Getting Off the Treadmill (June 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mike Cope
June, 1993

16Excerpt from One Holy Hunger: Discovering the God You’ve Never Known by Mike Cope, Sweet Publishing Co. Used by permission.

A few years ago my dad and my best friend spent a morning together jogging. Well, actually only my dad was jogging. My friend was grinning. Even though both are veterans of several marathons, this morning my friend was practicing cardiology, while my father was being put to the test, trying to find out if he needed to worry about some heartbeat irregularities.

So with his best no-one-beats-me-on-this-machine look, my doctor friend kicked on his undefeated treadmill. (Of course, I was there, too. I wouldn’t have missed this show for anything!) At first it was a breeze – a nice talkative stroll in central Arkansas. But every couple of minutes the pace changed. The road would get steeper and would move more quickly.

It didn’t take long for beads of sweat to start appearing and then running like a tiny creek down my dad’s face. And then a few minutes later a dam had burst and the little creek had become the mighty Mississippi. His pulse shot up like a space shuttle. The course became steeper and faster – and less fun. The worst part of this deal is that my dad never got anywhere. He remained in the same spot, just trying not to be thrown off. The treadmill is a wicked machine that has many victories and no defeats.

This is a graphic picture of the lives many Christians lead. In nearly every aspect of their lives, they feel like they’re on a treadmill. They can never quite do enough or be quite good enough. And just when they think they are up to speed, someone turns up the machine, and they are playing catch-up again.

Fallout from the Treadmill

We are surrounded by the fall-out from the treadmill of “works righteousness.” You can see the spiritual exhaustion in some people’s faces. They constantly worry about going to hell. “Have I done enough?” “Will I have time for one last prayer before I die?” “Where do I stand on the curve?”

Though they become physically exhausted, they dare not slow down or get off. So instead they seek to pay God off – through good deeds, and through nonstop working. Every sermon they hear on commitment (a needed biblical theme!) only turns up the speed of the machine, makes the course steeper, and makes them think they’ll collapse any second. They never feel restful in their relationship with God.

The fallout also strikes the emotional lives of these weary Christians. Their emotions carry them through a debilitating cycle of guilt, anger, depression, and low self-esteem. Inwardly they can be filled with resentment, rage, self-hate, and self-blame. They refuse to forgive themselves and indulge in self-punishment.

Perhaps the worst part of this whole process is that their lives become filled with garbage. But this garbage doesn’t just fill their lives. It seeps out like nuclear waste to contaminate those around. The sufferers package the garbage, put a bow on it, and give it to their children as a present. It eventually brings a putrid smell to marriages, families, and friendships. Since they hate to be on the treadmill alone, they (Often unknowingly) try to pull others on with them.

Not only is this treadmill a problem for Christians, it’s also a discouragement to those who are watching the performance. Watching my dad on the treadmill certainly didn’t make me want to get on it. It was not a pleasant sight. In the same way, many would-be Christians watch us struggle to be perfect. This is not an image that draws people to the Lord. In fact, it causes many to decide not to even try. We make being a Christian look so difficult and tiresome, why would anyone want to attempt it? Just watching us is a workout!

Barriers to Accepting Grace

Some have a difficult time accepting the grace of God because of various barriers.

Theological barriers are created when we have digested a steady diet of salvation by human effort – a meal that leaves us bloated but starving.

One woman about my age told me she had recurring dreams of God requiring her to tiptoe across a high-wire that had been stretched across a wide, deep canyon. In the dream, Jesus was actually taunting her, trying to make her lose her concentration and fall off.. Needless to say, her spiritual life was a disaster – because her God was against her!

Another Christian said that she abhorred the idea of prayer because for her it was like being called to the principal’s office back in junior high. It wasn’t likely to be a winning deal.

Trying to earn God’s approval by our performance is perhaps the oldest and most persistent heresy. I know so many who refuse the label of legalist but who continue to affirm by their actions that salvation comes from our performance rather than from Jesus’ performance.

Even though they know better intellectually, they emotionally imagine God grading on a curve. The grades might be based on obedience or devotional time or evangelistic results or doctrinal accuracy. But however they’re measured, these people know they fall short. They live as though God were waiting for them to do a little more, be a little better, precision tune their doctrine. And they’re sure he winces as he watches.

Cultural barriers have made it difficult to accept God’s incredible message of grace. As Americans we’ve been schooled in the thinking of self-reliance; you get what you need by your own individual effort. You earn your pay, earn respect, and earn a promotion. In other cultures, an aged person would proudly announce at the center of the village that her children are caring for her in her old age. But in our society, many are ashamed to admit that their middle-aged children are having to help them out in their retirement years.

The atmosphere of self-reliance is also regularly swept by the winds of activism. “God helps those who help themselves.” This philosophy doesn’t mix well with the gospel story, where God helps those who can’t help themselves (Romans 5:6-8).

Experiential barriers cause many to choke on the pure, sparkling water of grace. We are all born with basic emotional needs that should be met in families – needs like unconditional love, acceptance, and security. If these needs aren’t met, we can be doubtful that anyone – even God – would offer us such love and acceptance.

And, of course, because those needs haven’t been filled, many people are hungry for something that they aren’t sure exists. For some it’s because of physical or emotional abuse at home. For others it’s because their parents were too busy to make them feel secure. Many times I’ve heard college students say, “My folks gave me everything I needed – everything but love.”

For others grace comes hard because they were raised in a home that held up unattainable standards. Their parents could never be pleased. In some of those homes, affection was withheld as a means of control. (One thirty-something woman said she had been on a long guilt trip with her mom as the travel agent.) In these families, the message that says “Your behavior was not acceptable” was often translated “you are not acceptable.”

The Treadmill at Work

David Seamands tells of a woman named Margaret who as an adult displayed outbursts of anger and depression that were ruining her marriage. When he began helping her, he found that she was being controlled by an internal voice from the past – the voice of her perfectionist mother who was never quite satisfied. And somehow this voice had become the displeased voice of God.

She recalled her first piano recital, and how she wanted to play perfectly so her mom would be happy. So she practiced until her fingers nearly fell off. When the recital came, she performed flawlessly. As she got up from the bench, her piano instructor grabbed her elbow and said, “Excellent, Margaret; you played it perfectly!” But when she took her place next to her mother, her mom leaned over and whispered, “Your slip was showing the whole time.” Now to her God was the Eternal Parent who kept whispering that her slip was showing.

Get Off the Treadmill

Many people never realize or accept that they can get off the treadmill. What can be done to help such people? Unfortunately, our culture is so thoroughly penetrated by the therapeutic model that many think they’re forever tied to the past. Armed with a new vocabulary of words such as dysfunction, dependency, codependency, addiction, and denial (all very helpful with a proper Christian framework), they become victims of the past.

The good news that Christianity offers is that we can get off the treadmill. Through spiritual healing, through Christian guidance or counseling, and through a renewed understanding of God, we can be delivered from such deadly treadmill theology.

In Titus 3:3, Paul explains why we’ll never be able to play the treadmill game well enough: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” Because of sin, we can’t earn our salvation. Not just specific sins, but SIN – the destructive, pervading power of evil that has captured every person.

Paul, a veteran of “treadmilism,” understood all too well how far from God one can be while appearing to be very spiritual. Everyone, he tells us, has chosen to participate in the fallenness of our world, regardless of credentials or prior performance. But then he explains how this gap can be filled. Not by jumping as far as we can. Not by tiptoeing across a high-wire. The gap is filled by a bridge that God, out of his stupendous grace, constructed through the sacrifice of his Son – a bridge in the shape of a cross.

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7).

The grace of God fills the pages of both testaments. It is the glue that holds the biblical story together. And that grace has been shown most clearly and powerfully through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are saved not because of our ability to stay on the treadmill but because of what God has done through Jesus. The status of his followers now is that of heirs.

What incredible news! If I die this week, I’ll spend eternity with God in heaven. I might be wrong concerning some details about worship or some “issue.” But I will still be with God. I might fall short of where I should be in reaching lost people for the Lord. But I’m still saved.

This doesn’t deny that there’s a response to grace. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). We must respond with obedience, service, sacrifice, and good works, not to win God’s approval or to repay him, but to express our thanks to God for his grace and to trust him with the guidance of our lives. We grow in these matters because he loves us, accepts us, forgives us.

Collapse into Kind Arms

In 1793 William Carey, “the father of modern missions,” left behind his life in England to go to India. There he invested his life in translating Scripture, organizing evangelistic teams, and teaching others. But at his request his gravestone reads simply:

WILLIAM CAREY
Born August 17th, 1761
Died June, 1834
A wretched, poor
and helpless worm,
On Thy kind arms I fall.

If you are an exhausted Christian, if you’re weary of trying to earn your salvation, if you’re tired of worrying about being lost, then go ahead and get off the treadmill. And don’t worry about falling. The kind arms of God are there to catch you!Wineskins Magazine

Mike CopeMike is the preaching minister for the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. He and his wife Diane have two sons, Matt and Chris; their daughter Megan perished at age nine. Chris survived an automobile accident, with serious injuries, in 2004. Mike has written a number of books, teaches Bible at Abilene Christian University. and is a frequent speaker and guest lecturer. [Mike Cope’s Blog]

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1579 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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