Love as a motivator: Who are you running for?

Runners crouch at the starting line. Tuesday, February 18, 2020
(Photo by Andrea Piacquadio)
Runners crouch at the starting line. Tuesday, February 18, 2020 (Photo by Andrea Piacquadio)

You’ve done it. You’ve started the fall semester, hopped on the treadmill of long weeks and short weekends, full backpack and empty bank account, and you won’t get off until December. Congratulations for stepping on. 

As you tick off the first couple of miles, I have some questions for you: “Why? Why did you step up to the starting line? And what will keep you running when you hit the wall?”

You have at least three options. 

Some “mental athletes” run because they can’t stand being left behind. (I’ve been there.) Fear of failure fuels a desperation for success. These students fight for passing grades with white knuckles. If they fall out of the lead pack, motivation drops, and despair sets in. Why go on when you’re miles behind already? 

Other mental athletes run because they love being in the front. (I’ve also been there.) They know they can run. They can win. These students fight for their straight As with confidence. They don’t even consider falling out of the lead pack because it doesn’t happen to them. Success is their favorite game and their life a collection of trophies. They are the person the fearful hope to become. (And sometimes the person they pretend to be.) 

These first two options operate as two sides of the same coin. Fear desperately desires success. Pride exults in it. Even the contours of a 24-hour period can display the back and forth of these attitudes toward life. Glaring defeat alternates with the glitter of success, sometimes within minutes of each other. Success is as precarious as it is tantalizing. 

But, of course, there is still a third option.  

Love. Love leaves the vicinity of the two previous motivations, operating in a different sphere entirely. Both fear and pride put the spotlight on self and imagine the whole world sitting in the grandstands, watching. But love makes room for a third party, another person. Life is no longer merely about you and the audience, about how brightly you shine and how loudly the spectators roar in response. Love lets another person into the arena — the person you are learning for.

That’s right, you are completing your degree for someone else. You are here at Southern Adventist University for someone you will meet years from today. If this is a new thought for you, take a moment to consider who your person might be.

Create a detailed picture of them in your mind. If you’re studying to be a teacher, think about that one student. One day you will meet them and be the only person who can help. What tools will you need? Where should you focus your energy now so that you can be there in the moment of crisis and actually do something? If you’re studying nursing, consider your patients. How can you prepare now to care for them later? What else will they need besides your medical expertise? 

Regardless of your degree, there are people somewhere inside of it who are either directly or indirectly influenced by your work. In the future, you may report to a boss, just as you report to a professor now, but your work will be received by someone else. Make it your goal to prepare, in this season, to bless the people you meet in the next. Run this race well, and you’ll be ready to coach other people in their unique difficulties when the time comes. 

And remember the One who ran perfectly. And beautifully. When Jesus ran the most difficult race of all, He also chose a group of people as His prize: us. (Hebrews 12:2) The thought of redeeming even one person from sin was enough to help Him put one foot in front of the other, every moment, until the end. We are far from saviors, but our motivation can still mirror His. Next time you wonder what you’re running for, ask yourself who. Those who run for someone else run fastest. 

Editor’s Note: To submit a piece or pitch an idea for the religion column, email My inbox is also always open to comments, questions and critique. 

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