A few years ago, my husband and I were in Jerusalem’s Old City, returning to our lodgings with a small group after dinner. Those ancient streets are paved with worn, uneven cobblestones, and I was so busy looking around that I took a misstep, rolled my ankle, and went sprawling face-first onto the pavement. Within seconds, a small crowd had gathered around me as I lay writhing on the ground in pain, murmuring their concern in several different languages.
My husband Bill was with the other half of our group of dinner companions, about 40 paces ahead of where I was. When he turned around to try to figure out the source of the commotion, he realized immediately that he didn’t see me standing among the gathering crowd. My long history of some epic falls cued him to the fact that it was probably me rolling around on the ground at the center of that murmuring cluster of people. I got to my feet, and immediately realized I couldn’t put any weight on the injured ankle. Bill and another guy helped me limp the few blocks back to our room, and by the time we got there, my ankle looked like it was pregnant with a small cantaloupe. All I could think about was how we were going to make it through the rest of our planned time in Israel.
With the help of Web M.D., we determined it was “just” a sprain. I did not want to miss a moment of our trip, so I iced and elevated the ankle when I could, wrapped my ankle in an Ace bandage and limped and/or leaned on Bill to tour, and pounded handfuls of Ibuprofen.
When we got back to the U.S, I saw a doctor, who told me I had an overripe Grade 2 sprain in progress. “How did you manage when you were overseas?” he asked.
I shrugged. I limped. I gutted out the pain through tears and gritted teeth. I endured.
I’ve long read the Bible’s exhortations to persevere through the lens of my own experiences of physical endurance:
- Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4)
- You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Hebrews 10:36)
- Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)
This word used in all three verses is the Greek word hupomeno, and depending on the translation, it is rendered patience, endurance, or perseverance in English. In English, endurance and perseverance carry two different meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary defines endurance as the power of persisting through an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way. Perseverance, on the other hand, is steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
We see hupomeno used in both ways in this beloved passage to communicate shadings of meaning that speak to both endurance and perseverance: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
I have hupomenoed my way through a second half of life that’s been marked by significant grief in my family, the pain of church dysfunction, and the loss of a home. I’ve understood it as an invitation to pilgrimage, and it is. As a result, I’ve kept limping forward. But my focus on enduring has skewed my understanding about the character-forming work of perseverance in my life.
Not long ago, I had an opportunity to interview an athlete. The focus of her training had always been on building physical and mental endurance. But during the last year, she faced an entirely different set of challenges as training facilities were closed and meets in her sport were cancelled due to COVID. She moved from place to place all year long, not being in any one place for more than three weeks at a time, in order to continue her training the best she could. That ongoing, steadfast commitment to her training regimen was perseverance in action.
This pandemic year has been an exercise in endurance for many of us, including me. The rapid spread of an invisible Sputnik-shaped virus, isolation in a new community, and the weight of concern for loved ones about whom I was powerless to help have grounded me. There’s nowhere to limp these days! I’m discovering that gutting out a difficult situation doesn’t fully reflect what hupomeno means. Love does. In 1 Corinthians 13:7 the word is linked in a chain of descriptors, each emphasized by the adverb “always”: “(Love) always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Jesus endured the cross, but his hupomeno is anchored in his steadfast, patient, persevering love for me.
And that’s the kind of love I’m limping toward these days.