“An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” [2 Timothy 2:5].
I must say that I enjoy watching the Olympic Games—summer or winter—when they make their way into our homes according to their respective four-year cycles. In fact, I believe that at this point in the current Winter Olympics, I am fast approaching the status of official “couch potato.” The level of competition, combined with the skill levels of the athletes, is often compelling, and there is no shortage of personal dramas literally “played out” before our admiring or even reverential gaze. Heroes are made and/or unmade in the “twinkling of an eye.” Unknowns become household names overnight. For this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russian backdrop to the games also has its attractions—if not distractions. I trust we will not be horrified by a terrorist attack during the games, but there remains a certain lingering tension over that possibility. However, terrorists assess their “accomplishments,” and there is no doubt that they have won a psychological victory of sorts by making “terrorist vigilance” a noticeable part of everyday life. Returning to the Russian backdrop to the Games—and as interludes between events—I have already enjoyed short features on the trans-Siberian railway (it covers seven time zones in a week); the production and distribution of Russian vodka (no mention of Russia’s very high rate of alcoholism); the manufacturing of Matryoshka dolls (a veritable industry); and a glimpse into the competitive, disciplined and graceful world of Russia’s justifiably renowned ballet (somehow we have all heard of the Bolshoi). Perhaps we will be taken into a large beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral before the Games have ended. (Many of the Russian athletes make the sign of the Cross right before their performance, as you may have noticed).
It is impossible not to admire the dedication of these athletes to their respective sports. As you get older, you can only further admire such youthful ardor and the simple drive that these young athletes manifest in their pursuit of excellence. But then again, none of us can probably appreciate the time, energy, and expense (the exception being the parents who at least initially are footing the bills and consuming a great deal of their own lives) that must go into the making of an Olympic athlete. In our admiring response to their dedication we, with them, somehow vicariously experience the “thrill of victory” and the “agony of defeat.” After many years of watching the Olympic Games, I am not quite certain what provokes the stronger reaction—watching the exaltation of the victor as he/she finally attain a place on the medals podium, or the crushing disappointment of the vanquished as he/she must absorb the finality of realizing that it will not be after those years of intense preparation. The one makes you smile, but other makes you wince.
The ancient world that the Gospel entered as a wholly new perception of reality was no stranger to such Games. Indeed, it was the ancient world that gave us the Olympic Games, from the time of the first recorded Games (776 BC) to their various offshoots in the Greco-Roman world of the first Christian century. Our contemporary Games were meant to revive this ideally friendly competition on a wider international basis. It is that same idealism that would hopefully create an atmosphere of greater understanding, mutual toleration and respect among the participating nations: sports as a unifying principle that transcends ideological differences (how did that one work out?). It was the ancient Games that gave the Apostle Paul the metaphors that he used to capture something of the discipline and testing of the “spiritual life” that one embraced when accepting the Gospel. If an athlete must “train” hard, then so must the disciple of Christ. If an athlete must be totally dedicated to his/her sport, then so must the Christian be totally and wholeheartedly devoted to Christ and the Gospel. If an athlete must shed “blood, sweat and tears” for winning a victory wreath or crown, then so must the Christian be willing to suffer for the sake of the eternal Kingdom of God. Mixing his metaphors of both running and boxing in the ancient world, the Apostle Paul made this point is a compelling and poignant manner: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (I Corinthians 9:24-27).
As a disciple of the Risen Lord, the Apostle knew that the Christian pursuit is so much greater than that of the athlete: how can one compare a “perishable wreath” to an “imperishable wreath?” But he also knew that it just may entail the shedding of “blood, sweat, and tears” for its accomplishment. The Christian could (and should) never expect to receive the public adulation of the athlete. The disciple of Christ should not expect to be raised up on a pedestal. He or she was laboring as the “leaven of the world,” in a hidden manner—unless or until they would have to publicly affirm their faith in Christ before the magistrates who were persecuting them in the ancient world: “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12) What a Christian can expect in today’s world is to be labeled a “zealot” or even a “fanatic” for precisely attempting to give one’s life for the sake of Christ as the athlete does for his goals. The famous medievalist Helen Waddell, when describing the life of the Desert Fathers, had this to say about that charge: “A man must follow his star. We do not grudge it that these should have left wife and children and lands and reason for the flick of a needle on the speedometer or ‘a still life of a pair of old shoes.’ The only field of research in which a man may make no sacrifices, under pain of being called a fanatic, is God.
Serious Christians may just have to accept that charge. (It will hurt all the more if it comes from within the Christian community, as the more zealous may be reproached by the more indifferent members).
The approaching Great Lent will be that season par excellence for embracing some discipline and “training in godliness.” Spiritual “couch potato” status will not work. We will have to “lift our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees… so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather healed” (cf. Hebrews 12:12-13). From the same epistle, the stadium, the race and the cheering crowd are powerfully evoked in order to inspire our efforts, regardless of the cost: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
If our contemporary athletes inspire us imitate these things, then so be it. However, if we do not wish to be “disqualified,” then we must willingly embrace the struggles yet to come.