Spiritual Athletes

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Sun. Aug 5th
Mike compares the 6 elements found in every sporting event to the challenge of living as a Christian in today's world.

Athletes are in the news for not only their athletic abilities but also for their political and social views as well as their interest in business and the entertainment industries. If you look at the front page of a lot of newspapers it's not just political news and what's going on in business but often there are stories about sports on the front page. So for this reason I've chosen to look at the athletes experience in sport and how this is similar to a Christians experience in his or her walk of faith and I'd like to compare those two this evening.

In an article about sports, Kelli Mahoney of thoughtco.com discusses various elements that make up the experience that every athlete has no matter what sport they may play. I'd like to examine three of the most important of these and compare them with the experience that every Christian has in his faith walk with Christ no matter who or when or where they may exist.

Elements of the Sport Experience

No matter what sport is played all athletes experience the following:

1. Preparation

Everyone who participates in sports from peewee teams to the major leagues has to prepare and practice learning the basic skills, practice and drills repeating the plays the moves the routines over and over again not to mention the time spent on physical condition training in the gym, the mental training and preparation perhaps studying the plays are studying the opposition all these things the preparation for any athlete playing any sport.

We know that athletes must prepare for weeks and continually practice for a contest that will only last perhaps only an hour or two, the most extreme example of this is the preparation to contest ratio in the Olympic sport of sprinting.

Athletes who will prepare and train for four years in order to compete in the for example the 100-meter dash that's about a hundred and nine yards which is over in ten seconds, I don't know if I could do that your four years of prep for ten seconds.

Now the record holder and we see a picture of him here Usain Bolt from Jamaica, 9.58 seconds, that's the record 100-meter dash or run. He was clocked running at 28 miles an hour it's awfully fast for a human being to run 28 miles an hour.

Another sprinter Tyson Gay of the United States he came in second, 9.69 seconds 1/10 1/10 of a second behind, 4 years of preparation 1/10 of a second behind for second place. Now the point I want to make about preparation whether it's amateur or pro sports is that it requires self-control.

Self-control is an essential part of training for sports, when in training you have to avoid the easy temptation to eat poorly or not sleep well or slack off in practice or perhaps not give it a hundred percent when you're in the gym. The key to effective preparation is the control one exercises over their mind and body to make these do what they naturally don't want to do I don't want to do the last 25 of the 1 hundred sit-ups my body is saying enough already.

Well in the same way Christians are continually in training for the spiritual walk or spiritual life that they have entered into when they become Christians. Now the difference between Christians and athletes is that athletes prepare ahead of time for game day but for Christians every day is both game day and training day as the Holy Spirit trains us to live as Christians should in the changing and challenging circumstances of each passing day.

Listen to what Peter says about this,

13Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16because it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy."
- I Peter 1:13-16

And so here Peter describes our training regimen and the goal that our spiritual exercises are designed to achieve. Self-control is the basis of our training but not the objective of our training, it's the means but it's not the end.

The hope of heaven fully realized is the motivation very much like the Olympic gold medal for example is the motivation for Olympic athletes. The actual exercise that produces the self-control is the moral and spiritual effort required to continually obey Christ and resist various and sinful various sinful and worldly practices every day.

All day long we have to make choices and I have a rule of thumb: if I say it out loud I'll really have to do it every day but I think a good thing, I try saying no to myself at least once a day. Now obviously if I'm tempted to steal money well that doesn't count. I mean if I'm tempted to sin but as a way of getting this flesh under control, I try to say no to myself at least once a day. Someone says something I want to talk back maybe this is the time I'm going to say no, somebody offers that second piece of pie with ice cream maybe that's the day that'll be my one no of myself for that day.

It's exercise, we fully understand the athletes need to exercise in order to excel but we sometimes forget that in spiritual life we also have to exercise if we wish to excel. The goal is to be and live a holy life, a life that is increasingly separated from the world and increasingly devoted to God.

So each day I bring my mind and my body into greater harmony with God's will in order to live a holy life which will ultimately transform me into a glorious eternal being when Jesus comes, there is an end to this contest that we're involved in from day to day. And so this process begins with the basic exercise of self-control without which neither the athlete nor the Christian can succeed.

A second element in the sport experience or in the athlete's experience:

2. Perseverance

Training to improve your abilities and performance requires perseverance as you train to the point of exhaustion in order for the body to build new muscle and improve its energy systems.
- Kelli Mahoney, 12 Inspiring Bible Verses About Sports, ThoughtCo.

Many athletes become discouraged at the slow rate of progress at times or they become distracted by various trials like injury or a change of coaches or teammates; perseverance requires the willingness to stay the course despite the pain despite the criticism despite the obstacles despite the doubt.

Keys to cultivating perseverance:

1. Realize that there will be pain and suffering for sure no doubt about it, this way you will not be surprised or angry or discouraged when it comes. You won't be saying wait a minute I thought becoming a Christian I would be joyful everything would be fine I would be happy the Lord would protect me from bad things, yeah where did you read that? Certainly not in the Bible, be prepared to suffer in some way realize that there will be pain and suffering in this life.

2. Decide ahead of time that when these things happen and they will you will not quit you will not throw in the towel. And thirdly ask yourself if it will all be worth the effort don't wait until you're in the middle of the journey to ask and answer that question answer it upfront before you even begin. And not just you begin your life as a Christian which is a good thing to do, but many times in our Christian life we have to hit the restart button. We're doing fine, we're doing fine and then we get a little stale or we wander off or we just get lazy. Spiritually we're not as tight as we once were and we need to realize: I'm skipping church, I'm not reading my Bible, I'm just becoming involved in a lot more worldly activity (too much TV, not enough prayer time) and you kind of hit the reset button, "okay I'm going to tighten it up here." Even at those moments when you press the reset button understand that your recommitment will probably face some challenges and so even when you recommit you hit that button remember when the challenges come you've already decided that you're not going to quit.

3. Review often what God has promised those who finish and that is of course eternal life in heaven with Him. Now these ideas are summarized for the Christian by the writer of Hebrews where he says in Hebrews 12 he says,

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.

And Paul says similarly in Galatians 6 he says,

Let us not lose heart and doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.

If he's saying, if we do not grow weary it must suggest that Christian life is wearying at times. Many times we ask ourselves I don't know if this is all worth it or maybe this is too hard and Paul is saying when that time comes remind yourself why you're doing all of this and what's at the end here for us.

The burden with athletes is that it's all on them the training, the effort, the practice, it begins and it ends with them; Christians on the other hand have a resource to help them reach their goal their prize, Christians must learn to transfer the burden for success from themselves to Jesus Christ. Our perseverance requires us to continually put our faith to finish the course and our hope for success on Jesus rather than ourselves. What does Paul say in Philippians, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

Yes, I practice obedience and self-control to cultivate a Christian character pleasing to God and a good witness to non-believers yes I do that however the experience that guarantees not only my elevation but the ultimate prize of eternal life is my perseverance in the belief that these gifts are mine because I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

So my success ratio goes up and down as far as doing what I want to do obeying Christ some days are good some days I'm not so good it goes up and down but the constant that keeps me saved that gives me hope is that no matter how the needle is up and down and how well I'm doing I continue to believe throughout all of this that Jesus is the Son of God and because of that my salvation is secure.

Elite athletes have great confidence in their physical strength and conditioning as well as their ability to win let's face it most sports psychologists are there to convince them that they can do it, you can do it. Injuries hold back an athlete but sometimes the injuries in the mind they start thinking they really can't do it or they're not really good enough and the medicine for that is a dose of encouragement reminding them that they are good and they are talented and they can win and our team is going to make it.

Christians have the opposite challenge they must avoid the attitude that they themselves can achieve salvation and heaven by what they do or how well they do it. Christians must always remember that they themselves cannot do it they must depend completely on the sacrifice of Jesus and the mercy of God to achieve their prize.

The Dual Reality

And herein lies the dual reality that every Christian must understand deal with:

  1. Reality #1 - what saves us is our belief that Jesus is the Son of God and our trust that Jesus is sacrificed on the cross makes restitution for all of our sins thus sparing us from condemnation and spiritual death, that's reality number one.
  2. Reality #2 - this belief is initially expressed in repentance and baptism, Acts 2:38, and then continually on display as this person perseveres in living a holy life each and every day. We are saved because we believe, we demonstrate that belief with holy living we cultivate holy living through submission to God's word. Our faith saves us, the level of holiness we're at in our walk with Christ demonstrates our spiritual maturity.

And then the third and common element all sports is:

3. The Game

All the preparation and the sacrifice and the effort for athletes lead to the game the match the race the contest and each game has its own particular element that athletes must contend with.

A. Competition

For example, within each game there's competition I mean sports is all about competition and rivalry, unfortunately competition because of pride or the unchecked desire for recognition brings out the worst in some people not the best.

Competitiveness, the pressure to succeed or the fear of humiliation drive some athletes and some fans to cheat or to break the rules or to play dirty or to disrespect competitors this type of hyper competitiveness used to be the exception but now it's become the norm as athletes and teams compete not only for the game itself but now they compete for media recognition on television and especially on the Internet.

Anything goes now anything goes, many athletes now use vulgarity and provocative trash-talking and even offensive political statements to raise their profile on social media it's not enough now for some not all not making a blanket statement here but it's not enough simply to be good on the field or to excel at your particular game no no now you have to get recognition you have to get followers on Twitter or on Facebook and for that just being a top-line athlete doesn't seem to be enough anymore now you have to say provocative things now you have to use vulgarity and so on and so forth again not all athletes but we see that more and more now.

Thankfully in the game that is a Christian living in the world without becoming of or like the world in that game believers don't compete with other Christians or unbelievers, our fight our contest is not with people it's with spirits this is our game. More clearly Paul enumerates this:

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. 11Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
- Ephesians 6:10-12

We don't battle each other, we battle lies, we battle false teaching, we fight against the plans and movements engineered and directed by Satan, we defend against moral and physical attacks upon ourselves by the evil one and his demons, that's our fight. I mean Satan wins when we're fighting each other boy when when you get to a church in the in the church we're fighting each other while Satan has the complete victory then because he's the enemy he's the one we're fighting against. And our weapons they're not physical they're spiritual in nature we continue to read the same passage he says,

13Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
- Ephesians 6:13-16

Our game plan is to stand firm meaning we continue to believe and conduct ourselves as Christians despite the attacks, our weapons are number one: God's Word used to expose the lies and shine the light of truth in this dark world; secondly our own faith expressed in holy living as our witness for Christ; and thirdly the proclamation of the gospel to all nations as our counter-attack.

How do we counter attack? Well we preach the gospel that's how we counter-attack. Athletes and Christians are similar in that they each compete but athletes compete with other men or women and after the game is over they shake hands and everyone goes home normally, for Christians on the other hand compete against spirits and the evil one and the game is unto death.

Our game our life our competition it's a fight to death in sports you get hurt there are injuries but those are not the purpose of the sport. I think that some Christians would be more successful in the Christian walk or game if they realized who the true opposition was, not other Christians or unbelievers but Satan and evil spirits and what the game is all about.

I mean Satan's constant attempt to destroy the faith and the soul of Christians that's the game that's a serious game, some people say well they'll say Mike's preaching some serious sermon, well this is a serious thing.

That this evil powerful spirit has one goal when it comes to me or you and that's to destroy me, to destroy my soul, to ruin what I hope for that's the game that we're playing here it's a very serious game.

B. Winning and Losing

Another element of the game is winning and losing. Whether it is athletes competing in sport or the Christian living out his faith each has to deal with the elements of winning and losing. We judge the talent and skill of the athlete by his or her performance in the game but we measure his character in the way he handles winning or losing. We value more highly those athletes who are gracious in victory and honest in defeat. When the winner shows respect for the loser and receives the cheers of the crowd with an attitude of humility and gratitude that person shows not only that he is a superior athlete but also a great human being worthy of the honor that he is receiving.

A good example of this a good example of a successful athlete not popular with the people is the boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. He is the only boxer in history to have a 50-win and zero lose record, think about that 50 wins and he's fought some of the very best boxers in his in his field. 50 wins he's never lost not once. And he's also fabulously wealthy because of his success in boxing. However whenever he showed up, whenever they say here's the challenger so-and-so and now the world the reigning world champion and he'd come out ooh people would boo him, he was booed by the crowd when he fought and he was an unpopular champion because of his bragging and his habit of flaunting his wealth he throw out $100 bills you know just to show they had money nothing to it I got plenty. And so he was well still is a gifted athlete but he wasn't a nice person and for that reason he never had the respect of the boxing fans. I mean what do you got to do 50 and 0 record, you still get no respect, why? Because you're just not a gracious person because you neither know how to win well you've never lost but you haven't even learned how to win 50 wins and you still don't know how to win.

And so if winning is a way of judging an athlete skills losing is then a way of determining an athlete's limits. Now I mentioned Usain Bolt's winning 100-meter sprint in 9.58 seconds with Tyson Gay has never been able to break, he's raced in other races Tyson Gay never been able to break that, never done better than 9.69, and yet Tyson Gay was gracious and honest about Usain Bolt's superior time and talent. I mean it's only a tenth of a second right but it's a tenth of a second faster than him, that tenth of a second means that Usain Bolt's name is known throughout the world he goes everywhere in the world everybody knows who he is and he gets offers for endorsements for products and he's lauded and championed and he's written about and they got books about him Tyson Gay a tenth of a second behind sorry no worldwide recognition for you he's well-known in the track and field world you know and he's a respected athlete but nothing nothing like Usain Bolt, tenth of a second, a lifetime of training. And yet for this reason because he's such a gracious loser he has the respect and the admiration of his fans for his own accomplishments I mean only a tenth of a second behind.

Now as far as the Bible is concerned the use of athletic imagery is not used with the game element of winning and losing, I'd like to finish this lesson by examining some of these passages to see what these sports references teach us as Christians because there are a lot of allusions to sports in the Bible.

24Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
- I Corinthians 9:24-27

So Paul uses the running and boxing sports that were part of the Olympic and Isthmus Games of that era. He notes that athletes train hard for games that will reward them with temporary awards: the wreath, the money, the fame. He says that in the same way Christians must train themselves for their contests which is: faithful Christian living to the end. And he says cultivating self-control is part of that. Paul makes the point that in athletic competition there are both winners and losers in the same way in the Christian race those who do not train will lose and he uses himself as an example.

Imagine, even an Apostle who falls away can lose the prize of eternal life which is the reward of a faithful life. Anyone who says it's impossible to lose your salvation hasn't it carefully read I Corinthians 9 where Paul is referring to himself being in danger of losing the prize if falls away.

You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?
- Galatians 5:7

Here Paul simply compares the Christians life to a footrace that can be interrupted by various obstacles just as in normal foot races you know cramps foot blisters the weather all kinds of obstacles. In this case it was false teachers coming into the church trying to lure them in a false notion that they needed to be circumsized in order to be saved that was the obstacle they were running into in their race.

And so just as in the athletic endeavors the Christian life has to deal with distractions obstacles challenges that takes the focus away from our goal which is being faithful to Christ unto death. Somebody says well what's Christian life all about? The answer: being faithful to Christ until death that's what it's all about you take everything that I'm doing in everyday life and boil it all down what am I what's the goal? I want to be faithful to Jesus until the end that's all that's what I'm shooting for.

Everything I do has this as a purpose. When I have to make an important decision about something of course Lise and I we discuss it obviously if it involves our family and our relationships on and so forth but one of the factors is always how will this affect my faith, will this put a challenge before am I putting an obstacle in my own way? Too many times we make decisions, life decisions based only on how much money or what advantage it will give me or all this will kick start my business or my career and never for a moment ask themselves what about my faith will this thing here if I go east will it hurt my faith in some way will it be better if I go west will that be will that advantage my faith never mind my career what about my faith?

Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.
- II Timothy 2:5

So the athlete must train to have the strength and skill to play the game and he also has to know the game the rules the strategy what works what doesn't work. Professional golfers they can have the lowest score and win some prizes are two or three million dollars but they can lose the game and lose and forfeit all that money if they don't fill out their scorecard properly.

If to have a little adding mistake you can't go to the judges on a professional golf tournament and say oh you can be back the card here let me just erase that there's a reason that there are no erasers on pencils they give you when you play golf except Ron he has one, but that's gonna that's ugly we're not going to bring that up.

In the same way Christians need to follow Christ according to the Lord's teachings and not according to their own ideas. What does Jesus say in Matthew 28:20 - "Teaching them to obey all that I commanded you."

It's one of my pet peeves I tell people who are teaching in all the classes from cradle roll all the way up to the adult class, we're not just teaching the information about the Bible we ought to be teaching how do people obey the teachings that are in the Bible how do we conform to these how do we apply these in our lives very very important.

And so in this passage Paul tells Timothy to pass on to others what he himself has received from Paul because these are the teachings that lead to salvation. I often hear very motivated and sincere believers say things like, well you know I've got my own relationship with God or Jesus I don't need the church, or you know God loves those who love no need for a doctrine, or I'm a spiritual person but I'm not a religious person I don't believe in organized religion, and I want to say really God believes in organized religion have you read the Old Testament how organized that religion was.

So the one thing that these people have in common is their ignorance of God's actual will and word contained in the Bible. Believers have to know God's Word and develop their ability to obey it if they want to successfully live the Christian life and receive the prize of eternal life.

As the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 12,

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers and the prophets in many portions in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.
- Hebrews 1:1-2

We listened to Christ now not the little voice in our head we listen to Christ, He is the one that tells us how to play the game and how to win the game. And so today God speaks to mankind only through Jesus Christ and no one else. And so in the end of the takeaway in this lesson on Christians as spiritual athletes can be stated in the following way: only those who finish receive the prize. Only those who finish receive the prize.

For athletes only the best only the ones that win get the crown or the cup or the prize, however God has made different rules for Christians and that everyone who runs and finishes the race receives a reward. So it's not how fast you run it's if you finish or not that determines the prize. This is encouraging for slow runners like me and it is motivating because all can be winners and not just one person all of us can win that's the rule of the game all who finish faithfully receive the prize.

So my prayer therefore is that in the Christian race you all of you my brothers and sisters will run as best you can and most importantly you will finish the race. And so my invitation is fairly straightforward tonight after this lesson, if you need help in starting the race by becoming a Christian and you do that by acknowledging your faith in Christ repenting of your sins and being immersed in the waters of baptism if you haven't done this then you're watching the race and you're hearing about the race from the pew but you're not actually in the race.

And like all spectators you will not share in the prize I love that when the guys in the you know of the champions you later the Stanley Cup you know hockey championship guys yeah my team won we won we won except you don't get a check it's only the guys on the ice that get a check the goalie knew you know the center the right wing left wing and the trainer's the coaches the assistant coach they get a check they get a ring but the guy sitting in the audience who applauded and are happy they don't they don't get a ring they don't get a check.

So don't think if you're just sitting there observing Christianity that this is a way that you will receive the prize at the end no no no no you have to be on the field you have to be in the game if you want to win the prize.

Only those who run and finish get a crown not those who just watch.

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Barry Day,
Pulpit Minister,
San Diego - Canyon View Church of Christ