Russ Hodge, who used to be on staff at Master’s, was a world record holder in the decathlon. In my view, he is one of the greatest athletes who has ever existed. One time in the ’70s, I was up in Oregon for a major international decathlete meet, and he was coaching the American team. We were standing on the infield, and I was watching all of these great athletes warm up. And I asked Russ, “Who is the greatest athlete here?”
Russ pointed to a man named Fred Dixon and said, “That man is the greatest athlete in the world.” But then he pointed to another man and said, “See that short little guy over there? You’ve never heard of him, but he’s going to win.”
I said, “How is he going to win if he’s not the greatest athlete in the world?”
Then Russ said, “Because he’s the most mentally tough competitor I’ve ever seen in my life. He will not lose. He refuses to lose.” Sure enough, when they held the distance run at the end of the second day, that guy won.
Paul may have had this sort of all-out exertion in mind when he compared the Christian life to an athletic competition: “If anyone competes as an athlete, he doesn’t win the prize unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5).
If you are a Christian, Paul exhorts you to view yourself as an athlete. But what exactly does this mean?
The Greek verb athleō implies exertion. I’ve often said that most Christians who don’t reach their spiritual potential don’t reach it because they don’t care to reach it. They just aren’t interested, and their failure rises out of indifference. Sometimes the difference between a winner and a loser is not ability, but desire.
From a spiritual standpoint, you need to want to win. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win. Paul says, “Run that you may win” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Athletes run in order to obtain the prize. There’s no honor in losing. You don’t say to an athlete when he wins a race, “You’re so selfish. Why don’t you let somebody else win?” If a guy throws a race, he isn’t noble — he’s foolish. We honor effort over laziness. And the same is true in the Christian life.
There is a second implication to this image that Paul uses. Christians, like athletes, must follow the rules in order to win.
The world learned this lesson a few decades ago through Ben Johnson, who competed in the 1988 Summer Olympics as a sprinter. He won the 100-meter dash, but he was afterwards disqualified for doping. In fact, the history of the Olympic Games — and of athletics in general — is full of cheating controversies. And the general lesson from all of those examples is this: Cheating costs you your prize.
Do things in such a way that when the smoke clears, it will be obvious that you have done everything God’s way, without cutting any corners. As Paul puts it, “Having done everything, stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13). Paul himself worked hard to avoid being disqualified, because he knew that breaking God’s rules would threaten his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:27). We too, in order to be strong Christians, must live as determined and disciplined athletes.
So, what is a dedicated Christian? A dedicated Christian is somebody who teaches what he has learned. A dedicated Christian is someone who sees himself as a soldier made for hardship, made to be cut off from the world, and made to fight to please the commander. And a dedicated Christian is an athlete who runs the best he can to win the prize the Lord has promised while keeping all the rules.
Don’t get caught in being selfish. Give your life away to others, and then enjoy the fruit when you start to see how God is using you to change other people’s lives. Putting on the strength of a good teacher, soldier, and athlete will equip you to know the joy of blessing others. And it will also give you the joy of becoming more like Christ.
Who was the greatest teacher who ever walked the earth? Jesus Christ. Who is the greatest soldier who fought the greatest battle and won the greatest victory? Jesus Christ. Who was the greatest athlete who ran the purest race, won the greatest prize, and never broke a rule? Jesus Christ. And who are you to be like? Jesus Christ. Remember Jesus Christ, because He is the ultimate example of all we are called to be.
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