Marathons and Shattered Tablets

What not finishing is teaching me about grace

Marathons and Shattered Tablets

What not finishing is teaching me about grace

This article is by Josh Brook

I’m a fairly competitive person, but my drive in competition is often fueled by a fear of losing rather than a love of winning. In fact, if you tune in to the internal Spotify playlist I have playing to motivate myself, you may be reminded of Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.

Most days, I feel like I only know how to push myself by berating and belittling myself. If I win or perform well, sure, I’m happy, but maybe it’s more a sense of relief from not losing. Fear of failing next time looms behind every victory. This same cloud hangs over my professional career – particularly in sales. After closing a deal, I’m slow to celebrate the win and instead spend time sighing that nothing blew up in my face. The momentary relief doesn’t last long though, because the next opportunity to screw up could be right over the horizon.

While I aspire to be this crazy athletic stud and super successful businessman, my fear of coming up short and failing means that I don’t go all out. I‘m afraid that if I leave it all out on the field or in exercise terms “go to failure” there will be no place to hide if I come up short. Put differently, by refraining from pouring myself out, I can hold on to my delusions and keep my fantasy alive.

Some days I feel like I’m running all over trying to keep the cracks in my fantasy from spreading and having my ideal self come crashing down. It’s on days like this when my internal playlist is the loudest and loops for hours, not just when working or exercising. If I spill water while doing the dishes, I’m a failure. If I forget to get an item at the grocery store, I am an idiot. If my car is low on gas I am a f***ing idiot-failure who can’t get anything right. Those are just a few of the classic hits.

By my own ideals, I continually fall short. The standards I have for myself prove to be a curse upon my life and self-condemnation repeats over and over in my head. When reading Scripture, I identify strongly with Moses, who had no shortage of anger management issues. I wonder if my internal monologue is similar to the anger and frustration he felt when he first brought the law down to the Israelites and found them worshiping an idol they made for themselves: 

Moses said, “It is not the sound of a victory shout, and it’s not the sound of a shout of defeat, but it’s the sound of singing that I hear.” As Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became angry. He threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the base of the mountain. Exodus 34:18-19

Whenever I read this story, I see myself on both sides. I’m the one angry about the failure, and I’m the one chasing after false gods. But recently, I’ve begun to hear a new and better playlist, but it took failing and dropping out of a marathon to hear this new music. 

Marathons take months of committed training: getting up early to beat the summer heat, long runs every weekend, and an insatiable appetite. During training runs, I fought to switch the playlist in my head to something more encouraging, “You can do this! Just have fun.” But hollow cliches rarely do anything for me.

When race day finally came around, in the most anti-climactic fashion possible, I suffered an injury and had to drop out of the race after only seven miles. As I hobbled to the spot where my wife and daughter were supposed to be cheering me on to my glorious victory, my failure was on full display and my anger was in complete control.

“God, why would you shame me like this in front of my family? Why the hell did I try to do this in the first place?”

Deeper and deeper I spiraled as I limped for what seemed like a marathon in itself. And who were all these happy people on the side of the road with their stupid signs? I now know with certainty that the “press here for boosters” sign does not work, at least not for me.

But as I turned the corner, I saw my daughter waiting for her dad. 

In terms of the race, she didn’t have a clue what was going on. She wasn’t wearing a stopwatch to track my splits. She was just looking for her dad, who she loves. As I stepped off the road and limped towards her, she threw her sign on the ground. Then she trotted towards me and gave me a hug. My daughter was oblivious that race officials put “DNF” (Did Not Finish) next to my name. If you asked her what the winning time was that day, she wouldn’t be able to answer. None of that mattered to her.

I didn’t realize I was hearing from Jesus that day, and I especially didn’t think he was answering my angry questions, but he was – he was there in that moment when my daughter threw down her sign and hugged me.   

Like Moses, and like my daughter, Jesus also throws down tablets. Do you remember that strange sequence in the Gospel of John where we’re told Jesus is writing in the sand? In John 8, the Pharisees drag a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and demand that He pronounce sentencing against her. Just like with the stone tablets, Jesus etches writing into the ground – but we’re only told about the activity, not the words themselves. Or are we? In the story of Moses, God has to rewrite the tablets a second time after they are broken, but now, with Jesus on the scene, He writes a new and personal word, “neither do I condemn you.” At that moment, Jesus is shattering the commandment, but unlike Moses, He is doing so out of love – substitutionary love. The adulterer deserves to die according to the law, but Jesus is going to cover that debt himself when he is shattered on the cross in our place.

On this side of failure, I am learning to trust God when he says “it is finished.” Every day I need to ask him to shatter the albums of my old classic hits because I keep going back to them just like that Top 40 Hit from middle school. I am learning I can give him my fear of failure because he says, “I love you no matter the outcome. You can run because it doesn’t matter how you perform…it doesn’t matter.”

Whenever a coach says, “Now go out there and just have fun,” everyone knows it’s a lie because if you want to stay on the team, you know you have to perform. But I think when God says it, he actually means it. I am beginning to see fear’s grip loosen, and I can’t help but smile when I think of Jesus, Moses, and my daughter throwing signs on the ground never to be picked up again.