It was interesting timing, reading 1 Corinthians 9. What with Simone Biles and Michael Phelps winning gold after gold, and making news all over the internet. They seem almost superhuman.
While they’re blessed with innate ability, it’s their uncommon dedication to training that makes them Olympians.
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27, NASB
What would have become of Michael Phelps’ performance at the 2016 Olympics if he’d decided that his 2012 Olympic victories were sufficient effort to see him through? The world would not have witnessed him winning his twenty-third gold medal. Twenty-third. Gold. No silver or bronze in 2016 for this swimmer.
But Olympic prowess comes at a cost. Training. Consistent, focused training that takes precedence over the typical things in the lives of young people.
For every yes there must be a no.
This morning, there were future Olympians saying no to sleeping until the sun comes up, to say yes to a workout I couldn’t endure. I chose to say yes to the scoop-necked teal top and no to… other t-shirts.
Every choice we make closes off a myriad of other possibilities, setting off ripples in all directions to destinations we can’t see and hitting countless points along the way.
For many of us, it’s crippling when we can’t help but think of that reality. But refusing to choose and move is a choice, too.
What am I running to win?
As well as my looks-better-than-just-a-t-shirt t-shirt, I made the more meaningful choice to sit down on the side porch with my breakfast, open Bible, half-full notebook, and favorite pseudo-highlighters and mechanical pencil. Daily Bible reading is an important spiritual discipline. Sometimes I get lax. I’m busy and other things press in and catch my attention. Then I try really hard to be better. I set and reset smaller goals that could lead in the right direction if I built them into a healthy regimen.
I know some people get upset when it sounds like faith and spirituality require form with rigidity. Legalism they may cry. Or with heartfelt intention remind us that faith is not a matter of checklists.
John Ortberg’s perspective on trying vs. training in The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People is helpful. Faith can only take us so far when it comes to spiritual growth. We can’t merely believe that we’ll grow spiritually and have it happen. Passively waiting for the Spirit really means waiting for a feeling, which leaves us open to all sorts of lesser things than God Himself; it results in wishy-washy faith and inaccurate beliefs.
Neither blind effort nor passivity equip us to run to win.
Both Simone and Michael ran to win. In many ways, they were competing against themselves. No one can do what Simone Biles does in her floor routine. But, for now, while her body is young and fit enough to take the rigors of training, her pursuit of improvement continues. The people who keep striving to beat their personal bests are the ones who break records.
And there’s always someone fresher coming up behind.
It’s a relief that our spiritual race is not a competition.
This passage doesn’t mean that only one person wins in following Jesus, but we should all run our best race. How do we so easily forget how amazing it is that we get to spend eternity free from the consequences of our sin, free from the limitations of our finite bodies, free in the love and light of our Creator Father, free in our identity as God’s beloved? Eternity with God is more wonderful than we can comprehend.
People get excited for this year’s winners and human-interest favorites, but how many names will they remember a year from now? How many will be forgotten until a commentator brings them up in 2020?
When we hear about Olympic athletes of the past, it’s often as a footnote in a new victory story of someone else destined to be footnote in a future champion’s story. Even when we remember Olympic glories, the victors aren’t living in their moment of triumph.
Life goes on. Heroes go about the business of being… typical.
The Gold Medal and the Brass Ring
Bruce Jenner reclaimed the national spotlight for a while. His story was ideal for contemporary liberal pop culture. But the reality is he hated himself so much he thought he was born in the wrong-gender body. In his new body, Bruce, a sixty-something grandfather, was hailed as brave after taking the cowardly route of refusing to live as the man he was born to be. He had the money to make himself look different, but he’s still Bruce Jenner. Is anyone talking about what
Caitlyn Bruce is up to these days? Not enough that it makes my social media feeds. Fame doesn’t last. It guarantees nothing. It’s just one more shiny, empty thing this world offers, and people sell their souls to attain.
An Olympic medal may last longer than an olive wreath, but, still, it’s temporal. No matter how tightly we grasp life’s accomplishments and acquisitions, we can hold them no longer than we live. The crown Paul tells us to run for outlasts this earth and our life on it. It outlasts time. That’s something for our little brains to wrap around: time itself has an expiration date.
Michael Phelps and Simone Biles are driven to compete and train at a level most of us can’t imagine. Their goal? Be the best. The best in their sports, and their personal bests. When we’ve chosen a clearly defined goal – chosen, not merely given mental or verbal assent that something is a good idea or worthy of effort – other choices are easier. They have a frame. And a heart.
Will this bring me closer to my goal?
The Apostle Paul didn’t flail his arms in blind hope of striking some part of a vague target. He could maintain self-discipline because he had a reason to persist, a goal to achieve. Christ shone brighter in his mind and heart than any medal a man can hold in his hand.
Paul understood that yesterday’s success doesn’t ensure tomorrow’s. When we stop pursuing our goal, we drift off-course. Christians love mountaintop experiences. But we don’t live up there; we can’t. Just because I said no to a temptation yesterday, or even this morning, doesn’t mean I won’t turn around now and give in to one. In fact, I just literally turned around, and snapped at my daughter. Granted, she was, um, less-than-behaving, but, still.
We’re impressed by victory over so-called big sins, and ignore the need for moment-by-moment obedience.
Am I running my race?
I have a confession that may shock some of you: I didn’t watch the Olympics. I’m sure there are many blog posts about the spiritual parallels. I didn’t plan to write one. Watching people compete in athletic events is just not my thing.
Of course this comes from someone who is not by nature competitive. At least not in the typical sense. I want to do well. But I don’t want to be the best, at least not if it involves responsibility. My goal in high school? Third in my class. Relatively impressively smart for those who care about such things, but free from the terrifying obligation to speak at graduation. School came easy, so I didn’t have to make much more effort than completing the required work. Spelling bee in junior high? When it came down to me and one other girl, anxiety reminded me that if I won I’d have to move on to compete at county level. Ummmm. Suddenly that next word got jumbled. There will probably always be a childish part of me that hates to lose, but being first is complicated.
Fear and laziness mute my ambition. I like to do well, but that’s not the same as doing my best.
Doing well is good enough in most situations, but some people set something off in me, and I need to beat them at whatever we’re doing. Cockiness. Cockiness sets my insides on fire. When given opportunity, I set out to crush it.
Others’ perception of me. The desire to do well without too much obligation or effort. The instinct to crush what mockingly claims superiority. None of these will get me very far in the race God intends me to run.
If Jesus Christ is my standard, I have no excuse to refuse to persist.
What does this have to do with mental health?
Do you know what happens when you hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time, or do things that go against what you believe is true? It’s called cognitive dissonance. Our brain is off-kilter when we claim to believe the Biblical truths, but don’t give them priority and thereby live otherwise. It’s one basic way our spiritual health influences our mental health. And vice versa. We don’t always make the best choices to relieve the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
We’re not one-dimensional and our approach to mental health shouldn’t be either.
A proper understanding of God, His design for humanity, and my identity in Him are necessary for mental and emotional health.
He created us, for crying out loud; He knows what’s best for us.
Michael Phelps is tall, with long arms. Long arms. They got him picked on as a kid. Typically, our arm span is about the same as our height. Michael has several extra inches. Simone Biles is short. She’s only about as tall as an average eleven-year-old girl, not a nineteen-year-old. (Okay, the intensity of serious gymnasts’ training can stunt their growth, but Simone was never going to be tall, or even average.)
Michael’s and Simone’s bodies are ideal for success in their respective sports.
I have a broken brain…
If I didn’t have a broken brain we wouldn’t be meeting here today. I wouldn’t have these words for you.
I wouldn’t have chosen anxiety and severe depression. But my brain has a glitch. I can’t change that. Some things have always been difficult.
Our struggles may be different, but we all have them.
There are times my world goes black. Some days the grocery store makes me panic. But those difficult things, and a bunch of other ones? I’m willing to share them to encourage others. I share my mess, and God makes it worth sharing.
Very few of us will be Olympic athletes. I think there are more of us who trip over air. The world would be a pretty boring place if we were all alike in our skills and talents. What if we all had the same weaknesses? What a mess that would be!
As believers, we strive toward the same finish line. Our routes are different, as is how we run. And that’s a good thing.
It’s a blessing when, in the course of running the race as only I can, my route intersects with someone who I can encourage. And I have been blessed by countess others faithfully running. I’m enjoying putting these words together in hopes of encouraging you to run the way God created you to. Sharing words is what I do. But what if I’m so caught up in talking about the race and how I’m designed to run it, that I’m putting more energy into telling you about it than actually running?
Because talking is so much easier for me than running…
Paul understood that no matter how great an example he had set for the readers of his letters, he was sunk if he got distracted and stopped running.
Words are powerful. But my testimony is useless if it’s only words.
Am I running my race or just talking about it?
How about you?
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