The Olympian Quest

Have you ever watched the spotlight pieces during the Olympic games that talk about the athletes’ lives and backgrounds?  Those spotlights are one of my favorite things about the Olympics, especially when they’re about athletes from other parts of the world.  You get to learn a bit about where they come from and the sacrifices they’ve made to reach their goals.  They tell the stories of dreams born in childhood, and nurtured through years of intense training and preparation, until the day they become a reality.  Sometimes the story is a happy one; sometimes it’s bittersweet.  Sometimes the ending is everything the athlete hoped for; sometimes it’s heartbreakingly tragic.

I remember watching the 1992 Summer Olympics as a kid.  My favorite sport was gymnastics, and my favorite gymnasts were from the Romanian team and the Unified Team of the former Soviet Union, as well as some of the American girls, of course.  I remember a particular bit of drama surrounding two of the Unified Team gymnasts, Tatiana Gutsu and Roza Galieva.  Tatiana was the favorite to win the individual all-around gold medal, until a fall from the balance beam in the qualification round took her out of the running.  The next qualifier in line was her teammate Roza, a slightly younger, slightly less experienced gymnast, who had performed beautifully during qualifications.

Image:  Foto Libra

However, on the night of the all-around final, the Unified Team coaches replaced Roza with Tatiana, claiming that she was injured.  Both girls were just 15 years old.  Neither had a choice in the matter.  Their coaches felt the pressure to bring home gold medals for the countries of the now-broken Soviet Union, and Tatiana was their best chance.  So with one crushing decision, Roza’s dream was sacrificed while Tatiana’s received new life.

Have you ever considered what it really means to be serious about something?  Ask any gymnast who competes at the Olympic level, and she (or he) will tell you of sacrifices made and dedication to hours and hours of countless repetitions of awe-inspiring skills.

In Russia, little girls start training at age five or six, sometimes younger. Around age 11, they try out for the junior national team in hopes of being one of the few out of hundreds of other girls to become the next generation of rising Russian gymnastics stars.  Those who make it live at Round Lake, the team’s training base outside of Moscow, for several months out of the year.  They train eight hours a day, except for a shorter training period on Saturdays, and Sundays off.  During their 16th year, gymnasts try out for the senior national team.  Hundreds of girls from across Russia come together to compete for a spot on the senior national team, but only a few can make the cut.  These chosen ones have the opportunity to compete at the highest level on the world stage; and from them the cream of the crop, the top five (and three alternates) will participate in the game of games: the Olympics.

These girls are constantly working towards that goal.  Everything sacrifice they make and everything they do is done with that goal in mind.  They follow a strict diet, abstaining from certain foods and moderating their calorie intake, to maintain their “optimum weight.”  Warm-ups, running, stretches, weight training and conditioning are part of their daily lives. They live with coaches, physical trainers and therapists, choreographers, and teammates most of the time, visiting family members on free weekends or holidays.  These girls will sometimes even compete with pain, if the injury is a minor one.

And why do they do all this?

What is the reward for such dedication and sacrifice?

Image: Unknown

A round gold-plated medallion that says they have conquered the world.

I love the metaphor Paul uses in 1 Corinthians, likening our walk with God to athletes training for a competition.  Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to gymnasts and their stories.  Like them, we as followers of our heavenly Father are striving for a prize.  A prize of more lasting value than a medallion.

Our prize life eternal with Jesus in His country.

How dedicated must we be if we would win our prize, how focused on our goal?  Well, consider what God’s Word says about an athlete’s dedication:

“All athletes practice strict self-control.  They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.  So I run straight to the goal with purpose in every step.  I am not like a boxer who misses his punches.  I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should.  Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.”  1 Corinthians 9:25-27, NLT

Like athletes, we fight daily our own human tendencies that would disqualify us from the prize.  We are daily training our minds on Jesus, doing everything with Him in view.  It’s a lifestyle.

This summer, thousands of athletes from around the world will take the Olympic stage.  All their dreams, goals, sacrifices, training, and efforts will come down to a few short moments before the London crowd.  For some, the dream will die tragically when it’s barely begun.  Only one can win in each event.

Each day, you and I take the stage before the universe in the race of our lives.  How well have you been training?  How will you perform before the world?  Will they see Jesus in you?  Because that’s why we run this race.  We become more like Jesus, so others can see Him in the way we live and accept Him as their Savior, too.Although in the Olympics only one is crowned the victor and given the gold medal, in this race, all of us can be crowned and receive the prize.So maybe we should take the words of Hebrews 12 more seriously to heart:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.  We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.  Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.  Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.”

A Lesson From Ancient Israel…

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Perseverance is a good thing.  It serves you well if it means that you keep working hard to get good grades in school even when things aren’t going well.  Or when you keep trusting in God no matter how difficult things are in your life.

Stubbornness, on the other hand, is negative.  The ancient Israelites were described as stubborn and rebellious (Ps. 78:8; Jer. 5:23; Hos. 4:16).  Just read through the Old Testament if you have any doubt.  God had done amazing things to free them from slavery
in Egypt.  He had performed huge miracles to care for them in the wilderness.  He had done so much to show His love and devotion for them, yet they constantly rebelled against Him, stubbornly refusing to keep His laws.  He warned them of the results of sin.  They even experienced some of them, but still stubbornly held on to their sins, not caring that they were hurting themselves.

For the last few months, I’ve been reading the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  These two prophets lived around the same time, just before the southern half of Israel, the kingdom of Judah, went into captivity to Babylon.  Their calling was to deliver the messages God gave them for Israel.  Most of these messages pointed out the sins of Israel, warned them of the consequences, and called them to repentance.  As I read through their messages to the children of Israel, two things jump out at me:

1.  The children of Israel always seemed to have a problem with idolatry.  And it wasn’t just during the time period before Babylon took over.  All throughout the history of the children of Israel from the time God brought them out Egypt, they kept on going after other gods.  It started with the golden calf.  Later, when they settled in the land of promise, they went through cycles, where for a while they would serve God exclusively, then later they would try to serve Him as well as the gods of the surrounding nations on the side.

And you would think that after experiencing first-hand the power of the true God they would want nothing to do with impotent images made by man’s hands.  But instead they enthusiastically embraced idol worship, even going so far as to sacrifice their children by causing them to pass through the fire in the worship ceremony for the god Moloch (Jer. 32:35; Ez. 16:20, 21).

You would think they’d prefer to serve a God who didn’t claim their dear children as burnt offerings or put them through such torture.  But they stubbornly preferred to bind themselves to gods whose rituals went against everything that was right and true rather than surrendering to the God who delivered them from slavery and obeying His simple commands: don’t kill; don’t bear false witness; don’t steal; honor your parents; don’t have other gods; remember the Sabbath day, etc.  They preferred to serve self, living hedonistic lives instead of serving their Savior by loving Him with all their heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5), and their neighbor as themselves (Lev. 19:18).

Today, many of us are not in such great danger of turning to images to worship.  But we do make idols out of other things: possessions, people, relationships, money…even ourselves.  This one is huge in our day, with messages of “It’s all about you and making you happy.”  Everything is geared towards making myself the center of attention, putting myself first, doing whatever it takes to make me happy, even if someone else suffers in the process.

We are just as much in danger of idolatry in our day as the ancient Israelites were in theirs.  We must be watchful and take care where our affections lie.

2.  God’s mercy, love, and justice all mixed together in His warnings to His stubborn, rebellious children.  He consistently warns the Israelites that judgment is coming if they don’t turn from their sins.  One may argue that it is their choice if they want to sin or not.  That is true, and God never removes the element of choice from the equation.  But He does warn that if they continue in their sins, He will have to allow the consequences of sin to fall on them.

Sometimes when we read about God calling the Israelites to repentance, we think of them as a nation of kind people who generally obeyed God’s laws, but just slipped up once in a while.  Not so.  When you read through Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, you find that their loyalty was divided.  While they kept God’s sanctioned feasts and holy days and the Sabbath, they also sacrificed to idols and willingly participated in ceremonies and rites to manmade gods.  They oppressed the poor and needy (Ez. 18:12).  They gave no help to the widows and orphans (Ez. 22:7).  They had turned so far from God and obedience to His laws that they no longer resembled His character.

Yet God did not give up on them.  In mercy and love, He warned them of the results of their course of action.  He pleaded with them through His prophets.  He held back the judgments as long as possible to allow as many as were willing to come to repentance.

But so many chose not to listen.  So many chose to go their own way, continuing in their sins, walking in the footsteps of the Enemy.  So God allowed judgment to come upon them.

However, there is a key point that cannot be missed: just before judgment came, God also gave a promise.  He said that although He would allow judgment to fall on the children of Israel and send them into captivity, He would be with them in the place they would go (Jer. 30:11; Ez. 11:16)!  Even after all their rejection of Him, He still didn’t abandon them!

But wait, it gets better: He also promised that He would forgive their sins and, after a time, bring them out of captivity and back to the land of promise (Jer. 29:10; Ez. 11:17-20)!

Now that’s love and mercy mixed with justice right there!  It’s just the way a faithful parent would reach out to a stubborn, erring child: allowing the consequences of wrong actions, while being there for the child through it all and promising a complete restoration to the way things were before, and better.

This is the truth of who God is.

How can we resist such an awesome God?  He is powerful!  His power comes from the fact that He is truth and He is love; He is justice and He is mercy.  He’s unlike anyone we’ve ever known.  Even the best, kindest, most loving, most amazing person we’ve ever met cannot hold a candle to who God is.  He loved us, before we ever cared about Him (1 John 4:19).  He loved us and died for us, even while we hated Him and opposed Him (Rom. 5:6-8).  Such a God is amazing and more than deserves to be revered above everything and everyone else in our lives.  He’s the only one who is never-changing, faithful, compassionate, slow to anger, and full of mercy (Mal. 3:6; 1 Cor. 1:9; Ps. 145:8; Ex. 34:6, 7).

That’s who God is.

And because of who He is, He gives us a simple choice: to serve Him or not to serve Him.  What will you choose?