Merciless, methodical, and unrelenting — that’s what it feels like when a group of cyclists climbs a hill. There’s nothing easy about climbing a hill on a bike by yourself, but when you’re trying to stay with the peleton (a group of cyclists riding together), it is a desperate struggle to keep up – to not drop off the back.
“Off the back” is what happens to cyclists who are unable to keep up. When a group of cyclists rides together they work as a unit pulling one another forward. When you’re alone, it takes more effort to maintain the same speed. The problem with falling off the back is that it takes more energy to catch back up to a group that you’ve already failed to keep up with. Because it takes more energy to catch back up, it feels as if your deceleration is exponential. The harder you try, the slower you go.
I was on a group ride a while back. There were probably 30 other riders. Among the group was a couple on a tandem (tandems are “a bicycle built for two”). I was doing great. I was working hard on climbs, but I was recovering quickly. I was keeping up. On one climb, the couple on the tandem passed me. Being passed on a hill by a couple on a tandem, an oversized bike which looks like a stretch limo in a grand prix road race, is hard to swallow. It hurt my feelings. Then in a burst of machismo, I accelerated and passed the tandem. I looked quite strong on the hill, but then I blew up. I couldn’t recover from the exertion quickly enough. The peleton pushed forward. In desperation I tried harder, but I was done – dropped off the back.
Watching the peleton surge forward and having no answer to their pace is a lonely, disheartening experience. There is no mercy. There’s no group resolution to slow down so the big guy can catch up. The merciless peleton moves forward. Have you ever felt dropped? Have you ever watched others surge effortlessly forward, while you just struggle to keep moving?
I think our individual struggles are a lot like being dropped off the back. Both what we perceive as the insensitivity of others to our weaknesses and the shame that we are weak combine to isolate, embitter, and discourage us. We fall off the back. We pull over to the shoulder of the road, climb off the bike, and we wait for the bus.
When the Bible speaks of the dangers a Christian faces, it’s not so much succumbing to some notorious sin but more often its in losing heart. A person doesn’t wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to be wicked.” What does happen is that as life methodically and mercilessly moves forward one feels dropped, hopeless, alone. We forget that we have access to our Heavenly Father in prayer, we forget that we have His presence in the Holy Spirit, our Comforter, and we forget that we have the sufficiency of Jesus who in the same way bore our sins when we first came to know him and who still bears them away today.
Paul encourages us to run in such a way as to win the prize. Paul also knew that Christ had already secured the victory. For a Christian, the victory is not achieved by our work but by believing in Christ’s work. Our job is to not lose heart when we are weary climbing the hills.