"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor 9:24-27)
If you have ever been involved with athletics then you will have little difficulty grasping the significance of Paul's poignant words. The parallels between the athletic field and ministry are striking. In fact, as I reflect upon the years of my involvement with athletics, many of the lessons that I learned on the field I have put into practice as I have served in ministry. Here are 5 of those lessons that my coaches hammered into my head.
1) Athletic competition is 90% mental
I cannot count how many times our coaches reminded us of this truth—often when we were exhausted from the intense heat of an August practice or ready to concede defeat while getting whipped by the opposing team. Our coaches knew that our physical effort was closely tied to our mental discipline. If we thought we could not run another sprint or line up for another snap then it was unlikely that we would be willing to put forth the effort.
Every day of ministry brings with it a battle for our minds. And this battle has much higher stakes than that of playing a game. If you lose this battle you are likely to lose your ministry. The mind and the heart are inexorably linked. What we think will determine how we act. It is no accident then that Paul reminds the Romans that their spiritual transformation depends upon a “renewed mind” (Rom 12:2). He therefore instructs the Ephesians to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24).
The writer of Proverbs states it this way: “Keep your heart with all vigilance. For from it flow the springs of life (Prov 4:23). If your Christian journey is marked more by defeat than it is victory, it is possible that you are losing the battle for your mind. And when you lose the battle for your mind, your actions are sure to follow.
2) Don't step on the field if you don’t want to be knocked down.
I can vividly recall my football coaches telling us to always be looking for someone to knock down. And to be honest, as a linebacker that was my objective on every play–especially for the guy who had the football! Ministry is not for the fainthearted. If you don't want to get knocked down, criticized or attacked then you will be sorely disappointed. All of those things come with the calling.
In fact, try to name one biblical figure greatly used of God who did not face adversity or suffering. Yet somehow, we think that our ministry will be different. God didn’t pull any punches when He called Jeremiah. In fact, He wanted him to know what he was getting into. God told him, "Dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you…Do not be dismayed by them, they will fight against you but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord" (Jer 1: 17-19). In other words, God said, “Jeremiah, they are going to try to knock you down, but don’t sweat it…I’ve got your back.”
3) Little things make big things.
I am indebted to my college football coach, Ken Sparks. for teaching me this truth. I can still hear him saying that how we played the game on Saturday was directly proportional to the "little things" we did throughout the week. The vast majority of our time is not spent on the field in front of the fans or in the pulpit in the presence of our congregation. A faithful life in private is essential for a fruitful life in public.
Jesus put it this way, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own" (Luke 16:10-12). Here's a thought: You concentrate on the depth of your walk with God and allow Him to take care of the breadth of your influence for Him.
Little things really do make big things.
4) Play the game for an audience of One.
Who among us does not like praise and recognition? It's very addicting. The more praise we get the more praise we desire. Yet, a follower of Christ does not play the game, preach a sermon or pursue a calling for the purpose of praise or acknowledgement. A follower of Christ lives for an audience of One.
I cannot count the number of times that my coaches asked me if I gave my all on the field. Yes, they were interested in my performance but they were more concerned with my effort. Ultimately, only I knew if I gave my full effort. Yet, there is One who knows us better than we know ourselves, and it is Him that we must please. Who you play the game for reveals much about how you play the game. The apostle John puts it this way: "Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God" (John 12:42-43).
If you passionately pursue praise from God alone, it will set you free from the tyranny and impossibility of trying to make everyone happy. What an amazing freedom that is!
5) Anyone can talk a big game.
When I arrived at summer camp at Carson-Newman, I was told to watch out for the midnight train. During the course of our strenuous practices some of my fellow teammates would reach the conclusion that college football was simply not for them. And it was not uncommon for them to pack their things and leave without warning…often in the middle of the night.
Surprisingly, some of the guys who left the team were very good athletes who had successful high school careers. And they were quick to point out their past achievements in the locker room and dining hall. I learned very quickly, however, not everyone was willing to "suffer" through the rigors of two weeks worth of three practices a day in the intense summer heat. They liked to talk about game day but were unwilling to pay the price necessary to get there.
Success in life and in ministry is not determined by how well we begin but rather by how well we finish. Boasting proves nothing…but a life of faithfulness proves everything. It's one thing to start well but it's an entirely different thing to finish well. Even King Ahab had the wisdom to affirm, "Let not him who girds on his harness boast as he who puts it off" (1 Kings 20:11).
So, if you have the desire to talk a big game then let Jeremiah give you some much-needed perspective:
"Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord" (Jer 9:23-24)