What do you recall about your junior high days? Many of have memories we push to the back. For me, I don’t usually like thinking much about sports. I was neither athletic nor popular, so I was usually one of the last people picked for teams.
I learned to play a mean game of defense on the soccer field, but by 8th grade I had a lousy attitude toward several other sports. As long as I showed up on the field, I knew I’d get a good grade no matter how well I did, so I stopped trying.
One afternoon I was staring absentmindedly into space when a football hit me in the chest. Instinctively, I caught it while thinking, “Oops…didn’t mean to catch this.” As it turns out, I had just intercepted the ball for my team.
Sometimes when it comes to Christian living, we fall into the trap of just doing “enough” rather than giving our best. We may say things like: “I do more than they typical believer.” “I attend church every week and tithe.” “I live a moral life.” Or “I read my Bible.”
But as Christians, we are called to do more than simply show up on the field. Take a look at a few passages on endurance from the apostle Paul:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Heb. 12:1–3)
“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. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Cor. 9:24–27)
Athletic imagery often comes into play in Paul’s writings. Why? For perhaps at least two reasons.
First of all, athletes who train hard give a vivid picture of what it’s like to persevere even when it gets tough. Many remember Kerri Strug’s performance on the vault at the 1996 Olympics. On her first vault, she fell and injured her ankle. But after years of practicing 6 days a week for 7–8 hours each day, she wasn’t about to quit.
“I knew I needed to land the second vault well in order to feel good about myself and my Olympic performance, secure the team gold medal and also qualify for the all-around finals,” writes Kerri on her site.
She stuck the landing on her second fault, received a 9.712, and helped the ladies gymnastic team clinch the gold medal. (You can watch her performance here.)
But beyond the image of perseverance, there’s a second reason Paul used athletic imagery—he wrote about what was prevalent in the culture of his day. After all, people identify more with the familiar.
For example, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, they would be familiar with the Isthmian Games held every two years at the Isthmus of Corinth. Athletes competed in events ranging from running to singing, and winners received victory crowns.
But, as Paul pointed out, “They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
If athletes are willing to give it their best for temporary benefits, how much more ought believers persevere toward eternal benefits?