The sensation isn’t your typical fatigue.
It’s accompanied by a host of other ailments both physiological and psychological: shortness of breath, fear, Jell-O legs, dread, and rationalizations. A survival mechanism seems to set in, trying to trick you into believing if you don’t stop, you’ll die. And even for those who’ve experienced the sensation many times before, that lie is so convincing.
This is runner’s wall.
When I took up running a few years back, I was out of shape. (That’s stating it generously.) As a result I would hit that wall within minutes. On the days when I muscled up enough willpower to continue through the pain, I discovered I could then run for a long period of time. It’s as if my body realized it was no use protesting and surrendered, ceasing to complain about the discomfort. Then on other days I gave in and stopped. I hated those days.
Truth is, the wall is not unique to runners. Competitors in just about any endurance sport are susceptible to the condition. But even beyond physical exercise, one is bound to experience something similar.
In fact, I believe this phenomenon occurs in spiritual life too. We set goals, make efforts to pray more, study the Scriptures more, serve more, love more. We enthusiastically lace up the spiritual sneakers and head out the door to “run the race,” as Paul said.
And no matter how trained, how disciplined, or how devout we are, we eventually meet resistance. We hit a point where what was once exhilarating and fulfilling has become painful and tiresome and almost unbearable. I’ve been there.
There have been times in my life when attending church seemed pointless. And reading the Bible and praying a chore. During one season of life in particular, I felt like there was a literal wall between God and me. I remember going weeks where I’d pray and hear nothing back. I felt nothing. I’d go to church and listen to the sermon and sing the songs. I’d read the Bible, but it didn’t speak to me as it had in the past.
It was as if I were writing letters to a friend overseas. My prayers were like ink spilled on stationery, stuffed in an envelope, and dropped in the mail. Then I waited for that friend to respond. Knowing it takes some time to hear back, I exercised patience at first. But after a few weeks I began to wonder if my words ever reached my friend or if he just cast them aside, too busy to respond.
Just like my body ached when jogging, my soul began to ache. It begged me to stop trying to exercise my spiritual muscles to alleviate the pain of discipline, the agony of silence, and the apparent meaninglessness. Yet something within me pushed me to continue. Maybe it was my experience with running that caused me to know things would get better. Maybe the Spirit was working within me, though I wasn’t conscious of it. Or maybe I was just too stubborn to quit. Whatever it was, I pressed on.
Many runners attempt to avoid the wall, and I can understand why. It’s debilitating. Physiologically speaking, runners hit the wall when their bodies run out of carbohydrates. (Ever hear of carbo loading?) But while lacking the proper nutrients is undoubtedly a bad thing, you know what that also means? At this stage, the body begins to burn fat. Persisting through the wall creates a leaner, fitter runner, painful as it is.
Maybe that’s why we endure this kind of resistance in our spiritual lives too. Maybe God is testing us; causing us to become leaner, more fit souls. What if he’s trying to teach us perseverance, thereby—as Paul wrote—developing character?
I do believe God was testing me during those weeks of silence. He wanted to see if I would persist even in apparent solitude. All the while he was melting away my spiritual fat. The process was uncomfortable and discouraging. But through the process I came out with a stronger faith, with stronger spiritual muscles.
I like the way Job said it: “When he has tested me, I will come forth as gold”. God knows what’s best for us. He knows how to refine us into something precious—by conforming us to his will. But in order to do that, we must change. And change is rarely comfortable. The Christian life is like an endurance sport, filled with ups and downs. And the only way to finish the race is to keep running.
That’s the key for overcoming the wall: persistence. Maybe God uses these moments of struggle to see how far we can run. But here’s the best part. We don’t have to run alone. Though it may feel like God is absent, the Spirit is ever-present. He runs alongside us and supplies us strength even if we don’t recognize his presence.