British ultra-marathon star, Steve Way, is one of my favourite runners. Here he is coming third in this year’s Comrades ultra-marathon in South Africa.
And it’s not just his story that I like. Though that’s pretty good. A 116kg, 20 smokes a day, pie-eating IT worker who was fed up with being unfit, he hit the pavement for the first time at 33 years of age. And got seriously quick seriously quickly.
By forty he was a top ten finisher at the Commonwealth Games Marathon, breaking the V40 age category of 1970s Olympian Ron Hill in the process. And just prior to that he’d smashed the British UK 100km record.
In June this year, at nearly 44, he finished on the podium at the famous Comrades Marathon, a 90km brute of a race, in which his pace was 3:42 minutes per km (just under 6 minutes per mile for 56 miles).
I ran a 5km Parkrun at 3:41 per km just last weekend, and as I hunched over gasping and wheezing at the end, one of my first thoughts was, “Now just imagine another 85km at that pace!”
But Way is also the common man’s runner, turns up to his local Parkrun, always doing the various runners’ podcasts with breezy cheerfulness and humour. He has thousands of Strava followers and he’s sponsored by sports timing company Garmin. No more IT work for him.
So, get the impression I love Steve Way? But it’s what he says about how he swapped one set of addictions for another to become the runner he is, that I find most intriguing. Here’s what he told the BBC about how he changed from fat to fast:
I needed to find something I could focus all my attention on that was going to help me lose weight and keep me off the cigarettes. In order to bury your vices you need to find an equal and opposite addiction. You need to find a passion.
Hear that? “An equal and opposite addiction”. Steve Way taps into what the Scriptures tell us about how we deal with misdirected desire. We shift desires, we don’t suppress them.
In an otherwise helpful book, On Desire: Why We Want What We Want William Irvine makes this classic error in a chapter entitled: Religious Advice:
Almost all religions require adherents to curb their desires, and almost all religious offer advice on how desire can be curbed.
If that is true, then religion is wasting its time. You can no more suppress desire than a five year old can suppress the water from a broken fire hydrant.
The problem with desires as humans created in the image of God is not the fact but the focus of our desires. We were created to be desirous creatures. Desire Fulfilment is our factory setting.
This much is evident from the encounter between the serpent and Eve in the Garden. Genesis 3 does NOT state:
She saw the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, however she curbed her God given desires.
No, it states that she ate of the fruit. In other words she misdirected her God given desires.
Why did God make that tree and its fruit so desirous, and the outcome of eating it seem so delicious? Couldn’t God have packed the Garden with similar trees that would have drawn away her attention? Or couldn’t God have created a foul-smelling, prickly pear tree to be the tree of the knowledge of good and evil instead?
Perhaps. But it’s not good enough for Eve to have re-directed her desires to other created things, nor to have sat upon untested virtue. Worshipping and serving created things – no matter how good or desirous – is a heinous sin as Romans 1 tells us.
Eve was supposed to find desire fulfilment in her Creator Himself, who had promised her delight and wisdom beyond what any created object could give her.
Yet she, like so many after her (think Esau, think Israel in the desert, think 90 per cent of Israel’s kings, think me), she chose misdirected desires that would never ultimately satisfy.
Eve would have done well to take Steve Way’s advice: find an equal and opposite addiction that would be her passion; one that would take her away from misdirected desire. Eve needed to give in to the right desire, for as we all know, suppressing misdirected desires works – for a time; because we give in eventually.
Mere attempts at suppressing desire would have found Eve walking by that tree again and again and again. Maybe – one day – touching it. Maybe picking the fruit the next time. Maybe holding a piece up to her nose and smelling it occasionally. Maybe breaking it open to see what it looked like on the inside, before scrubbing her browser history – for a week or so. Maybe, next time, putting it up to her lips….
We cannot suppress desire. We can only redirect it. We can, as Thomas Chalmers told us in his famous sermon on affections, only expel one desire with a greater desire. Just like Steve Way did.
Desire always has its way with us. And having been a follower of Jesus for most of my life now, I’ve realised time and time again that misdirected desires cannot be suppressed, merely expelled by greater desires.
And if that sounds less noble, less stoic, less “ninja” to you, and you worry that I haven’t used the word “discipline” in this post so far, then realise that redirecting our desires is the goal of discipline.
Discipline as an end in itself becomes legalistic and proud. The result is often like a well-honed gym junkie who would never dream of doing any manual labour with those muscles of his.
The disciplined Christian life is not stoic and joyless, rather it is liberated and free, unhitched from unhealthy addictions that drag us down. It has, as Hebrews 12 tells us, thrown off the sin that so easily entangles, not for its own sake, but in order to run the race set before us.
Look back at the photo of Steve Way finishing the race at the top of this blog post. The look on his face, his body language is the joyous look and language of a disciplined life that has borne the fruit of desires that expelled old, unhealthy misdirected ones.
There’s a finish line greater than that which we strive towards. Let’s do so joyously, finding our passion in the one who ran the race before us and in whose presence all our desires will be fulfilled.