The Olympics Of The Spirit
Many times in the course of his letters, Paul communicates the Christian faith in terms of the imagery of athletics. I have searched those letters and have pulled together those images and attempted to arrange them in some kind of logical order in the hope that on this day, these words of Paul inspired by God may in fact become God’s Word for us from the pen and the heart of Paul.
“Do you know that in a race, all runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. For every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable prize, but we, an imperishable prize. So I do not run aimlessly. I do not box as one beating the air, but I pummel my body and subdue it. Lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified. And remember, an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”
“Also, brethren, I do not consider that I had made it my own, but this one thing I do. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
“Therefore, train yourself in godliness, for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is a value in every way as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life that is to come.”
And finally, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and every sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that it set before us with our eyes fixed upon Jesus.”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your site, O God, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
John Claypool, one of America’s most distinguished ministers, tells how at a time earlier in his career, he was seated with a group of fellow preachers, and he began to share with them how his life seemed to lack any real worth or meaning or value. He said that he’d tried. He tried to make a name for himself. He tried to be somebody. He tried to be significant in his living, but in the process, he had only become weary and lonely and frustrated.
Now, at that moment, one of the other men in the group suddenly turned to him and said, just as brutally and truthfully as I say it now, he said, “John, the problem is, you have never let the gospel get into your guts. Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world.’ He never said you have to be number one in order to get the light. He never said you have to out-achieve everyone else in order to earn the light. He said simply, ‘You are light.’ And if you would ever learn to realize that in your life, then the brightness of the glory of God would begin to shine through you to the world about you.”
Claypool says that in that moment, something like fire, he says, something like fire moved from the top of his head to the bottom of his heart. And in that, moment he realized that his significance as a human being had nothing whatever to do with whatever he might do, but rather, his worth, his value, his significance as a human being existed because he had been made by God, and that all he had to do in life was to become all that God intended for him to be. That’s all that was required. And from that point on, John Claypool, now at a new peace with God, went on to preach the Gospel of the Prince of Peace with infinitely greater power than he had ever preached it before.
It’s a marvelous discovery to make, my beloved friends, to discover that you and I are special to God, that God has actually made us, made you, made me, made us special. We are created in His own image. It’s as if God sat down in front of a mirror, as it were, and looked in the mirror and saw there the reflection of His own image, and then said, speaking of us, and then said, “I will make men and women like I am.” And that’s what He did. And all that He asks is that we become all that He’s given us the capacity to be, nothing more than that but nothing less than that either. It’s a glorious discovery to make that discovery in your life.
And, you know, Paul again and again through his letters tries to help us make that discovery. And I noticed in my study that almost every time, Paul speaks in terms of this great discovery of ours that we are special in God’s eyes and that he’s called us to become everything we can be, that every time Paul speaks of that great Christian truth, he uses the language of sports.
And so, you know, since right now we are being surrounded by all of the glory and the excitement of the Olympic Games at Los Angeles, I thought it might be interesting for us to take a look at what Paul’s trying to communicate through the imagery of athletics. As you read through Paul’s letters, it’s quite evident that Paul knew all about the original Olympic Games in Greece, but I think it’s equally evident in reading his letters that Paul knew all about what I would choose to call the Olympics of the spirit. Let me try to show you what I mean.
The first thing that I hear Paul saying here is this: life is like a race.
And in running that race, we are to run to win. We are, as it were, to go for the gold. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Do you not know that in a race, all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? An athlete competes for a prize that is perishable, but we, as Christians, compete for a prize that is imperishable, so run the race and run to win.” Now, what Paul is saying there is simply this: that if we build our lives upon the things that are perishable, if we live in pursuit of perishable things, then we are never going to know the thrill of victory in our living. Paul wants us to understand that in the course of the living of our days, we may lose all of our loved ones. We may lose our wealth and our possessions. We may lose our health and our mental capacities. We may well be stripped of all of the things in life that we so much depend upon. That may happen to us, and Paul says, “What then?” Good question. What then?
I see so many people in life today who are living their lives in pursuit of perishable things. And they seem to feel that the only way to gain a sense of personal worth in life, the only way to experience triumphant, victorious living is to accumulate wealth or have a good job and a nice family and a fine home, or to work very hard at becoming more handsome or more beautiful, or to try to scratch and claw their way somehow onto the social register of the community. Or to feed and develop and try to nurture their intellectual capacities. But my friends, those things are perishable. They will not last. I mean, after all, if our sense of personal worth were dependent upon good looks, then Marylin Monroe would never have committed suicide. If our sense of personal worth were dependent upon popularity or prominence, then Freddie Prinze would never have committed suicide. If our sense of personal worth derived from our intellectual accomplishments or from the admiration of the people of the world about us, then Ernest Hemingway would never have committed suicide. The fact of the matter is that every say, people who have great financial resources and good looks and many friends and outstanding abilities are committing suicide. Why? Because they lack a deep down inner sense of personal worth. And without that, life leads only inevitably to self-destruction in one form or another, to suicide – suicide in an instant with a gun or with pills, or suicide over a lot of years with a bottle or a beer in front of a television set. But the result is always the same. They lose out in the race of life. And so many people are losing.
Jack Paar, one of the first of the late night talk show hosts, says, “My life has been one long obstacle course, and I am my own greatest obstacle.” He’s not alone. So many people are living their lives pursuing a prize which is perishable, trying to live life the way they think they ought to be, without ever stopping to think about what God might want them to be. You know, that’s what Paul was driving at when he said, “Train yourself in godliness, for while bodily training is of some value, yes, training in godliness is a value in all things, for it points not only to this life but to the life that is to come.”
I’m thinking of Jim Thorpe, the great Indian athlete, a part of the American Olympic team at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. As the team was sailing across the Atlantic toward the Games, every day on the deck of the ship, the team would have a daily workout. One day, the coach came along and found Jim Thorpe sitting there on the deck with his head down, his eyes closed, doing absolutely nothing. The coach, exasperated, cried out, “Thorpe, what are you doing?” Jim Thorpe never raised his head, never opened his eyes, but he said, “I’m picturing myself winning the decathlon.” He was picturing himself becoming all that God had given him the capacity to be. He knew that physical training was of come value, yes, but he also knew that the victory would never come unless his mind and his heart were equally well prepared.
That’s the message for us. Try, me friends, to catch a vision in your life of what God would want for you to be. He’s made you. You’re special to Him. Try to discover what your life would be like if you were to seriously surrender yourself to the service of Jesus Christ. Catch that vision in your life. Run in pursuit of the imperishable prize. That’s what Paul meant when he said, “In a race, all runners compete, but only one wins the prize. The athlete runs for a prize which is perishable, but we run for one which is imperishable. Run to win that prize.”
But then there’s a second thing that I hear Paul saying here, and it’s this: “Life is like a race, and in running that race, we’ve got to run by the rules.”
Paul writes to Timothy. He says, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes by the rules.” Now, Paul knew that rules are rules, and you got to have the right rules for the right sport. He understood that you don’t apply the rules for football to a track meet. You don’t apply the rules for football to a track meet. You don’t apply the rules of water polo to a gymnastics event. He knew that. But what he was saying was that in the race of life, the rules by which we are to live, the rules by which we are to run are the rules of God. Now, you know as well as I do that Paul spent an awful lot of time trying to debunk the myth that God is nothing more than some cruel tyrant delivering a set of endless rules designed to sap all the joy out of living. Paul attacked that wherever he found it. Paul was opposed to blind legalism. He was opposed to nitpicking discipleship. But Paul understood that God has built certain basic principles, certain basic guidelines, certain basic rules, as it were, into the fabric of the human experience. And when we bring ourselves into harmony with those rules, those principles, then we are going to be better able to run the race. But that’s all he’s saying, but ooh, that’s a lot.
I cannot think of living by the rules without remembering Eric Liddell. You know his story. It’s been popularized by the movie Chariots of Fire. He was scheduled to run the 100-meter dash in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Liddell was a devoted Christian, and when he learned that the race was to be run on Sunday, he refused to enter. Terrible pressure was brought to bear upon him. His nation’s Olympic officials and even members of the royal family said to him, “Eric, you must run for your country.” And Eric Liddell said, “No, my God comes first, and my king comes second.” It’s a marvelous thing to do. But I want you to understand something. His refusal to run did not have anything at all to do with a bunch of senseless legalisms about what you can and cannot do on Sunday. No. His refusal to run was built upon his allegiance to the one great guiding principle of his life. He put God first in everything. And then he demonstrated his loyalty to that God by trying to live by the rules as he understood them. After he’d taken his stand, he was asked, “Do you have any regrets?” He said, “Yes, but no doubts.” What a tremendous affirmation from one whose faith burned like a fire within him and yet who was under terrible fire from without.
And so, on that Sunday morning, when Eric Liddell could’ve been running for the gold medal in the Olympic Games, instead, he climbed into the pulpit of a Presbyterian church in city of Paris, and there, he preached a sermon based upon on the words of Isaiah, “They who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run, and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” You see, my friends, if we are ever going to know a faith that soars like an eagle, if we are ever going to know a faith that is triumphant and victorious, it will never come from spending an hour in worship on Sundays. It will only come when we are willing to put Christ first in our lives, when we are willing to stand openly for what we know and believe to be right. It will only come when we are willing to refuse to betray anything that we know runs contrary to the will of Christ for us or for the world.
It will only come when we refuse to be badgered or bullied by a secular society where the only things that seem to matter are economic or technological or political power, and where God is regarded at best as a doubtful last resort. It will only come when we make the conscious decision to put God first in our lives and then demonstrate our loyalty to him by living in accord with the rules he has given for our benefit and for our blessing. That’s what Paul meant when he said, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”
Oh, but then there’s this in Paul’s words: “Life is like a race, but if we are going to win that race, we must never focus on our failures.” Paul writes to the Philippines, “There’s one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal or the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul is saying, “If we’re ever going to win in the race of life, we’ve got to forget the failures that are behind us.”
In the 1924 Olympics, Charles Paddock of the United States was favored to win the 100-meter dash. After the gun, true to form, Paddock took the lead. He maintained that lead through most of the race, but then near the finish, he was being pressed by the other runners in that race. And just before he reached the finish line, for what reason, no one knows, including Charles Paddock, but for some reason, at that moment, Charles Paddock turned and looked back at his rivals. And in that flash of a second, another runner swept by and won the gold medal. That’s what Paul is saying – don’t focus on your failures. Forget them. Leave them in the past.
And when it came to failure, let’s remember the fact that Paul was a first class forgetter. I think of the fact that Paul was a participant in a dreadful stoning death of Stephen, and yet Paul, while he knew that that was very much a part of his past, do you know what? He never once mentions it in all of his letters.
Or I think of the relationship between Paul and Barnabas. It was a relationship that started off good but turned sour. They had, what the Bible says, was a very serious quarrel. They went their separate ways. And Paul, acknowledging the failure, never then makes the mistake of dredging up the details over and over and over again. He knew he failed, but he put it behind him.
Or I think of Paul and young Demas. Evidently, Paul’s ministry was not strong enough to reach Demas. For what reason, we do not know, but Paul spent a lot of time and a lot of effort trying to reach that young man, and he failed. And he knew he failed. And he marked and noted the failure. But then, he never spoke another word about it. He put it behind him, straining forward always toward the call of God in Christ Jesus. Mark this down. We will never win in the race of life until we learn how not to focus upon our failures but rather to forget them. That’s what Paul meant when he said, “There’s one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, I press on toward the goal.”
Well, now, once Martin Luther had a dream, and in that dream, he saw Satan seated on a throne. And one of Satan’s lieutenants came and stood before the throne and said, “Sire, I saw a great company of Christians marching across the desert. And I set a pride of lions upon them, and when the lions had finished, their bodies were strewn across the sand.” And Satan said, “So what? They lost their bodies, but they still had their souls. I want souls.” Another fiend stepped forward at that point and said, “Sire, I saw a company of Christians sailing across the sea, and I sent a great storm, and the ship went down. And their bodies are spread across the ocean floor.” And Satan said, “So what? They lost their bodies, but they still had their souls. I want souls.” At that point, a particularly loathsome creature slithered forward and said, “Sire. I know a great company of Christians who are sleek and comfortable and contented, and I have worked very hard to see that they never wake up.” And at that moment, the corridors of hell rang with malignant laughter.
Paul says, “Christians, wake up. Don’t you see there’s a race to be run? I call you to run that race to win, become everything that God has given you the capacity to be. I call you to run that race according to the rules. Put Christ first in your life. I call you to run that race forgetting the failures and the sins of your past and strain forward, move ahead toward the finish line, always keeping your eyes fixed upon Jesus.”
So runners, take your marks. Get set. Go. Thanks be to God who would give us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us pray. Almighty and most gracious God, enable us to engage in the race of life and to run with perseverance, always keeping our eyes, our minds, and our hearts fixed upon Jesus. Amen.