Spiritual athletic identity

I recently heard an interview with Sam Ingram. If you don’t know who Sam Ingram is, he is the British paralympian who won a silver medal in judo. A silver medal in the Olympics or Paralympics is quite an achievement. However, in his interview, Sam spoke as a broken man. From his perspective, gold was everything and silver was nothing. He had trained hard for four years, and missed out on winning gold in games held in his own country. All his training and rigorous self-discipline was, as he saw it, for nothing.

My instinct with someone who is as disappointed as Sam obviously was, is to respond with something along the lines of “But you won a silver medal! How many people ever get to compete at an Olympics, never mind win a silver medal?” However, as the interview was taking place on the radio, I could not jump in with my pastoral wisdom. So I listened. And as I listened, I could sense that Sam really was devastated by the experience. In another place I read that he had said: ‘I am gutted. It feels like all the training I’ve done, all the physio I’ve done, all the hours I’ve had off my coach and all his time has been close, but no cigar”

Sports psychologists talk about athletes having an athletic identity. Some athletes see being an athlete as their true identity more than others. Those athletes are highly competitive but can experience problems when they retire because they can’t see themselves as anyone other than an athlete. This, according to the radio, was part of the reason Sam was so disappointed by what most people would consider a huge achievement.

The picture of an athlete competing in games is one found in a number of places in the New Testament. We run the race (1 Corinthians 9.24-27; Philippians 2.16). We are meant to throw off our baggage and run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Hebrews 12.1). But how do we handle those moments when it feels like we’re falling behind in the race? Or the times when it just feels as though we have tripped up and fallen over?

Should our desire to be like Jesus be so intense, so passionate, that even the slightest imperfection, the most trivial sin (I know sin is never trivial, but some don’t appear to have the impact that others have) causes us to grieve. Do the words of the hymn writer I hate the sins that made Thee mourn / And drove Thee from my breast express how we should feel? Or does that kind of response turn us into spiritual neurotics? Should we rather be satisfied that we are perfect in Christ, and regard with suspicion any frustration with our own performance since it might reveal that we are in reality relying on our own best efforts to make us like Jesus?

You could make a case for both from the Bible. Paul rejoiced in who he was in Christ and didn’t even judge himself (1 Corinthians 4.3-4), yet at the same time he could say that after he had preached to others he beat his body so that he wouldn’t be disqualified for the prize (1 Corinthians 9.27).

How can we live with a contentment and security in our perfection in Christ, but at the same time be highly motivated and disciplined with regard to our service?

Christians do have a spiritual athletic identity. We are supposed to be disciplined. We are supposed to care about our progress. We are supposed to be concerned about sinful baggage that holds us back (Hebrews 12.1-7). We’re spiritual athletes competing in the race of our lives! And because we are spiritual athletes, frustration at lack of progress is to be expected. Having a spiritual athletic identity will motivate you to serve God with passion and zeal.

But our spiritual athletic identity isn’t our only identity. It is not even our primary identity. Before we became athletes in team kingdom of God, we were declared sons and daughters of Father God. We became righteous in Christ. Not through anything we had done. And because it is not our primary identity, it means that we don’t need to be overwhelmed with discouragement and disillusionment when we don’t seem to be progressing as we would like to.

So don’t settle for spiritual silver medals. Serve God with conviction and zeal. Discipline yourself. Die daily. Die to self. Be intolerant of your sins.

But at the same time remember who you are. And remember Who gives you the ability to be in the team in the first place.

Mix contentment and conviction. Mix rest and restlessness. Combine faith and works. And in the end trust in His faithfulness. Unlike Sam Ingram, you will get your reward in the end (1 Corinthians 3.14-15; 2 Corinthians 5.10; 2 Timothy 4.7-8).

John could say: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”

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