Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:30-31)
Are you an Olympic fanatic? If so, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Best because of the afterglow of 17 days of nonstop TV coverage, and for you Olympic xenophobes a record medal count for the U.S. Worst because it will be a quadrennium before the nations compete again, and it is the end of an era for some of the greatest athletes of these games. But take heart, perhaps Michael Phelps will return for the 2020 Tokyo games to go for his 24th swimming gold medal or possibly Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt will make another appearance seeking his 10th track & field gold medal. Yet for most of the athletes this was their last or perhaps only appearance in the Olympics. And for them this will be a defining moment of their lives – a testament to what can be achieved by singular devotion to a sport.
I am an Olympic pococurante. Other than track & field, few athletic events hold my interest. While I enjoy moments such as the soccer team from host country Brazil beating Germany in a shootout, I am far more interested when the humanity of an individual is revealed. For me, the demonstration of a person’s character – for better or worse – can be a transcendent moment. For example, the amazing show of good sportsmanship by Nikki Hamblen, the New Zealand 5000 meter runner, who stopped to help American Abbey D’Agostino who had fallen on the track after they collided. From my own years of training for marathons, I find it hard to fathom how an elite runner in the greatest race of her life would stop to help a competitor. I can only imagine the training it took for her to reach this level – extreme weather conditions, pain, injuries, and uncounted lonely miles. It was inspiring to see her abandon it all out of compassion for a fallen runner. I marvel at her strength of character.
On the other extreme, there was the embarrassment of gold medalist Ryan Lochte and several other swimmers fabricating a story about being robbed by Brazilian police. Although he subsequently confessed his deception, the damage to his character was done. Mr. Lochte will most likely be remembered in a much different light than had this not occurred. If he had confessed his late night carousing and vandalism, the deed would soon have been forgotten. It was the cover-up by lying that struck more deeply to the core of his character. I don’t want to come down too hard on Mr. Lochte who after all is still young and has paid a very dear price for his dishonesty having lost valuable endorsement contracts. Yet, it is hard not to wonder about the influencers in his life that led to lying becoming part of his character. As Pastor David Smith pointed out in a recent sermon on the life of Samson, “It’s possible to have great success and shallow character.” Sadly, this is an example.
This month I depart from my normal pattern of focusing on an individual Christian virtue and reflect instead on the pursuit of virtue – specifically, our role in forming and shaping our character into the likeness of Jesus.
The Olympics are the perfect backdrop for this reflection because physical training and competition are used in Scripture as metaphors for our spiritual growth. For example, Paul writes, “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.” (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Paul is saying in effect that the way we train our bodies physically is our model for training our souls spiritually. “Striking a blow to my body … after I have preached to others” shows that he is keenly aware of his own propensity towards hypocrisy – preaching one thing and then doing the opposite. Training the body in Christian virtue is essential to the Christian life. This requires intentionality, which Paul insists upon when he writes, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Col. 3:12) Paul knew that the body must be trained in these virtues, that they do not come naturally, and must be pursued with the same rigor that the athlete prepares his or her body for a competition.
For those who have never trained hard for athletic competition, the sports analogy may not hold much power. Yet, for anyone who has practiced daily for years understands the commitment and focus required to improve and excel. This is the type of commitment that we are called to make in the re-formation of our character.
The goal of the Christian life is clear enough – to become like Jesus. The great nonnegotiable of the New Testament is commitment to Christ and His love. Whether it is Paul imploring us to Christian virtue as just mentioned, or John writing about unconditional love, or Peter about holy living, or James about good works – the Christian life is a different kind of life, a life of love. Jesus himself of course taught extensively on the transformation of all aspects of human behavior – from sexual purity and honesty to humility and above all – love. He sums it up this way, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33)
Having faced life’s realities we surely know that changing ingrained habits takes significant commitment and effort. Do any of us not understand how hard it is to overcome patterns of sin such as lust, anger, unforgiveness, etc.? And yet this is exactly what we are called to do as followers of Christ – the One who said that if we loved him we would do as he commands. Fortunately, He has not left us alone having promised us the Holy Spirit and His power working through us – guiding, strengthening, encouraging. Our challenge is therefore to train like the race is up to us, while trusting God to make straight our path and pick us up when we fall. Our efforts are not the source of our righteousness but they do predict the course of our righteousness. Dallas Willard put it this way, “The familiar words of Jesus are ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). But these must be balanced by the insight that, in general, if we do nothing it will certainly be without him.”
The movie Chariots of Fire tells of the British Olympic team that competed in the 1924 games. Its focus is on two runners, including Eric Liddell – the beloved Scottish soccer star and sprinter and devoted Christian. One of the great scenes occurs early in the movie after a regional track meet in which Liddell has won his race. He is addressing a gathering of spectators in a lightly falling rain. He beautifully elaborates on the analogy between sports and our faith journey. “You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape – especially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe your dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven’t got a job. So who am I to say, “Believe, have faith,” in the face of life’s realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”