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“Running the race”

This weekend marks the beginning of the Olympic Games in Rio, the 31st Olympiad, and the excitement is already ratcheted up! Athletes from 206 nations are in Brazil to compete in 28 sports and be watched by a global audience of billions. No doubt there will be the usual mix of wonderful victory, painful loss and heroic attempts at glory. Of course, this year, there have been headlines the Olympic Committee would no doubt want to forget: the Russian doping scandal, the Zika virus and issues with the city's security. But this weekend the games begin, and hopefully the controversy fades away, and a few weeks of sporting festivities can be enjoyed by all.
Given the Greek beginnings of the Olympic movement, it’s no surprise to read the apostle Paul using athletic imagery to speak of the Christian life. He speaks of “running the race” in 2 Timothy 4:7. And in Philippians 3:13-14, he says this:

“But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.”

Two things challenge me from this verse. Paul speaks here of the committed focus of the Christian: “but one thing I do”. How often we’re distracted from the “one thing;” the things of God take second or third place to many other things in our lives. For an Olympic athlete, anything other than total focus will be disastrous; the commitment and focus they must show in the cause of running the race or swimming the length is second to none. Paul says the Christian’s single minded focus on the things of God is to be like the Olympic athlete.
But notice secondly the prize for which we run, the prize to which “God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.” Wonderfully, every believer who finishes the race gets the prize: the prize of being with Jesus, knowing him perfectly and eternally. What a joy to look forward to, and for Paul, that future hope was worth the hassle and pain of the present.
One Olympian whose life I am often challenged by is Eric Liddell. Gold medallist in the 1924 Paris games, he went on to be a missionary in China, where he died in a POW camp during the war. His commitment to running was single-minded. But his commitment to Christ was even more so: he loved Jesus, ran the race of the faith wholeheartedly and gave his life for the cause of the gospel. When asked about the fame of Olympian success, he said this: “It’s natural for a chap to think over all that sometimes, but I’m glad I’m in the work I’m engaged in now. A fellow’s life counts for more at this than the other. Not a corruptible crown, but an incorruptible one you know.” Liddell knew all about the corruptible crown, but how much more did he run for the incorruptible one!
When I’m watching Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and Jess Ennis-Hill this month, I’ll be enjoying the sport, but I’ll also be thinking of Paul’s challenge in Philippians 3: “but one thing I do”; and I’ll be reminded of Eric Liddell’s life of single-minded devotion to the cause of Jesus. That’s the way I want to run the race, and that’s the prize I really want to win. May God help us to run that great race of Jesus to the end! 

Nathan Buttery

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