Even though I handed over the coaching responsibilities of the high school tennis team several years ago, I have continued to help out as a volunteer and enjoy working with the teens and pray that I can have a positive impact on their lives. For the past couple years we have had some players who were pretty serious about improving their game and put in quite a bit of extra court time to see that happen. As a result, this past spring, our boys’ team took first at state and our girls finished in a tie for second, so their hard work was rewarded. I recently stopped off at the courts to hit some serves while Kathy had an appointment in town. It was on one of our hot (95 degree) afternoons so I didn’t plan to stay long. I was just leaving when one of our high school boys stopped by, just getting off from his summer job, and asked if I could hit with him. I found out he has been working out on the courts twice a day and tries to serve at least 200 balls each day. He finished sixth at state in boys’ singles and has set as his goal winning state this coming year. I thought, wow, good for you! May your tribe increase! Most players never pick up their rackets during the off-season and then expect to be successful come next March when practice starts up. It’s just too much work and they want the summer to just relax and have fun. But here’s a boy who is working full time during the summer yet puts in a couple hours a day practicing. That’s dedication, and that’s what it takes to be one of the top players.
I also think of all the time and effort that our Olympic athletes have put in for years to make it to these prestigious contests. But, each had set goals and then developed a strategy of discipline and practice to achieve their goal. (Of course they need some natural ability to build on in their area of expertise!). It is always interesting when they give the backgrounds of some of the competitors and what they went through to get to become one of the world’s best in their field. It has often involved some real struggles and sacrifice.
Then I am reminded of Paul’s oft comparison of the Christian life to athletics, especially to running a race or boxing. For example, he wrote in I Cor. 9:24-27: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” Paul draws on his readers’ knowledge of the Isthmian games, which were held every two years near Corinth (Greece). Paul’s challenge to the Corinthian believers—and to us—was to consider how, if these competitors worked that hard for a temporary reward ( a wreath of greenery), how much more should we, as “ambassadors for Christ” (II Cor. 5:20) have self-discipline and “put in the time” as we carry out our service for Christ, knowing that ours will be an eternal reward. Paul left us a great example of one who was willing to “put in the time and effort” to fulfill his ministry. He made his body his slave lest he should be “disqualified” (Greek = adikomos) which refers to a cracked pot, not one thrown away, but put on the shelf. Paul did not want God to put him on the shelf. He wanted to “run with endurance the race that was set before him” (Heb. 12:1). And that took great discipline and dependence upon the Lord, as Paul faced great adversity, including several imprisonments, beatings, whippings, shipwrecks, and even stoning. He faced dangers on every hand and had many a sleepless night and felt the burden of caring for the churches he helped found. But as he shared in his testimony to the elders of the Ephesus church, he said: ”But none of these things move me, neither do I count my life as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
When it came to the end of his life, as Paul faced execution at the hands of Nero, Emperor of Rome, he wrote in his final letter to his understudy and friend, Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering and the time of my departure has come. I have fought a good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (II Tim. 4:6-8).
Unfortunately, I believe the same is true among Christians as is true in the sports world (and life in general)—many are content to just give token commitment and few are willing to “put in the time” and be totally committed and set goals. We only get involved in our local assembly of believers when it is convenient and works into our schedule. We neglect the reading and study of Scripture because of our hectic lifestyle. We don’t share Christ with others because we just don’t feel qualified, or we are afraid of what they may think or say or do, or we don’t want them to judge Christianity by the way we have been living. We will put in the time and effort to achieve some temporal rewards, while we neglect what will last for eternity.
So, what was the Apostle Paul’s secret? What motivated him to give his all? He tells us in II Cor. 5:14,15, where he writes: “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” Jesus died not only to save us from our sins, but also that we might live for him. After all He’s done for me, how can I do less than give Him my best (put in the time) and live for Him completely.