Sports and spiritual life resemble each other in notable ways that caught St. Paul’s attention in his First Letter to the Corinthians (9:24-27).
In the back of Paul’s mind when he urged Corinth’s Christians to “run so as to win” was an image of athletes training for the ancient Isthmian Games, held in alternate years on Greece’s Isthmus of Corinth.
Winning was everything in these games; there were no second- or third-place awards. Without disciplined, demanding training, the athletes — wrestlers, long jumpers, chariot racers and numerous others — were unlikely to achieve their dreams. “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way,” Paul observed.
Paul’s discussion briefly mentioned the great demands of his endeavors to spread the Gospel far and wide. He drew upon his image of the training the games required. “I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing,” he said. “No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”
Few 21st-century heirs to more than 2,000 years of Christian thinking will be surprised that Paul thought it made sense to prepare to meet the demands of Christian life, to get into condition, so to speak, perhaps through prayer, reading, discussion and participation in the Christian community’s life. God, after all, is not a magical power to take for granted.
Indeed, there can be times when Christians must ready themselves to live faith under adverse circumstances.
The fact that Paul recognized parallels between the stadium athletes’ disciplined preparation and that undertaken by Christians does not mean he failed to recognize their differences. The athletes of the games prepared “to win a perishable crown,” a wreath actually made of wilted celery. But Christians sought an “imperishable” crown.
Or, as St. John Paul II noted in an October 2000 speech, Paul’s “metaphor of healthy athletic competition” has a way of highlighting “the value of life, comparing it to a race not only for an earthly passing goal, but for an eternal one. A race in which not just one person, but everyone can be a winner.”
Human growth and development do not tend to come easy, certainly not over the long term. In sports and in all of life, it is safe to say with St. John Paul that “without sacrifices, important results are not obtained”; dissatisfaction takes root.
This is “the logic of sport,” just as it is “the logic of life,” he explained.
In other words, close observation reveals that sacrifice, commitment and, yes, elements of suffering are inherent to achieving honorable goals and advancing in human maturity.
St. John Paul urged every Christian “to become a strong athlete of Christ, that is, a faithful and courageous witness to his Gospel.” This, he said, requires perseverance in prayer, training in virtue and following “the divine Master in everything.”
In this, he suggested, the wisdom of Psalm 126 is pertinent: “Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy.”
Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.
In a time to build, CatholicPhilly.com connects people and communities
As society emerges from the loss and separation of the pandemic, CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you join in our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community.
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103