The Olympics of life

Did you spend a lot of time watching the Winter Olympics? NBC won the broadcast rights this year, and snow/ice sports programming was pretty much wall-to-wall on the network for the last couple of weeks. People love the stories of human drama and emotion; everybody cheers underdogs like the bobsled teams from tropical countries; and it’s a chance for little countries like Norway (39 total medals!) to dominate the big ones. Sports are like life—some days you fly down the slalom course and some days you end up crumpled in a heap against the snow fence with your skis sticking up at odd angles.

The Olympics are named for an area in Greece where athletic contests between various regions took place every four years, starting, according to legend, in 776 B.C. The event so seized Greek imagination and competitiveness that rival games sprang up elsewhere, the most famous of which were probably the Isthmian Games a couple hundred kilometers away in Corinth. Thus when St. Paul was writing to Christians in Corinth and he wished to talk about personal focus and discipline, he chose the sports of running and boxing to make his points.

The college where I got my undergraduate degree had a statue of a sprinter on his marks set outside in front of the gymnasium. On its pedestal was the inscription in Greek: ЕΙΣ ΔΕ ΛΑΜΒΑΝΕΙ ΤΟ ΒΡΑΒΕΙΟΝ, “Only one gets the prize.” It is a quote from the last paragraph of 1 Corinthians chapter 9: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (verses 24-27).

I will confess that it took me some years to make sense of that passage. I got the allusions to the training and hard work needed to excel at running and boxing. I competed in track and in cross country myself in high school and know what aching legs and burning lungs feel like and what it takes to win. But isn’t the reward of heaven given to all believers regardless of their life performance? Doesn’t Scripture say many times elsewhere that it is not by our works that we are saved but by Christ’s?

I don’t believe that was Paul’s point at all. Our salvation indeed comes as God’s gift. It is indeed based on grace. I think Paul chose a sports training metaphor for two important teachings:

  1. God has given each of us a load of personal gifts, talents, abilities, and opportunities that are useful for building his kingdom. But they come only in raw form and must be developed. Only by hard work and personal discipline can we excel at speaking, writing, visioning, organizing, and contributing financially. The Great Commission is the great task of all Christians, and we need to take it as seriously as a runner training for the Isthmian Games.
  2. Although we cannot generate our own faith (only the Word can do that) and although we can’t convert ourselves by our own choosing, we can choose to throw it away once we have it. It is a sobering warning that even a ministry champion like Paul needed to concentrate and work out spiritually so that he would not grow careless or indifferent to the gospel over time and lose his faith and his place in heaven.

What does your spiritual workout regimen look like? Are you waiting until you have more time to get started?

Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of several books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.

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