St Paul deliberately uses the image of the athlete to remind us that our Christian journey is one where we are constantly in training. Our encounter with Christ changes us, but it does not take us out of the world, and we are assaulted soon enough by its woes and cares. The more we train, the better, because the closer we come to conforming ourselves with Christ, the harder it often becomes for us, as the devil hates it when we reject him and embrace Jesus. If we are half-hearted and lukewarm we can be sure we shall be left alone; he’s no interest in us, we’re doing nothing to threaten his hold on us. But if we are getting closer to Jesus, then he will surely d his worst to stop us. That’s why I tremble for those who say they are ‘saved’ and then think that’s it. It is the mindset in which we stop training; if we’re not careful we’ll fall into the real pitfall here. That is that we will start telling other folk they are not saved and need to be saved – and think we are the instrument of God.
This is a most subtle temptation, because it mimics what Christians always do, which is to share their faith with others, and invite those who are not against us to be with us – as well as inviting those who are against us to ponder why that is. But if we suppose, as one newly in Christ, that we have what it takes to do this, then we take huge risks. We should note that even the great Paul himself did not immediately embark upon his great missionary journeys; he grew in Christ and fellowship first; so must we.
Training is needed because we wrestle with a great enemy, one so shameless that he thought he could tempt Jesus himself; he does not hesitate to try his chances with us. Our fallen nature gives him his chances. Are we conscious of some gift or other? Well, he will be happy if we become preoccupied with that, and put it before Jesus. We must work hard at whatever it is, and we do not have even five minutes for a prayer in the morning. Then there’s that other fellow who also wants it, and he’s doing better than we are, how dare he? And before we know it, we have given way to envy and spitefulness. We have put our own concerns before God. We are already moving away from the race – and losing it in the process. We may indeed gain the world – but in the process lose our soul. All of this Our Lord knew, and Paul also knew it. He gave everything for Christ.
Can we? Not all are called as Paul was, but all can get into training. Do we have a regular prayer life? How much time to do we spend with the Lord every day? Do we welcome him at the beginning and thank him at the end of the day? Those old monks knew a thing or two (as their modern successors do). Regular daily prayer is the minimum training we should be following, and if we aren’t, we should ask why? Can we not, really not, spare five minutes at each end of the day? What’s that? It takes longer and you haven’t the time? Well, take five minutes if that’s what you’ve got, it is better than meaning to spend half an hour and spending none. Stay in training, stay with the Lord, and we shall persevere to the end.