Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
I am not a natural athlete, but I live in culture that values running and a work in an environment that requires physical fitness. I’ve recently found the value in a a particular strategy when I run: visualizing the goal. When my mind tells me “you can’t finish” or “you can quit now” or “man, I’m tired of this,” I picture myself crossing the finish line. I can see myself in my mind’s eye: head erect, full stride, feet striking the ground without pounding my knees, muscles pain free, breathing in rhythm with my pace, letting the refreshing wind hit my face, smiling with satisfaction at completing the run. This is not often what I actually experience as I cross the finish line. I am often sore in some part of my body, cold or hot, and fighting for breath. Picturing success, however, helps me keep going when part of me wants to quit. It also helps my performance during the run itself; I start to run more like I picture myself running.
Almost everyone will recognize this as a “trick” of sports psychology. Elite athletes use imagery and mental rehearsals to hone their skills and increase their confidence. The mind processes imagined experiences much like it does “real” experiences. Visualization helps strengthen muscle memory and builds mental blueprints of how a task is performed. The proponents of visualization claim that its effectiveness has been demonstrated scientifically.
The use of visualization and imagery has applications outside the world of sports: firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and soldiers have jobs that are so athletic in nature that the application is rather obvious. Their jobs place high demands on gross and fine motor skills in a high stress, physically demanding environment. Tasks must be programmed into muscle memory, so that the mind can focus free from the need to think “how do I do this?”
The application, however, is even broader than the physical demands of combat or sporting events. Visualization can help people overcome their fears, live more confidently and better perform the tasks that are important to their lives. Visualization can help people in a variety of ways, from getting past an irrational fear of riding in airplanes to becoming a more effective speaker.
It can even help Christians grow both personally and in their service of Christ. Do you feel called to some ministry or service or work for God, but fear is holding you back? Or are you performing some service for God, but you think you are doing it clumsily and ineffectively and you lack confidence? Picturing yourself performing the task confidently and successfully can help! But if you need someone to teach you how to do this, ask someone else.
Visualization as a psychological tool belongs to the realm of common wisdom. It has been of some benefit to me personally and I imagine (no pun intended) that it might be a good thing for others as well. It is not, however, a prescription of the church for the cure of souls. It is common wisdom, not a religious practice. There is no reason then, in my opinion, to go searching through the Bible to find find it somewhere in the pages of scripture. There’s no difference as far as I’m concerned between a doctor who says “If you want to have a fit body, eat these foods” and a psychologist who says, “If you want to have a fit mind, think these thoughts.”
I received my theological training at a time when “pastoral counseling” was an important model of ordained ministry. I am no longer inclined to think of the church in general, or the pastor in particular, as some sort of junior partner in the practice of psychological therapy or behavioral health. I don’t discount the validity of those disciplines, but my ordination bestows me with neither expertise nor vocation in those areas.
And while I’m on the topic, let me add that visualization itself has no power to change anything but me. Visualizing peace doesn’t cause my brain to emanate invisible “peace waves” into the community. It is possible, certainly, to pray with visual imagery, but the power in prayer belongs to God and not to the potency of my imagination.
So, then, that’s enough about visualization as a means to enhance one’s performance, “for, the training of the body has a limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8)
So let us think, then, about becoming godly people and developing godly characters, and not just about at successfully reaching our goals in life. Even here, visualizing the end of our endeavors plays a significant role.
Paul says that he puts the past out of his mind and presses on toward the goal – the prize – of God’s heavenly call. As I envision the hope of God’s new creation, I find myself persevering in the faith. The hope – the promise – the vision – of God’s final victory in Christ keeps me putting one foot in front of another even when part of me tells me to quit the race. Looking beyond my immediate thoughts and emotions to the promise of life in God’s kingdom keeps me going, and envisioning what right looks like transforms the way I run the race.
I hope that it does not seem as if I am simply applying secular sports psychology to matters of religion. What I am describing is not strictly a psychological phenomenon; something even more powerful is at work. The end-state that we envision and the goal toward which we run is nothing other than the promise of the word of God. God works powerfully through his word in ways that transcend psychology. If we draw our vision of the end from our own hopes and dreams about the future, we will probably find psychological encouragement in that; we would, however, be building our hopes on our own fantasies. Apart from the word of God, it is no more true that the world “must” become a just and loving place than it is that I “must” live forever. Nothing is true simply because my sense of justice would be offended if it were not. If we are fortunate, we will recognize the hollowness of our imagination sooner rather than later.
God’s word, however, has the ability to create a living faith that perseveres in the face of every difficulty; it has the ability to transform us as we live in its presence.
The hope that God plants within us by means of his word enables us to persevere. Over time, focusing our vision on God’s new creation will transform our hopes and desires in this age. In the age to come, love will overcome hate. Everyone will live in security and prosperity. No one will labor in vain. Knowledge will overcome ignorance. Truth will cast out falsehood. Life will triumph over violence, disease and death. All creation will live in peace and all creatures will enjoy God’s good gifts. How can you gaze on that vision of shalom – peace – wholeness – and not want to live in that world today? How can you not want it not only for yourself, but for your neighbors and your community and your world? That’s what I mean when I say that the vision will change you.
So how do I keep the vision of God’s coming kingdom in view as I live my life. I suppose I could just try to think about it a lot. The church, however, has given us some ways to keep the vision of God’s future front and center in our minds. The church’s liturgy – its sacraments – its preaching of the word of God: these point us in two directions. They look backward, reminding us of what the scriptures tell us that God has done. They also look forward, to the fulfillment of God’s creative power in the age to come.
Our prayers also look forward to God’s final victory. Jesus teaches to always pray, “Your kingdom come.”
And I’ve learned to think of our experience in worship, fellowship and service as anticipating the future, final reign of God. What we experience when we are together as God’s people ought to give us a preview of the age to come.
To keep running toward the goal, we have to believe that there is a divinely ordained end to this journey, and that God will enable us to reach it. Keeping our eyes on that prize is not all up to us. God has given us the promise of his word. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are there to help us remember what God has done, and where he is taking us. With God’s help, we can keep pressing on until we reach the end of the race.