I love watching the Olympics. I am drawn into watching the competitions—captivated by the effort, resilience, and performance of elite athletes. Past Olympic moments, burned into my memory, come flooding back just like they happened yesterday. I think of Franz Klammer, the heavily favored Austrian downhiller, flying down the mountain to win gold at the 1976 games in Innsbruck. I’ll never forget the 1980 USA Men’s Hockey Team, underdogs, who stunned the powerful Soviets in the ‘miracle on ice’. Eddie the Eagle, the British plasterer turned ski jumper, the Jamaican bobsled team, and many other unlikely contestants, gave it their best, even though they had little chance of winning.
There are many parallels between the lives of these athletes and a life of faith. In fact, the Apostle Paul used athletic imagery drawn from the Isthmian Games as he writes to the church in nearby Corinth. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” 1 Corinthians 9:24-25. Paul advocates an approach to a life of faith that requires the discipline, sacrifice and focus of an elite athlete.
What does a disciplined life of faith look like? Two resources that have helped me are Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline, and Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines. Foster highlights inward disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting and study; outward disciplines: simplicity, solitude, submission and service; and corporate disciplines: confession, worship, guidance and celebration. Willard describes training in the faith as disciplines of abstinence: solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, sacrifice; and disciplines of engagement: study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission. Some of these disciplines have become a useful part of my daily and weekly routine. Others, I confess, are lacking and can use a lot more attention.
None of these disciplines, simply as a discipline by itself, makes someone ‘spiritual’ or ‘righteous’. Instead, they clear the way for the inflow and outflow of God’s grace. They pull us away from the clamor of a consumeristic society so we can hear the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit—a voice of conviction and encouragement. They draw us together with other believers, to live out the work of Jesus as a team, a body, receiving guidance and power from Jesus our head. They enable us to recognize and resist the pull of selfishness in order to open our hands, our calendars and wallets to the needs of others.
So, as you watch athletic events such as this, take note of the disciplined approach to life each competitor has made. Consider the kind of life you are living. What disciplines can you practice, enabling you to gain, not a gold medal, but a strong, lived out faith, leading to an eternal reward? So then you, like Paul, can say “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store 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 longed for his appearing” 2 Timothy 4:7-8.