I love the Olympics—love the Olympics! Before the event, I read the bios of the athletes. Once they begin, I watch as much as I’m able, get teary-eyed while watching the made-for-TV back stories, and cheer through the competitions. I love watching a close contest, a fight to the finish, a vindication of past defeat. The thrill of victory is truly thrilling.

You’ve seen the advertisements by now:

  • The family sacrifices at great cost, entire communities often involved.
  • The distance runner listening to his iPod on his daily run, consuming the entirely of The Odyssey and Moby Dick on audio as he pounds over miles of road.
  • The disciplined athletes who haven’t read the latest bestsellers, haven’t had dessert in years, haven’t watched TV since last summer.

Why? They’ve been doing something else, something in which they’ve invested everything.

Yesterday Michael Phelps didn’t medal. His arch-rival and teammate Ryan Lochte captured the gold medal hands down in the 400 IM. As the commercial says, he didn’t get to London by luck; he swam there. While Phelps took time off from swimming, vacillating about his career—should he swim in London, or should he retire, Lochte spent four years training hard, giving his sport everything. He remained true to himself; he eschewed fast food; he lifted weights; he threw a 650-pound tractor tire around the neighborhood every day. He swam, swam, and swam some more. In the Olympic pool, where a race is sometimes decided by a hundredth of a second, his discipline showed.

He won accolades and a piece of gold jewelry on a cool neck strap. There will be more.

Every time they’re contested, the Olympics remind me that stringent physical discipline aimed at a prize gives us a vivid, living picture of the Christian life.

The apostle Paul used sports analogies in many of his epistles, especially when writing to or with Timothy, the young Greek man who was his co-laborer and often his co-author. Timothy had a Jewish mother; but his father was Greek, so he was raised as a Greek man. Given the illustrations in Paul’s letters, Timothy may have been somewhat of an athlete or at least a sports enthusiast, having grown up in an athletic culture. After all, the Olympics originated in Greece, and every large Greco-Roman city had a gymnasium and a competitive colosseum.

Paul wrote to Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7b-8 NIV).

In the Greek language, the training in this passage is Olympic-gymnasium oriented, words from a culture of fitness and athleticism, a mindset that was well-known to a young man raised by a Greek father.

What I learn: Training in godliness has more value than training for sports accolades, and it requires the same type of discipline. But the prize is worth it in this life and in the life to come.

Paul and Timothy wrote to the Philippian church, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13b-14 NIV).

“Pressing on” is a competitive term for one runner or one army pursuing to catch and overtake another. “The prize” is the award given for winning in the public athletic games, often a wreath of leaves. The entire passage is a sports analogy, one the Greco-Roman audience would grasp immediately.

What I learn: Forget the past. Let it go. Strain toward Jesus—the goal. Press on to know him. Pursue him every day until I’m in his presence, until I see him face to face. Let knowledge of him change me. Train like an Olympic athlete. The prize is eternal.

Paul wrote Timothy in his last letter, “Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules…Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this. Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel” (2 Timothy 2: 5, 7-8 NIV).

The victor’s crown here is another term for the wreath of leaves given for winning the games, the crown of victory in competition, an ornament of glory and honor. The competition requires suffering, hard work, diligence, and obedience to the rules.

What I learn: Make the necessary sacrifices. Don’t entangle myself in the mundane. Run the race God has set before me. Compete according to God’s rules. As a believer, my power comes from God’s grace, not my own strength.

I am to:

  • Rely on the grace that is in Christ.
  • Remember Jesus, raised from the dead—rescuer and redeemer.
  • Reflect on him.
  • Let him give me insight.
  • Give him my best.
  • Give him my all.

The victor’s crown is worth it.

Are you living the Christian life with the intensity of an Olympic athlete?