July 26, 1992
TRAINING TO BE A WINNER
“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.” (1 Corinthians 9:25)
For the next few weeks, the eyes of the world are going to be on Barcelona. It’s time once again for the Olympic games to begin, and we’ll be watching to see who can run the fastest, throw the farthest, punch the hardest, lift the most, and do the fanciest flips.
When we watch the Olympics, we’re looking at some of the world’s greatest athletes. These men and women have the strength and speed and coordination to do things that most of us can only dream of. If I was in the gymnastics competition, I’d end up a permanent pretzel. In diving, I’d need some judges who appreciated the finer points of the belly flop. In a race, I’d be so far behind I’d need binoculars just to get a glimpse of the other runners.
What is it that sets the athletes in Barcelona apart from you and me? Part of it, of course, is pure physical talent. Nobody makes it to the Olympics without a larger than average share of natural ability. But there’s more to it than that. It takes more than just talent to become a world-class athlete–it takes training. Years and years of training. A strict nutritional program. Grueling workouts. Countless hours of practice. Lots of grunting and sweating and even some hurting. Olympic glory doesn’t come easily. Every time we see someone receiving a medal, we’re looking at a person who spent a huge amount of time and energy training to be a winner.
“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training”–that’s a statement that applies to every athlete in Barcelona. It also happens to be a direct quote from the Bible, written by the apostle Paul, and it’s just one of the many statements in the Bible which refer to the world of sports.
When Paul was writing, athletes were almost as popular as they are today. Our modern Olympic games began in 1896, but they’re hardly a new idea. When Paul lived, the Olympics were being held regularly every four years and had been for centuries. There were also other competitions, less prestigious than the Olympics, perhaps, but still very popular. The champions at these events were crowned with a wreath, and they became heroes, admired and adored by their fellow citizens. Their pictures didn’t appear on cereal boxes or TV commercials, but other than that, they were treated pretty much like the medal winners at Barcelona will be.
The sentence from the Bible I quoted a moment ago, that “everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” is part of a letter Paul wrote to some people in the city of Corinth. Corinth was into sports in a big way. The city not only sent athletes to the Olympics, but every two years it also hosted the Isthmian Games, which drew athletes from far and wide. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul says:
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 a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat 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 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Paul is comparing his own situation to that of a runner or a boxer. Runners don’t just gallop around aimlessly; they’re aiming at winning the big race. Likewise, boxers don’t go into training just to do some shadow-boxing; they’re preparing to fight a real opponent. Athletes don’t punish their bodies because they enjoy aching muscles and burning lungs; but they realize that the motto “No pain, no gain” is true, and so they whip their bodies into shape so they can achieve their goals. In the same way, says Paul, he’s got his eye on a certain prize, and so he trains and disciplines and whips himself into shape. He’s training to be a winner.
Why does he do this? What’s this “prize,” this “crown that lasts forever,” that he wants so badly? For the answer, let’s look at another of Paul’s letters. In Philippians 3 the apostle writes: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (v. 10-11). Paul then admits that even though that’s his ultimate goal, he’s not there yet. And then, sounding very much like an athlete, he says, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (v. 13-14).
To know Christ, to become like him, to share in his glory and reign with him forever–that’s the ultimate goal anyone can have. And anyone who expects to reach that goal will get serious about whatever training is necessary, just as Olympic athletes dedicate themselves to their training. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” says the apostle Paul. If that’s true of sports training, it’s even more true of spiritual training.
I’d like to explore with you several important aspects of training to be a winner, using some of the sports analogies in the Bible as our guide.
The first thing to keep in mind is that you become a winner by participating, not just by watching. Being a spectator does not make you an athlete. Someone once defined Monday Night Football as “22 million people badly in need of exercise watching 22 people badly in need of rest.” Change the numbers a bit, and that definition would fit the Olympics as well. Millions, perhaps even billions of us will be sinking ourselves into chairs and sofas during the next few weeks enjoying the Olympics, but that hardly makes us world-class athletes. If anything, all that time in front of the TV, munching junk food and guzzling various drinks, will make us less athletic than ever. You don’t become an athlete simply by watching others who are.
Likewise, you don’t become a Christian yourself just by watching others who are. Maybe you’ve been assuming that it’s the job of pastors and priests and specialists in spirituality to entertain and inspire you, and it’s your job to sit back and watch. But Christianity is not a spectator sport. You can be a fan of Christianity without being a Christian yourself. Each of us needs to respond personally to the challenge of following Jesus. Otherwise, we’re not athletes; we’re just spiritual couch potatoes.
When God’s Word compares Christianity to athletics, the Lord isn’t telling us to be spectators. He’s calling us to be contestants, to get out of our chairs and into the action, to train to be like Jesus and strain toward the ultimate prize. In Hebrews 12 the Bible says, “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.” In other words, get the lead out! You’re not a spectator–you’re a runner. So strip off the street clothes and whatever else might slow you down, and go for it!
Hebrews 12 goes on to say, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1,2). That brings us to a second important principle that Christians have in common with athletes: we need a hero whom we watch very closely.
Focusing on a hero is not at all the same as being a lazy spectator. It’s one thing to watch Michael Jordan’s heroics and then grab another bag of chips to eat; it’s quite another to watch one of Michael’s moves and then grab a basketball and practice that move yourself. Many young players improve their game by looking to a personal hero.
Likewise, if we’re serious about making the most of our lives, we need to have a hero. And we won’t be able to find a better one than Jesus Christ. If we’re training to be winners, we need to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” We need to study carefully and prayerfully every move that Jesus made as recorded for us in the Bible, with the intent of becoming like him. Focusing on Jesus is the best kind of hero worship.
Also, in addition to Jesus himself, you might find it helpful to have other spiritual heroes. When you haven’t met Jesus in flesh and blood, it sometimes helps to know a flesh and blood person who’s been following Christ longer than you have, someone who could serve as your role model.
For instance, Paul told the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). These people knew Paul, and although he wasn’t perfect, his way of life did give them a concrete example of what Jesus is like.
Do you know someone like that? Someone in whom you see Jesus at work, who could in turn serve as a model for you? Get to know that person better, and learn from that person’s way of life.
Any spiritual hero you have besides Jesus himself should not replace Jesus, of course, but should bring Jesus into sharper focus for you. Jesus is the only perfect role model; he’s the only hero we should actually worship.
Let’s move on to a third principle that successful athletes can teach us. We need a goal that keeps us going.
The athletes in Barcelona have all had a goal in mind throughout their training. Some of them have been focusing for years on the prospect of winning an Olympic medal; others perhaps had a more modest goal of at least being able do well enough in their own national competition to represent their country at Barcelona. But whatever the case, they had a goal that kept them going even when the training became very hard. They endured all the hours, all the sweat, all the sacrifices, and all the pain, in order to reach the goal. They were training to be winners.
Now, if a prize like that is worth training for, what about the prize that Jesus offers? As Paul put it, “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” (1 Corinthians 9:25). When Paul was writing, Olympic champions were crowned with a wreath of leaves. That wreath would soon wither, and so would the fame and honor that went with it. But if you’re a winner in the spiritual race, you’re awarded a crown that lasts forever, and the glory you enjoy never ends. You are welcomed and approved by Jesus himself; you live forever in a splendid city, enjoying the company of God, of the angels, of all God’s people made perfect; and nothing can ever again interfere with your joy.
This prize isn’t limited to just one person, either. In an athletic competition, there’s only one winner. Everyone else loses. As Paul puts it, “in a race, all the runners run, but only one gets the prize.” Out of everybody competing in a certain event, there’s only one person who gets the gold. The others miss out. But in the spiritual life, that’s not the case. There’s room for many winners.
Near the end of his life, Paul was very much looking forward to a great awards ceremony. He wrote,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Paul knew he would be crowned a winner, but he also knew he wouldn’t be alone. Unlike a sporting event where only one person can win, everybody who loves Jesus and lives for the day he returns will be crowned a champion. When you’re a Christian, that’s your ultimate goal.
Let’s look now at something else we can learn from successful athletes. It’s something I’ve been referring to all along, but now I want to highlight it specifically: In order to be a winner, every one of us needs constant training and self-discipline.
The athletes in Barcelona have put themselves through programs of physical training which required enormous effort and dedication. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” as the Bible puts it.
We’re part of a society that not only worships sports heroes but which also emphasizes physical fitness in general. Millions have become fitness fanatics so they can look better and live longer. When a fitness fanatic sees food, she completely ignores her taste buds. She’s too busy computing cholesterol and calories. Her favorite meal is a feast fit for a rodent: an appetizer of alfalfa sprouts, a main course which somehow involves oat bran yogurt for dessert, all washed down by a tall, cool glass of carrot juice. Between meals the fitness fanatic spends her time as a galley slave, working the oars of a rowing machine, or else racing desperately to keep up with a treadmill. Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking good care of our bodies. The Bible encourages us to do so. But it’s not half as important as taking good care of your soul. The goals you achieve through diet and exercise are nothing compared to your goal when you’re training to be a spiritual winner. Firm muscles aren’t nearly as important as firm faith. Paul told his friend Timothy: “Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise both for the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Physical fitness might help you to live a few years longer; spiritual fitness helps you live forever.
So how do we train to be godly? Well, part of any good training program is a proper diet. You can’t live on cookies and potato chips and expect to be strong and healthy. You need a balanced diet of healthy foods. Proper nutrition is equally important for the soul. It’s astonishing how we can watch our calories and cholesterol so carefully, and then stuff our minds and souls with garbage. A steady diet of tabloids and soap operas is not the way to nourish godliness. We need the nourishing food that comes only from the Bible. When we’re training to be winners, we need daily meals of nutritious spiritual food that can be found only in reading the Bible with a prayerful spirit.
A second dimension of training is self-denial. You give up anything that slows you down or interferes with reaching your goals. When you become a Christian, you need to let go of your various sins and vices. When you’re training for godliness, you need to say farewell to ungodliness. You also need to get rid of things which may not be evil in themselves, but which make you too busy and distract you from working toward your goal.
A third important aspect of any training routine is exercise and practice. Olympic gymnasts do things that are next to impossible, and they make it look easy, almost effortless. But that’s only because they’ve practiced the same thing over and over until excellence has become a habit. Likewise, godliness develops through practice. Whether it’s controlling how you talk, or doing business honestly, or giving money to honor God and help others, or whatever, practice makes perfect. You need to do what God tells you, over and over and over again, until what seemed difficult and awkward at first becomes almost second nature for you.
Although there’s much more we could say about different aspects of spiritual training, I’ll leave it to you to discover exactly what training you need in your own life.
For now, let me just mention one last important lesson from sports that applies to our spiritual training. It has to do with our attitude. We need to be confident but not cocky.
When great athletes are training to be winners, they are confident, and they need to be. They can’t afford to be nervous or hesitant, or it can really hurt their performance. However, there’s a big difference between confidence and cockiness. An athlete needs confidence, but when he becomes cocky, when he takes the contest lightly and just assumes he’s going to win no matter how he trains, he’s ripe for a stunning defeat.
That’s the way it is with the life of faith. Confidence is essential to spiritual progress. We can’t afford to always be hesitant or fearful that we’ll miss out on heaven, or it will really hinder us. Before anything else, we need the assurance that we’re safe in God’s love, that eternal life is ours because of what Jesus has already done for us. That’s what faith is all about.
But although a healthy faith is confident, it isn’t cocky or careless. Just look at Paul. At the end of 1 Corinthians 9, he says that he continually whips himself into shape so that he won’t miss out on the prize. Does this mean he isn’t confident of his salvation? No, it just means that Paul refuses to take his salvation for granted. He realizes that a preacher can miss out on heaven as easily as anyone. Paul knows that everything depends on his personal link with Jesus, and he also knows that spiritual training is the method God uses to keep his people close to Jesus. That knowledge makes him confident, and at the same time it keeps him from becoming cocky.
All of Paul’s training and all his efforts and all his confidence were based on his faith that Jesus Christ was at work in him. Paul wrote, “I labor, struggling with all his energy [Christ’s energy], which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29). In another place, he advises his readers, “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). When God’s Holy Spirit is at work in you, you have a supernatural source of energy. That doesn’t make you so careless that you do nothing at all; instead, it gives you the confidence you need to work even harder.
If you’re not already training to be a winner, Jesus calls you to receive him into your heart so that you can begin today. And as you follow what happens in Barcelona, every time there is another medal ceremony, remind yourself of what the Bible says: “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.”
Lord Jesus, we praise you for the glorious prize of eternal life. Work your way in us and train us so that we may be found worthy of that prize. Fix our eyes on you and make us like you. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.