I am not an athlete. I have, however, had athletic moments over the years. These were times when I would say confidently that I was fit, but I have never had the drive or circumstance to really become what one would call an athlete. The dictionary defines an athlete as a “person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill”. Suffice it to say, my picture was NOT beside this definition in the dictionary.
Becoming a serious athlete is not a decision to be entered into lightly. There are usually things that a person must give up in order to grow in the sport for which they train. There is the time, the expense, and the self-discipline– not to mention the neglect of a myriad of other pursuits that a person could possibly seek after. An athlete, serious about winning in their chosen event, must be prepared, well trained, and ready to face the opposition in any competition. Everything else in their lives must become secondary in order to win.
Although I may never be described as an athlete, as a follower of Christ I am called to actively train and participate like one running in a race. The race, of course, is run as a disciple of Christ, which Paul reminds us must be run to win (1 Cor. 9:24). Paul describes participation this way to Timothy. “(You) being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1Tim. 4: 6b-8). It is, therefore, an active participation, a continuous training ground, and an unceasing re-working through which the Holy Spirit changes us from a spiritual infant to a mature follower of Christ (2 Cor. 3:19). The training is a lifetime process. There aren’t any armchair Christians in the Kingdom. We were all called to run.
Like a serious athlete in the physical sense, Christ- followers must be disciplined. No runner ever won a race eating hotdogs every day, never practicing, sleeping two hours a night, or ignoring his or her coach’s direction. That type of athlete would be considered a joke, and would be fortunate to finish the race at all. But as a Christ-follower how often do we have that very same mentality? We want to win the race, but we do not want the discipline that goes along with it. We want the results, but only if it does not cost us anything, and we can continue in our current lifestyle.
But in 1 Corinthians Paul reminds us how we can win the race. “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (9:24-27) In essence, if we want to win the spiritual race set before us, each of us must determine for ourselves if what Christ told the people in Luke 9:23 is something we are willing to do. “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” We must be willing to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. (We are) not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our mind, that by testing we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2). As Paul writes to Timothy, “we must fight the good fight of faith, taking hold of the eternal life to which we were called” (1 Tim. 6:12a). Sitting down is not an option, and lying down has eternal consequences (1 Thess.5:6, Matt. 25:1-13). We must abide in Christ and run (John 15:5, Eph. 2:10).
For an athlete in training, their willingness to undergo whatever is necessary for whatever duration is necessary, is essential. As they give up more and more of their lives to the end goal of winning in their sport, they must constantly remind themselves of what they hope to gain. As followers of Christ we too must continually examine ourselves to determine if the cost of discipleship is something we are willing to pay. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Luke 14: 28, Luke 31). And once we have determined this for ourselves, we must constantly be reminded of the hope we have in Christ so that we will gladly endure the course ahead of us, just as Christ Himself did for our sake on the cross. (James 1:12, Heb. 12:3)
So today, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1b). “Let us prepare our minds for action, and be sober-minded, setting our hope fully on the grace that will be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, let us not be conformed to the passions of our former ignorance, but as he who called us is holy, we also need be holy in all our conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 13:15).
Brothers and sisters let us, “do our best to present ourselves to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), “and stay dressed for action, keeping our lamps burning “ (Luke 12:35). Remember, Christ died so that we may win this race, so let us not ignore such a great salvation (Heb. 2:3), but instead let us pray and be prepared to run it well. Let us set our eyes on what lies ahead and, like Paul, forget what lies behind, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:13).
As we prepare to run the race set before us this day, let us make our constant prayer to proclaim one day the words that Paul wrote in his letter to Timothy. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up 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 loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-9). As we come into that home stretch and cross that blessed finish line, may we all hear the sweet, sweet sound of our Lord proclaiming, “Well done!”
“I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.”(Rev. 3:11)