John Stephen Akhwari was a distance runner competing in the Olympic Marathon in the 1968 Mexico City Games. A little less than halfway through the race, he fell to the ground as he was caught in between some runners jockeying for position. In the fall, he dislocated his knee and hit his shoulder hard against the pavement; his leg was also bleeding. Reportedly, medical staff urged him to withdraw. But he continued to run, or rather do a slow limping run for the remainder of the 42 km race as his injuries allowed. It’s certain that he was in an immense amount of pain. And when he crossed the finish line after sunset more than a full hour after the winner, dead last out of the 57 who’d completed the race, there was a small crowd (of the few thousand people who’d remained) cheering him on. His answer when asked why he didn’t give up, was “My country did not send me 10,000 miles just to start the race; they sent me to finish the race.” Interestingly, decades later people don’t remember the person who won, but they do remember that Akhwari finished the race.
As believers, we can learn a lot about perseverance from men such as Akhwari. We too have a race to finish, and we need to persist to the end. This remains true regardless of the trials we may face. How we finish is more important than how we start. Walking or running, stumbling or limping, we have to press forward. Many things will arise to set us off course — distractions, the everyday challenges of life, discouragement from others — but we need to fix our eyes on Jesus and finish the eternal race.
And this is not something that will come easy. For any main sporting event or competition, athletes must endure hours of sacrifice. This includes painful training, fighting through injuries, strict diets, and forsaking a 9 to 5 or any semblance of a normal life. They are trained in order to compete against the best of the best and be tested to their mental and physical capacity.
Ultimately, in every sport, only one can win the gold. Many will go home with disappointed hopes and heavy hearts. Nobody competes to get second or third prize; they compete to win. However, what many of these athletes may not know is that there is a prize worth striving for far beyond any gold medal or any worldly accolades or fame. This is a crown of life, and citizenship in a place where there’ll be no more sickness, death, or sorrow! It will also be a place where we will spend eternity with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. How amazing all of this will be!
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul reminds us that like top level athletes, we need to be serious about securing our prize, which is everlasting life. While we cannot of ourselves obtain salvation, we must be willing to obediently surrender our lives for that most worthy prize. Interestingly, as the Olympics trace back to 776 BC, Paul was familiar with high-level competition and chose to use the metaphor of a race to describe the discipline and testing we’ll experience in our spiritual life:“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.
Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”
This also reminds us that races on earth are for medals and accolades that will fade away, but this temporary glory should never be the aim of a Christian. In five years, will anyone remember who won the marathon at the Olympic Games? Or the 100m butterfly? Or the uneven bars? Only the lucky few amateur athletes exit their sports careers with fame and fortune; the rest are left to start afresh in regular life. That same high feeling they had when they were on the winner’s podium, escapes them.
However, we can still learn from world-class athletes and their singular focus on how to succeed and apply it in the race toward eternity. Like an athlete needs to train hard, so does the disciple of Christ. Like an athlete must be completely dedicated to his/her sport, the Christian must be totally dedicated to Christ and the Gospel. And just like the athlete will suffer immensely for that victory wreath, a Christian must be willing to suffer for the sake of God’s Eternal Kingdom. As 2 Timothy 3:12 reminds us, “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
In Paul’s day, Olympic athletes literally competed for crowns made of laurel wreaths, which quickly withered and corrupted. We should be willing to train just as hard — actually harder — for the crown of life that will not perish.
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
We compete against the powers of darkness. Satan has us in his snare and we are “taken captive by him at his will.” Ephesians 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
The fight against our sinful natures is our biggest battle to win, and we must surrender ourselves to God fully so we can be transformed into His image. We as fallible humans think that we can rely on our own efforts to live holy and righteous lives and secure salvation. But the law does not save us. It simply acts as a mirror revealing where we fall short, and as the law is written in our hearts, it shapes our lives.
“Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8)
As we all know, there are many benefits to physical training, mentally, physically and even spiritually. Keeping our bodies in good condition strengthens us to study God’s word and do the work He has for us to do. As we train for godliness, just like athletes, we need to practice strict discipline. This includes watching our spiritual diet by removing junk food (e.g., mindless entertainment, idle talk) and instead taking in a balanced diet. This prescribed diet is characterized by studying the Word and other devotional books, praying without ceasing, sharing what we know and doing good works.
In this day and age, people’s sense of morality has become warped, which is why more than ever, we need to heed to the Holy Spirit. We can live God-pleasing lives by allowing the Holy Spirit to instruct and correct us day by day. This is the only way to the life of victory that Jesus died for us to have.
In order to win the contest, we must deny anything that would impede our progress. We run to win. In verse 27, the apostle Paul further asserts this point: “Like an athlete I punish my body, treating it roughly, training it to do what it should, not what it wants to.”
Godly discipline looks something like this:“Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11). Our trials should draw us closer to Jesus, who suffered much more than we can even imagine. Hard times should also further mold us more into Christ’s image.
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.…(Philippians 3:12-14)
So many athletes end up losing their race because they lose focus at some point. This can happen in the preparation phase, as it’s not easy to undergo grueling hours of training day after day, month after month, year after year; push through injuries and make personal sacrifices. Few people have the level of self-discipline it takes to win. But even during the race itself, people can get distracted and lose their edge. For example, I recently read about swimmer Janet Evans of the US, who won four gold medals over two Olympics and also won a silver in the 400-meter, freestyle swim. The silver win was a bit of a shock to most, as she’d had the lead right up to the end; but her hand touched the wall four-tenths of a second behind the winner. The television announcer told confused viewers that right at the end, Janet looked back, and that slight glance backward lost her claim to coveted gold.
We can’t afford to look back. As Christians our goal should be to make it into the heavenly kingdom. And we can only succeed in this if we take our eyes off of ourselves and put them on our Saviour, striving to become more and more like Him each day.
“And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.” (1 John 3:28)
Satan will try to convince you that you’re too far gone for Christ to save. But God tells us in His word that He came to seek and save the lost, and further, as it says in Steps to Christ, “Those to whom He has forgiven most will love Him most, and will stand nearest to His throne to praise Him for His great love and infinite sacrifice.” We can rest assured that God’s love for us will never fail. Jeremiah 31:3 promises, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn thee.” We do not need to doubt that the gift of salvation is available to each and every one of us, and that Jesus is continually making intercession for us. Thus, we can be confident in the day of judgment as we abide in Him. (1 John 3:28) We can compete with confidence because God Himself has entered us in this race. If He didn’t think we were worth it, He wouldn’t have sent His only son to suffer die for us.
And…Persevere to the End
Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (James 1:12)
Close to the end of his life, Paul, who’d been through a lot of persecution for the cause of the Gospel, said in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
Keep running, until you reach the Finish line.
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