Despite dictatorially heavy-handed screen-time limitations at our home, we basically binge-watched the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
We ate takeout sushi and mochi during the opening ceremonies. We talked about flags. We listened to the announcers speaking Japanese. We checked out the main American competitions, and we even dredged up ways to watch the quirkier sports. In a breathtaking highlight, we actually chance-met two Olympians, Hunter Woodhall and Tara Davis, at a local custard shop just after they returned home from the games.
We geeked hard on the Olympics. This was important to me, for multiple reasons.
- I am a profoundly non-athletic person, but I want to affirm my children’s relationship with all kinds of sports, so I try to outsource inspiration and drum up the enthusiasm to go with it.
- I love cross-cultural relationships, and I have been enriched by friendships from around the world. I want my kids to be equipped to enjoy those relationships too. The Olympics is a brilliant introduction for that.
- I want my kids to be inspired early by trying hard, failing, and getting up again. Seeing an athlete who has trained for years physically fail and then return with perseverance is an image that I want them to be inspired by, whether they become ultramarathoners or choose to run a proper English tea shop. I want them to watch the fruit of character traits like humility, faithfulness, resilience, and mutual submission to teammates shape people’s lives and outcomes.
So, we watched the Olympics. We talked culture. We paid attention to the stories about athletes. We learned about sports, and we even tried a few. I felt like I was being the awesome mom I always wanted to be.
But soon after the Olympics wrapped up, it became apparent that my 4-year-old had internalized a completely different theme. “I want to win everything and be better than the whole world!” was his new quote.
It happened at home. It happened on the playground. It happened with friends and strangers. When he lost, it was travesty. When he won, it only seemed to affirm his quickly inflating sense that this was the right goal for his life.
This is a totally normal feeling for a preschooler, and, if we’re being honest, it’s a totally normal feeling for the rest of us, too.
But that doesn’t change the fact that I was horrified.
My ego, riding as it occasionally will, upon the completely fickle and age-appropriate behavior of my child, tried at first to hush this talk with embarrassment, thinking more about how I would be seen than what he was thinking or feeling.
But the Holy Spirit kindly came and parented me even as I parented him.
We were at the playground. There was another mom there with her preschoolers. I had seen her there before, and she had piqued my interest, because I overheard a bit of her story as she was talking with an older woman. The mom had been raised in the foster system, and the older woman was a mentor in a program to support her as she raised her young family.
I remember being a bit surprised because it was obvious that she was a good mom. I was super impressed, too, thinking about all that she had been through and seeing the ways that she was being so proactive to do the dirty work of healing. It wasn’t fair or her fault that her biological family wasn’t there for her the way they should have been, but she was choosing to heal, grow, and give more than she had inherited. She loved her family and life itself enough to go above and beyond for healing.
That amount of courage, character, and love was so encouraging and inspiring to me.
Maybe Jesus was using her story as a seed in my heart when I heard my son shout at her son, “But I am going to win over all the world!”
The response that unexpectedly came out of me was this: “Buddy, there are a lot of people who have won all the gold medals, but they still haven’t won, because they haven’t run the race with their whole hearts. And there are a lot of people who don’t have a gold medal who are the real winners in the race, who run with everything they have and who keep trying even when it is hard, and those are the people who are the real winners in my book.”
I was hoping that my son would reframe his idea of winning, but when I looked up, I saw tears welling in her eyes—Happy? Grateful? Seen? They were not sad-looking tears. They came to my eyes, too.
Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to the church in Corinth using the image of athletic training to exhort them onward into living disciplined and faithful lives.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
But picking that one passage out and suggesting that the Christian faith is a winner’s faith in a winner’s race is to miss out on a lot of context. Paul begins that same letter to the church of Corinth using that same winner imagery in different terms. He reminds the Corinthian believers, who are in the throes of internal power struggles, that they don’t have a lot to brag about. He tells them that the Gospel itself seems like a loser’s premise: a pathetically weak and stupidly foolish religion, with a hero who died by state-sponsored penal execution. But then he gets to the good part:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:25-31
As we go through life, we often find ourselves with my little guy, shouting, “I need to win the world!”
But as we aim for the winner’s circle, we sometimes fall short. A lot of times we feel in both big and small ways like we’re not enough, like we don’t have enough, and like we weren’t given enough.
But the good news is, we don’t have to be enough. Jesus already is our enough. And Jesus has already claimed the victory.
That’s not to say our run doesn’t matter. We are called to be active participants in God’s work. Jesus’ job isn’t done until it is done in us and to every last corner of the entire creation. We are not just accessories in the story. Jesus has spoken us into being as children of the Father, as co-inheritors of the Son, and as possessors of the Holy Spirit. Our run very, very much matters.
Eric Liddell is one of my heroes. He was a man of incredible faith who ultimately died as a missionary martyr in China. He was also an Olympic runner. The classic movie Chariots of Fire depicts his Olympic journey and summarizes his true-life perspective in lines penned for the film: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
When I run (okay, theoretically run) and when I train, when I strive and fail and try, when my lungs burn, and I need a coach, and I struggle to find the next step—if I know who my Judge is, then I know whose smile to look for. And I know what the rules of the race are. And I know who wins it for me.