Finish Your Course with Joy
Brothers and sisters, I wanted to look presentable to you today at this Devotional, so I worked all morning on my hair. Do you think it looks alright?
I want you to know that I am overwhelmed and humbled to stand before you in this historic Assembly Hall. Many noble and great men and women have stood at this pulpit to speak and teach. In an email Sister Kusch sent to my wife just a few days ago, Sister Kusch wrote that when she sits in her big chair on the stand, she can almost close her eyes and see pioneer men and women gathered to hear the prophet. I agree. And I also see you gathered here today at this Devotional. You, too, are noble and great. The scriptures declare it (see Abraham 3:22-26)—and I believe it. So, when I consider those who stood or sat here in the past and you who are here before me today, I recognize that I stand on very holy ground (see Moses 3:1-5) and have a sacred opportunity to teach and testify from my heart.
For Mother’s Day, I gave my wife a copy of Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s new book, The Gospel at 30,000 Feet. What a perfect title for a collection of aviation stories that teach principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ to guide our lives! I don’t have any personal aviation stories to share with you today, but I do have some running stories. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share with you what marathon-running has taught me about life in God’s Plan.
Now, you should know that I haven’t always considered myself a runner, nor have I appreciated the activity. In fact, I am ashamed to confess that I used to make fun of runners. Unfortunately, my sister (a marathon runner) got the brunt of my mockery. I gave her a hard time about how much money she spent on running shoes and why she would pay to run races when she could run anywhere for free. I claimed that running only made sense if there was a ball involved. And I proudly owned a snarky bookmark I liked to quote that said, “Show me a runner and I’ll show you someone who’s got a thing for pain.”
My change of heart towards running started when I approached my 40th birthday. I really struggled with that birthday. I thought 40 would make me sound old and be old, so I set out to prove that I wasn’t too old to do something hard. I embraced the challenge of this quote from William Shakespeare: “Now bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.” (Julius Caesar; Act 2, Scene 1). My wife jokes that some men’s mid-life crises take the form of an extravagant purchase, like a sports car. She says my mid-life crisis manifested itself when I approached age 40 and decided to sign up for my first marathon—and have continued to run at least one marathon (sometimes two or three) each year since then.
Now nearly eight years to the day after my first race, I can say that one reason I continue to run marathons is because doing so reminds me that what’s at the Finish Line is more exciting than what’s at the Starting Line—and it’s worth every effort to get there. The Olympic Creed speaks of that effort and explains what I mean: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” At least for me, every adversity and setback experienced or endured during a 26.2-mile marathon race (and the months of training that precede it) is eclipsed by feelings of triumph and joy at the Finish Line.
And I believe this is true as we participate in our Heavenly Father’s Plan. Coming to earth to obtain a body and be tested is a big deal, but, to quote Robert Frost, “[We] have promises to keep, And miles to go before [we] sleep” (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Norton Anthology of American Literature, 3rd Edition , p. 1730). Most of those miles in life are thrilling and enjoyable. Other miles in life can be filled with challenges and difficulties. But they all have a purpose. Alma reminds us of the purpose of those miles when he said that “this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). Alma’s companion, Amulek, adds that each day of life and every mile we travel is “given to us to prepare for eternity” (Alma 34:33). Eternity with God—that’s what waits at the Finish Line.
When the Apostle Paul concluded his third mission and prepared to head for home in Jerusalem where he yet had more miles to go before he’d sleep, he declared that he wanted to “finish [his] course with joy” (see Acts 20:22-24). I think that’s what we all want. So, here are four principles derived from my marathon-running adventures to help you live the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a stronger participant in God’s Plan, fight well through the struggles of life, and finish your course with joy.
Principle #1: Lose the lousy playlist!
Not everyone runs with music, but I do. I learned early in my marathon training that if I load the right kind of music playlist, my running performance and endurance improves. One Saturday morning many years ago, I loaded a playlist containing songs from one of my favorite Rocky movies. The energy from the first two songs carried me through the first few miles and left me feeling strong and confident for the many miles ahead. Then Song 3 started. It was a slower love ballad-like tune and it seemed to work against what I wanted to do (pace-wise) and how I wanted to feel on that day’s run. Song 3 made me feel sluggish and like I was running in slow motion. Then, because Songs 4 through 7 were upbeat and inspiring, my mood improved, and my pace quickened. I deleted Song 3 from my playlist as soon as I returned from that run.
Now, please don’t get me wrong: I like Song 3. It’s a good song. But it wasn’t the right song for an activity requiring many miles and a faster pace. This experience taught me to choose my music playlists more carefully—not just for the long runs, but also for life.
Choosing the right kind of music matters so much that the First Presidency declared, “Music can enrich your life. … Music has a profound effect on your mind, spirit, and behavior. … Choose carefully the music you listen to” (“Music and Dancing,” For the Strength of Youth.)
I have been fascinated by a short verse in the Gospel of Matthew that tells us what music the Savior carefully chose before He went to the Garden of Gethsemane—the most important moment in His life and in this world’s history. Matthew writes that when Jesus and His Apostles “had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30; emphasis added). A hymn! This tells me that the Savior found power in the sacred music of the hymnbook of His day. Where I sometimes like to ponder what hymn in our hymnbook He might have chosen, I can only conclude that it would have been one that was the right song with the right message and the right feeling to help Him perform the infinite and eternal sacrifice He was about to make.
When I prepare to run long distances, I seek music for my playlist that will keep me running, support my pace, and inspire my thoughts. I try to avoid listening to music that works against me. Isn’t that how it should be in our lives, too? Now, admittedly, I don’t usually run to the music in our hymnbook, but the Savior teaches me to turn to it when my spirit needs a lift, when I need courage, heavenly thoughts, a spirit of peace, and help to withstand the temptations of the adversary (see “Music in Our Personal Lives,” Hymns; First Presidency Preface).
Principle #2: It’s difficult to conquer The Wall when we are “running on empty”
Many runners talk about (and fear!) “The Wall.” Depending on the runner, The Wall seems to lurk somewhere between the 18th to 22nd mile of a 26.2-mile marathon. “The Wall” is a term used to describe the moment in a race when everything begins to fall apart: Legs get heavy and don’t move very well; breathing gets harder; a previously-comfortable running stride looks and feels like a shuffle of the feet; negative thoughts fill the mind; and the impulse to quit or give up is most intense. There are many explanations for why or when The Wall hits. And there are a lot of articles written to help runners avoid or beat The Wall.
I first experienced The Wall when I trained for my first marathon with a 20-mile run on a warm, humid day. I handled the first three-quarters of my distance and time very well. But I reached a point where I felt like a strong influence stopped my progress and forced me to walk. I had no energy. I struggled, and I suffered. Ultimately, I couldn’t run more than short distances at a time.
Having never experienced that previously, I turned to a friend (a runner) for counsel. I was surprised to hear him tell me what happened was an important learning experience for me and would be a blessing to my future. After asking me some questions, he helped me see that I didn’t prepare adequately for the time and distance that 20-mile run required. Because I hadn’t eaten much before the run, nor had I carried nor partaken of the needed amount of liquid or running snacks needed for such a run, I had been literally “running on empty.” He was quick to reassure me that this was an easy thing to fix. I just needed to eat and drink properly before and during the long runs if I wanted to beat The Wall.
I bear my testimony that our Heavenly Father never meant for us to endure the “long runs” of life without sources of energy and strength to help us conquer The Wall. If it’s a drink we need to press forward, the Savior offers us what he offered the Samaritan woman at the well: “living water” (see John 4:10). He promised her that “whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give . . . shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give . . . shall be a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). If it’s energy for the soul we need, Nephi tells us that one way to “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ” is to “feast upon the words of Christ” (see 2 Nephi 32:3).
To remind us of this, our Heavenly Father blesses us with friends, like Prophets and Apostles. A little more than one year ago, President Thomas S. Monson pled with us—twice in the same talk!—to read the Book of Mormon every day. President Monson promised that “as we do, we will be in a position to hear the voice of the Spirit, to resist temptation, to overcome doubt and fear, and to receive heaven’s help in our lives” (“The Power of the Book of Mormon,” General Conference, April 2017). Six months later, we learned that President Russell M. Nelson accepted President Monson’s exhortation. As he prayerfully studied and pondered the Book of Mormon each day, President Nelson made lists of things the Book of Mormon affirms, refutes, fulfills, clarifies, and reveals. He then testified that, “Immersing ourselves regularly in the truths of the Book of Mormon can be a life-changing experience.” After declaring that the Book of Mormon “contains the answers to life’s most compelling questions,” he added this promise: “My dear brothers and sisters, I promise that as you prayerfully study the Book of Mormon every day, you will make better decisions—every day” (see “The Book of Mormon: What Would Your Life Be Like Without It?” General Conference, October 2017).
My running buddy’s questions apply to us when we hit The Walls of doubt and fear and failure and fatigue in life: Are we drinking enough Living Water and are we feasting—not fasting!—upon the words of Christ?
Principle #3: Don’t stop at the Temptation Station
When I ran my fifth marathon, I saw something I hadn’t ever seen before (nor have I seen since) on a marathon course. Somewhere around Mile 17, I could see in the distance a banner that extended overhead from one side of a residential road to the other. As I gradually neared the banner, I noticed a large gathering of people outside a home, playing loud music, laughing hard, and having a good time. This group had moved couches and La-Z-Boy recliners outside onto the front yard grass. The men wore muscle t-shirts and shorts; the women were dressed in bikinis. And, near the road, there were large tables set up that appeared to have an abundance of snacks and cold drinks. Keep in mind that marathons begin early in the morning, so seeing all of this was a surprise.
Finally, I was close enough to read the message on the banner that originated from that home: “Temptation Station.” At once, I understood that this was a trap set for runners in that marathon.
It was at this point that two women from the group ran from their couch to the roadside to invite me to take a break from the race by sitting with them on the couch. One of them offered me my choice of a wine cooler or a beer from the table, reminding me that runners in races need carbs. Declining her offers only caused her to try to entice me with different alcoholic drinks.
The other woman offered something worse. And if you can believe it, she worked harder than the first woman to entice me and wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. It was a moment I can only compare to what Joseph in Egypt endured with Potiphar’s wife (see Genesis 39:1-12). And, because of that episode with that woman at Mile 17, I think I have good guess about the name of Potiphar’s unnamed wife. I think her name is “I-Vawn-Chuh” because that sure seems to be what she kept saying to Joseph: “I-Vawn-Chuh. I-Vawn-Chuh. I-Vawn-Chuh.” And if that’s not what she said to Joseph, that’s what the woman at the Temptation Station kept saying to me as she and her companion offered every dark delicacy and distraction.
I continued to run and repeatedly decline the invitations and enticements offered at the Temptation Station. As I did so, the earlier warm greeting and excitement from the group turned cold. The women and the men then booed, shouted, cursed, and hurled insults and food at me. Some even said they hoped I’d get hurt between that point of the race and the Finish Line. That is when I felt like I had experienced what it was like for those in Lehi’s Dream (see 1 Nephi 8:24-28) who were scoffed at and scorned by those in the Great and Spacious Building. Altogether, my experiences at the Temptation Station brought some tense moments. But I had a race to finish. From one point of view, I wasn’t too far from the end, although I still had miles to go.
As I reflect on this, I am reminded that Satan has designed Temptation Stations to distract us from our desire to finish our course with joy. Because he seeks “the misery of all mankind” (2 Nephi 2:18), we are wise to “be sober” and “vigilant,” as the Apostle Peter advises, because “[our] adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (see 1 Peter 5:8). He will place Temptation Stations in areas of our lives where fatigue can be high, clear-thinking can be hard, and the Finish Line is still miles away.
The Apostle Paul acknowledges these Temptation Stations when he writes, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). What gives me hope from a scripture like this is the knowledge that we have a God who is faithful and dependable. He will not permit us to face too much temptation. Equally significant, He makes a way for us to escape out of every temptation—but we must seek for and take the escapes!
Have we ever considered what some of those escapes might be? One escape is turning to the scriptures. When the Savior faced Satan and his Temptation Station towards the end of His 40-day fast after His baptism, He turned to the scriptures and quoted them for defense and protection (see Matthew 4:1-11). Another escape is prayer. When Joseph Smith faced Satan and his Temptation Station in the Sacred Grove, Joseph was already praying. So, Joseph prayed even harder until the devil’s depressive spirit departed (see Joseph Smith-History 1:13-17). Another escape is clinging to one’s true identity as a son or daughter of God. When Moses faced Satan and his Temptation Station on an exceedingly high mountain, he remembered and evoked his eternal identity as a son of God when he was tempted to think less of himself (see Moses 1:1-24). Yet another escape is filling one’s life with good works and good influences. When Nehemiah and his people labored to rebuild the destroyed walls of Jerusalem, it appears that Satan’s Temptation Station came in the form of individuals who labored to entice Nehemiah and the others to come down from the wall to meet in the lower plain. Nehemiah refused to come down because he was so busy doing so much good on that wall that there wasn’t time to do anything else (see Nehemiah 6:1-15). A final escape is doing what Joseph in Egypt did when confronted with Satan’s Temptation Station, starring Potiphar’s wife—he “fled [or, ran!], and got him out” (Genesis 39:1-12). And so did I, during Marathon #5 at Mile 17. I just kept running—and that escape worked! I testify that all of the ones I just listed do, too.
Principle #4: Look for the “Finisher” and stay focused on Him!
After finishing my 10th marathon 3 minutes short of a Boston Marathon-qualifying time, I signed up for a half-marathon I wanted to use as a tune-up and tone-setter for the next race that I was sure would result in a Boston-qualifying time. And it was in that marathon that I experienced my worst running injury and learned a most sacred lesson.
At mile 2.5, I felt a sharp, jolting sting followed by an unspeakable burning sensation in the back of my left leg that caused me to hop on my right foot to alleviate the pain. Repeated attempts to run again only made things worse. I didn’t know what was wrong. I felt doomed and afraid.
In most long-distance races (and this was one of them), a runner can count on an Aid Station every two miles, beginning around Mile 3. This is where runners can get a drink of water or sports drink—and, sometimes, medical attention. So, being relatively close to the Aid Station and hoping medical care would be available, I pushed forward, slowly jogging for one minute and then walking for one minute.
When I arrived, I asked the helpers about medical care and the possibility of a van to carry any injured runner to the Finish Line. After being told “No,” I was then informed I would either need to wait 2-3 hours for the race officials to sweep the course of all runners or find a way to get to the Finish Line on my own. I didn’t like Option #1, so I decided to run again in spite of the pain in my leg.
I didn’t get very far with my run-one-minute-walk-one-minute approach before feeling more distracted, deflated, and defeated by the pain in my leg to continue. It was hard to run and now it started to hurt to walk. So, with more than 9 miles between my location on the course and the Finish Line, I prayed for help and strength and courage to finish the race. To this day, I believe it was my most passionate, pleading prayer during any race or run. At that moment, a much older man passed me on the course. He wore a white shirt with the word “FINISHER” in bright orange letters on the back. I had the impression that I needed to follow that man and stay focused on that shirt with its bright orange word all the way to the end of the race. In fact, as I concentrated on that bright orange word, I remember hearing a quiet Voice whisper, “Come, follow me. We’ll get to the Finish Line together.”
As I followed that man with the inspiring shirt, it occurred to me that “Finisher” is a word that describes the Savior. In His own words, the Savior reminds us that He is a Finisher. In Doctrine and Covenants, Section 19, He tells us that His suffering “caused [Him], even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that [He] might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink” (D&C 19:18). “Nevertheless,” He continues, “glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men” (D&C 19:18-19; emphasis added). He used the same word as He endured the pain of the cross and prepared to conquer death for all of us when He uttered, “It is finished: and he bowed his head and gave up the ghost” (John 19:30).
I have wondered if the Apostle Paul drew upon this divine quality of the Savior when he encouraged the early Christian saints to “run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2; emphasis added). The bright orange word on the back of that man’s shirt became an inspired reminder that the Savior was a “finisher” and that “I can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13). His grace was sufficient (see Ether 12:26-27) to help me finish my race as I determined to “look unto [Him] in every thought” and “doubt not” and “fear not” (D&C 6:36).
A few days later, I learned that I tore my hamstring at mile 2.5 of that half marathon. My doctor said it was a miracle I finished the race. I know the Savior helped me to the Finish Line, though. He and his divine nature and influence literally carried me through my darkest running moment, just as He promised He would when he spoke to us through the prophet Isaiah: “Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by me from the belly, which are carried from the womb: And even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs [which means gray hairs] will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you” (Isaiah 46:3-4).
I have always loved the message behind the poem, Footprints in the Sand. In it, a man has a dream that he is walking on the beach with God. When the man looks back on the most difficult moments in his life, he sees only one set of footprints and wonders why God abandoned him and left him to walk alone. But God explains that, in reality, the presence of the single set of footprints represented those moments when God carried the man. But what the Lord teaches me through Isaiah clarifies that there is no point in my life from birth to gray hairs where there are ever two sets of footprints in the sand. There is only one set of footprints—and they belong to the Savior.
I believe we all face moments in life where our dreams and plans are broken or disrupted. But we can still finish our course with joy if we will find, follow, and focus on The Finisher, Jesus Christ. I bear my testimony that the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we have a Savior who carries us through life and who will help us find the Finish Line where God and eternity eagerly wait to receive us.
Now, as I close, allow me to take you back in time to August 2003, where Elder Robert D. Hales gave a commencement address to graduates at Brigham Young University. In that address, he shared 10 axioms he distilled from his own experiences of living the gospel. His sixth axiom was, “It is not how you start the race or where you are during the race. It is how you cross the finish line that matters.”
To illustrate this axiom, Elder Hales shared this: “John Stephen Akhwari, a marathon runner from Tanzania, competed in the 1968 Summer Olympics. Even though he suffered along the way from fatigue, leg cramps, dehydration, and disorientation, a voice called from within to go on, and so he went on. Exhausted and staggering, John Stephen was the last man to enter the stadium. When asked why he would complete a race he could never win, Akhwari replied, ‘My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 7,000 miles to finish the race.’” After sharing this story, Elder Hales said, “In life, we are not brought to earth just to be born into mortality. We came with a mission and a purpose, and that is to endure to the end. …. So, if you are not where you want to be, he said, decide today to get there. … You can cross the finish line with everyone else” (“Ten Axioms to Guide Your Life,” Ensign, February 2007).
When we reach our heavenly Finish Line, it is my hope and prayer that we can echo the words and feelings of the Apostle Paul, who declared: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8; emphasis added). To finish our course with joy like Paul, we may need to lose the lousy playlists by choosing music that works for us, and not against us. We may need refuse to “run on empty” as we nourish our faith and our future getting daily drinks of Living Water and daily feasts upon the words of Christ. We will need to decline the enticements at the Temptation Stations. And, forever, we will need to find, focus on, and follow the Savior—the “finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
I testify that our Heavenly Father lives and loves us. I pay tribute to Him and to His Plan that provides a Savior who constantly beckons to us, “Come, follow me. We’ll get to the Finish Line together.”
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.