As one writer aptly puts it, you can’t buy an Olympic medal and yet the price people pay for it is scary. There are those who train seven days a week while others readily take on two jobs to pay for coaches, physiotherapy and whatever may help improve their performance. Some female athletes have to deal with deeply entrenched prejudices and even risk their lives simply for an opportunity to represent their country.
By now, we would also have read about gymnastic champion Simone Biles and her decision to drop out of several events at the Olympics for the sake of her physical and mental well-being. When asked about one of her recent Instagram post where she shared she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, she remarked “… I feel like I’m also not having as much fun. And I know that this Olympic Games I wanted it to be for myself when I came in, and I felt like I was still doing it for other people.”
Admittedly, it is somewhat disconcerting that in the arena of professional sports where life goes on to a large extent for the spectators regardless of whether the athlete wins a medal of not, many athletes still end up feeling the burden of people’s expectations. Considering the outrage and flurry of snide remarks on the internet that Biles had to face when she withdrew from her events or when Joseph Schooling fared poorly at the swimming heats, our hearts certainly go out to them.
Before Biles, there were also other sport personalities such as Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps who shared about their struggles with depression and reminding people that there is more to life than winning medals. For doing so, the media lauded them as being brave, for opening up on the need to care for more than just limbs and ligaments, for stepping out and fighting the stigma surrounding mental health struggles.
For us as Christians, this truth that life is more than just about personal accomplishments and winning not something new. Except that the focus is not primarily about tending to our needs but more so in the giving of ourselves in worship unto Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of Matthew, after speaking about his impending sacrificial death, Jesus taught his disciples “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).
Likewise, while speaking of his willingness to give up his rights for the spiritual benefits of the Corinthians, Apostle Paul also exhorted the believers, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, 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.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
Paul’s usage of an athletic metaphor is apt given that Corinth was likely the location of what was known as Isthmian games, at that time second in fame only to the Olympics. For Paul, he used this metaphor to describe the rigours and single-minded focus of his apostolic work to pursue the advancement of the gospel. Although Paul acknowledged the tremendous pressure and afflictions that he and his co-workers experienced during their ministry (2 Cor 1:8), they persevered in their labour of faith and love. They learnt to depend on God’s grace and continued to experience God’s deliverance despite the many challenges.
While elite athletes excel in their respective sports and love the adrenaline rush that comes from competing at the highest level, Paul loved God and the people of Corinth. To Paul, the prize was not so much for his individual glory (or for some in today’s sporting parlance – national pride, lucrative endorsement deals, boost of IG followers, etc) but for as many people as possible to come to faith in Christ. Like an athlete who willingly undergoes physical training that pushes one to the limit, Paul was prepared to endure hardship for the gospel’s advancement, for the sake of others.
In contrast to an earthly race where runners compete against each other and where only one can win the gold, Paul urged the believers to be prepared to set aside anything that may hinder them from living for Christ. For Christians today, we too are to be mindful that the way we live our lives has eternal consequences. Not only for us but also for others.
Nevertheless, the race in which God has called us to run is not about proving to God or anybody what we are capable of or how committed we are in our pursuit for spiritual excellence. It would certainly be a dreadful burden if the prize we receive from God is solely dependent upon our ability to achieve our personal best or our success in reaching the finishing line before others.
Rather, our lives are meant to demonstrate the power of God’s grace that is at work within us. As John Piper helpfully explains, “we run not as though we see Jesus the judge at the end merely scrutinizing while we rely on ourselves for strength; but we run as those who have already been taken hold of by Jesus for the prize”.
Another former Olympic champion, Eric Liddell (1902-1945) exemplified such an attitude when he chose to withdraw from a potential gold medal race in the 1924 Olympics out of his love for God. Despite heavy official pressure and scorn from the media where some condemned Liddell as a traitor who was too rigid in his piety, he flatly refused to run on the Lord’s Sabbath. In addition, after he won the 400 metre race in dramatic fashion, a race for which he had only recently begun training, Liddell did not pursue a life of fame as a sports hero but returned to China (where he had been born) to serve as a missionary. As far as we know, Liddell’s decisions were not made under any external compulsion or to secure his own spiritual well-being. Liddell was simply compelled by God’s grace and lived in whole-hearted surrender to God and service to man.
As people who have been saved by God’s grace, God has “qualified” us to run in a race and has chosen us to represent him through our lives here on earth. We thank God that at the end of our race, there won’t be any nerve-wrecking post-race press conferences or disparaging online remarks that we need to deal with. Instead, as we sincerely seek to keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25) and bear forth spiritual fruit, we can look forward to God’s commendation “Well done, good and faithful servant” and share in the joy of our Risen Lord and Saviour.
Rev Edwin Wong
August 15, 2021