You may have heard some variation of this African proverb before: "Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up and knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up and knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle; when the sun comes up, you better start running." Indeed, if I may mix my metaphors while staying within the animal kingdom, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there.
And yet, I believe it is vitally important that, when the sun comes up (or, in some cases, even before), the first thing you should do is not start running but get down on your knees and pray. No matter how busy I get or how many responsibilities my life consists of, I will always strive to spend my first slice of time each day with God.
There are many aspects of the Christian life that even those most secular of good living magazines, motivational speakers, or self-help gurus can easily co-opt. Even non-believers can appreciate the long-term destructiveness of substance abuse, unforgiveness, and marital infidelity. And, similarly, even if Jesus is not your Lord and Savior, you can probably see the merits of taking a little time in the morning, before lacing up those proverbial sneakers and starting to run, to quiet yourself before your Maker and organize yourself for the day.
But having a morning time with God is more than just something anyone can see value in, regardless if one is religious or not. You see, fundamentally, to become a Christian, a true follower of Jesus, is much more drastic than we generally experience here in America. For it means to die to self and live for something and Someone else. For the Christian, God is not our co-pilot; He is our pilot. He is not our pathway to riches and comfort; He is our riches and comfort. It is not about living my life and making sure I conform to His ways, for His ways are now to be my life.
I am reminded of a story relatively early in the life of the great Hebrew patriarch, Abraham. Abraham came from money, but was called by God out of his comfortable life to a different place and purpose. Along the way, God put many faith forks in Abraham's road, and over time, Abraham demonstrated faith by taking the right paths.
On his way to the literal promised land, Abraham helped some kings defeat some other kings in a battle. When the time came for divvying up the spoils, Abraham refused any excess material gain, not wishing anyone but God to be able to say that he had enriched Abraham. This was a significant refusal, given Abraham's itinerant and somewhat vulnerable state. Later, God spoke to Abraham, saying, "I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great."
I like to think of this story in the context of having morning time with God. The world is a dangerous place, and a tempting one, as well. It is easy to enter each day fearing what harm may come, whether physical or spiritual or emotional. It is easy to scheme about what personal gain can be had, whether material wealth or professional accolades, or even status and success in the realm of ministry and service. No matter how long we have been a believer or how exalted our position is in the unwritten church pecking order, we are susceptible to all manner of temptations, subtle and not so subtle, to take our eyes off the ultimate prizes and purposes in life, and settle for less than ultimate prizes and purposes.
Hence, the very real need, upon waking up, to not run, but rather to wait before God. To quiet oneself long enough to renew one's compass so that it points in the right direction. To pray in God's ascendant place in our world, and then consider what that means for our lives. (As an aside, read the Lord's Prayer, and consider how deep you have to get into it before you get to "give us this day our daily bread.") And to study His word, which is part of how we resist being conformed by and to the world and accept being transformed into what and who God wants us to be.
One thing is true about the African proverb: every day is a matter of life and death, of grave eternal consequence. But its takeaway - as soon as you wake up, start running - is not right, at least if you are a believer. There may be many good things on this side of glory about being a Christian, but there are also many aspects of the journey that simply make no sense to the world, and if we are honest, to ourselves, however enlightened our faith and perspective is.
Ours is a faith that says we are blessed if we are persecuted, whose heroes include those who gave up great status and fortune to suffer and to serve, and whose ultimate Hero and Guide died a passive and humiliating death at the peak of His ministry. Perhaps others are more permanently converted than I am, but for me, in order to fully live out the Christian life, I need my morning time to get myself recalibrated for such a purpose and such a journey.