The 20 Mile March, Legalism, and the Gospel

I recently read Jim Collins’ (author of Good to Great) book Great by Choice. It is a business book but the principles and ideas it advocates are universal. And besides, Collins is such a joy to read. Great by Choice explores the characteristics of those companies that became great despite weathering fierce and unpredictable storms.

One of the characteristics of these successful companies is what Collins and his team came to call the “20 Mile March.” While other companies exhibited periods of enormous growth and periods of enormous decline reflecting the current markets and opportunities, these “20 Mile March” companies were far more steady and determined. In periods of decline they expected and worked hard so that their companies could maintain their profitability standards and meet their goals. This in and of itself is nothing new. Every company does this. But these companies would also generally limit themselves during periods of boom and growth so as not to overextend themselves or tire their employees out. This cap on both the bottom and the top end of their working and energy became known to Collins and his team as the “20 Mile March.”

No where is this illustrated better than when Collins points to the race for the south pole in 1911 between Roald Amundson and Robert Scott. They both started on the same day (though from different landing areas), with roughly the same weather conditions yet Amundson beat Scott by over a month (Scott and his team died on their way back to their ship). One of the clear differences between the two men that led to Amundson’s success and Scott and his team’s death was the principle of the “20 Mile March.” Amundson put a goal to march each day – and consequently that goal was his cap. This left his team refreshed on the good days and something to work for on the more difficult ones. Scott did the opposite, pushing too hard on the good days and wearing out his team and then going nowhere when the days were difficult.

This means, at least on a personal level, that striving to meet our big goals for the glory of God (like reading 20 books or the Bible in a year, dealing with a particular sin, or developing more meaningful prayer times) are met by meeting small modest goals on a regular basis. That of course is the hard part. But demanding these little goals from ourselves should not be mistaken for legalism. We work hard to meet the small goals by the strength of the Spirit in union with Christ’s death and resurrection for the glory of God the Father (Rom. 6; 8:13; 1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:1-11). We understand that meeting those goals is not the basis of God’s pleasure with us, Christ is. On the flip side it needs to be stated that we do not face God’s judgment when we fail to meet those goals because Christ met those goals for us and took all the wrath of God for all of our sin (not that missing a goal should necessarily be equated with sin). We must work to meet the big goal of enjoying the glory of God and helping others to do the same with the little goals that we set for ourselves daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, etc. out of gratefulness to God for what he has done for us in Christ by the Spirit.

Some suggestions for your journey this year:

  • Keep in mind the result if you fail (this is particularly helpful with Bible reading, prayer, or dealing with sin goals).
  • Keep in mind the penultimate goal of whatever it is your have resolved to do.
  • Keep in mind the ultimate goal – Enjoying and Glorifying God: John Owen writes “Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and your infinite, inconceivable distance from Him.”
  • Keep in mind the gospel. By keeping ourselves in earshot of the cross we will be reminded that the cry of forsakenness by Christ on the cross was for us and so we will be reminded of the seriousness of our sin, we will be reminded that Christ frees us from Sin’s guilt, and by recalling his resurrection we will be reminded that we are freed from sin’s power.
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