The Olympic Rings near Tokyo's National Stadium. Photo credit: Kyodo/Reuters

Olympic glory: three Bible lessons from the Games

The world is watching the greatest sporting spectacle on earth. It's sadly diminished from what it might have been, because of the shortage of spectators and a deep uneasiness about the potential for the spread of the coronavirus.

Still, to see the greatest athletes in the world, focused intently on victory in the sports to which they've devoted years of their lives, is deeply moving. We're about to see human bodies at the very peak of their development. But getting that far takes much more than natural physical gifting. It's also about what happens in the brain and the heart.  

The New Testament is surprisingly positive about sport – surprisingly, because although Herod the Great had imitated the Romans in building amphitheatres for sporting contests, many conservative Jews regarded these as ‘heathen’ practices. The Apostle Paul himself was physically weak and unimpressive to look at (2 Corinthians 10). But he seems to feel we can learn a lot from athletes' mental attitude. There are at least three things that mark out the spiritual athlete.  


The first is discipline. Paul's most well-known reference to athletics is in 1 Corinthians 9.24–27: ‘Every athlete in training submits to strict discipline.’ He doesn't ‘waste his punches’ or ‘shadow-box’ - instead, ‘I harden my body with blows and bring it under complete control, to keep myself from being disqualified after having called others to the contest.’ 

Discipline, by its nature, runs against our instincts. It means doing what it's easier not to do. We submit to discipline either because we're forced to, or because – like the Olympic and Paralympic athletes – we believe the ultimate goal is worth it.  

Our culture isn't particularly discipline-friendly. It's consumer-orientated, relying on getting us what we want as quickly and as easily as possible. But, says Paul, discipleship – and yes, the words are from the same root – isn't like that. Churches ought to be places of healing and restoration. But they aren't designed to give us what we want; they're designed to give us what we need, which is a different thing entirely. It's the discipline of faith that produces faithful disciples.  


Second is determination. In the book of Hebrews (not by Paul) we read: ‘As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us’ (12.1). Competing successfully means being utterly focused on the goal. Athletes persevere. But while spiritual athletes are also focused and determined, they aren't lonely. There won't be many spectators at the Olympics. But in Hebrews, the sense is of a crowd of witnesses – the saints and martyrs, and sisters and brothers in the faith – cheering the athletes and spurring them on to do their utmost.  


Third is desire. In 1 Corinthians 9.24 Paul says, ‘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.’ At the end of the event, there is only one winner, or one team. The rest – having spent years in training, denied themselves what others have enjoyed, and turned their backs on other opportunities – have lost. But Paul's focus is not on the result, but on the motivation. He is encouraging believers to have that same all-consuming desire that an athlete has – and while they compete ‘to be crowned with a wreath that will not last’, ‘we do it for one that will last for ever’ (verse 25).  

What would God's Church look like if his people showed the same discipline, determination and desire as the athletes in Tokyo? It's humbling to imagine.  

These Olympic and Paralympic Games have faced enormous challenges. The athletes face challenges too, and not just in their chosen sports. As we pray for their safety – and that of the thousands of people involved in making the Games happen – we also thank God for his gifts to them, and for theirs to us – and like Paul, we're inspired to examine our own lives in the light of their example. 

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