Running, biking, swimming, skiing—the sports that require the most physical endurance are individual. Though they may include a team element, the actual competitions require one person to undergo a grueling test of their own personal stamina. When it’s race time, the athlete must find the grit within himself to persevere. He may be able to hear the cheers from the stands or the sidelines, but his teammates aren’t out there with him; he must find the resolve to press on by himself.
In the opening verses of Revelation, John introduces himself to his audience as their “partner in the affliction and kingdom and endurance that are in Jesus” (Rev. 1:9). Seeing a brother or sister in Christ as a partner in the kingdom is old hat. We’re familiar with the idea that those of us in Christ will one day reign with Him in His kingdom. Likewise, we understand that we’re also partners in affliction. We suffer together for the cause of Christ.
But just what does it mean that we’re partners in the endurance?
Scripture pictures the Christian life as a marathon (Heb. 12:1), but unlike long-distance races as we know them, this race is a team sport. Yes, we compete as individuals, but the team dynamic of the competition bears more resemblance to soccer, hockey, or basketball—sports in which an athlete always has teammates nearby to help him up or offer a word of encouragement or congratulations.
As “partners in the endurance,” we must be team players.
Know Your Personnel
One of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever heard from a coach are these three simple words: “Know your personnel.” As a basketball player, I needed to know the strengths and weaknesses of my teammates. It didn’t matter how accurate my pass to a teammate was if I threw it so hard that they’d never be able to catch it. A beautiful SportsCenter-worthy no-look pass would be completely wasted if the person receiving it couldn’t anticipate it.
The same principle applies to our enduring together as Christians. Paul put it this way in writing to the Thessalonians:
And we exhort you, brothers and sisters: warn those who are idle, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone. (1Th 5:14 CSB)
Paul warns against one-size-fits-all discipleship. For some, comforting comes naturally, while for others , warning and admonishing flow easily from their lips. However, in order to endure as a team, we must know one another and recognize what type of counsel is needful in the moment. Someone who is idle—not pulling their weight on the team—needs patience and a stern warning, not soft-spoken comfort or well-intentioned enablement (“help”). Likewise, the discouraged and downtrodden soul won’t be helped by a stiff talking-to; what they need most, Paul says, is comfort.
Does this sound a little daunting? That’s probably because it will require us to do what I heard every week from my piano teacher: “Slow down.” If you’re anything like me, you’ve offered an unhelpful piece of advice too quickly, before hearing the entire matter and considering what the Holy Spirit would have you say about it (if anything). Proverbs calls this folly and shame (Prov. 18:13).
In order to partner together in the endurance challenge of the Christian life we must slow down and get to know one another well enough to be able to discern what the other person really needs. A hug? A smile? An encouraging note or text? Bold confrontation? A listening ear? Figuring out the right answer will take time and effort, but it’s part of being a team player.
As a coach for over a decade, I can tell you that there’s no more valuable commodity in a player than coachability. The most valuable players I’ve ever coached were those who received coaching well, both from me and from their teammates.
It would be easy to read the first half of this post and walk away with the idea that you should be doing the “coaching.” But I must balance that with an important counterpart. In order to be a team player, you must put yourself in position to be discipled by your partners in endurance.
If getting to “know your personnel” sounded daunting, allowing yourself to be discipled probably sounds downright harrowing. Getting to know other people and prayerfully considering how to minister to them requires time, but it does not necessarily require vulnerability. Instead, it allows me to maintain an illusion of control. If I’m the one giving the advice, I get to direct the conversation. I can avoid topics that might obligate me to admit my own weaknesses and failures. Sure, I might pepper them in here or there, but without ever going too far. After all, I don’t want anyone to think that I might need to be warned or comforted or helped too!
This prideful façade (of which I am so often guilty) has no place in the partnership of endurance that we know as the local church. Just as a headstrong, albeit talented, player may actually be more of a liability to his team than an asset, so a prideful exhorter who refuses to admit weakness or appear vulnerable may be a liability to her church rather than an asset.
Scripture teaches us that God loves to use highly flawed people in His work. He could have withheld the failures of His servants, but He chose to disclose them: Noah’s drunken nakedness, Abraham’s duplicity in Egypt (twice!), Isaac’s duplicity in Egypt (apparently, he didn’t learn from his dad’s mistakes), Jacob’s con-man tendencies, the many imperfect judges whom God used to deliver Israel, David’s adultery and murder, Solomon’s sexual addiction, Peter’s denials, Thomas’s doubts. God didn’t hold back, but I often do. I want my “teammates” to see me as a “player” with few flaws. I don’t want them to disciple or counsel me—I want to counsel and disciple them!
However, if I want to be a good teammate, I must recognize that discipleship goes both ways. I must not only obey the “one another” commands of Scripture, but allow others to practice them on me.
- I must serve others—and allow them to serve me. (Gal. 5:13)
- I must bear the burdens of others—and allow them to bear mine. (Gal. 6:1)
- I must encourage my brothers and sisters—and allow them to encourage me. (1 Thess. 5:11)
- I must exhort and admonish them when they wander into sin—and allow them to pursue and confront me in my own wanderings. (James 5:19-20)
- I must uphold my partners in endurance in prayer—and allow them to uphold me. (James 5:16)
- I must help them when they are weak—and allow them to help me in my own weakness. (1 Thess. 5:14)
Your teammates can be your greatest asset, but they can also be your greatest frustration. They might miss the buzzer-beater or commit a costly turnover at the end of a close game. Likewise, our local church body at times is our greatest joy and at other times our greatest source of discouragement. Like you, your “teammates” will get it wrong, maybe more often than they get it right. They may hinder instead of help, warn instead of comfort, and make public what you wanted to keep private. However, their place on the roster is not an accident. They have been providentially put in place as your partners in endurance. They need you to know them; and you need them to know you.
The Christian life may be a marathon. But it’s also a team sport.