Paul’s cooperation with grace was a grace, as Thomas explains: “Grace is involved inasmuch as it is the root of merit, and justice inasmuch as it is an act proceeding from the will” (Commentary, 151).
According to Thomas, our “merit” is actually God’s reward for doing what He helps us do by grace: “Man obtains from God as a reward of his operation, what God gave him the power of operation for…” (Summa Theologiae, 2a, 2ae, 114, 1).
Paul knows that he will not be alone receiving the reward “but all who have looked for His coming with eager longing” (2 Tim 4:8). During Kipchoge’s race, forty different “pace-setters’ joined him for parts of the race, to keep up his speed. On November 1, we will celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints. The saints also run with us, inspiring us and praying for us.
Unfortunately, Paul’s converts did not stand by him in the day of his trial, but as Thomas reflects: “Because they did this out of weakness, he prays for them.”
When Paul asserts that God was the one who gave him strength, he is showing how God gives us the grace to cooperate with Him: “The Lord stood by my side and gave me strength” (2 Tim 4:17). Thomas observes: “Where men depart, God offers Himself.” God strengthened Paul not to be intimidated by the authorities: “… giving me strength of soul not to be dazzled by Caesar.”
Following Christ brings its struggles, as it did for Paul. God gives us the grace and strength to run the race and to fight the good fight.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References are to Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Second Letter to Timothy, Vol. 40, The Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, translated by F.R. Larcher, O.P., edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón, (Lander Wyoming: Aquinas Institute, 2012).
References to St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae give the part of the Summa, for instance, the second part of the second part. Then the question is given, such as question 112 and then the article, such as the 1st. If the reference is from Thomas response to an objection, the number of the objection is added, with the Latin word, ad, meaning “to,” in this case, it is the reply to the third objection.