My family and I have spent much of this week watching the Olympics. And since my wife, Jennifer, grew up swimming competitively, that means we’ve watched virtually every swimming race that NBC has televised in the evenings.
Last night, American swimmer Tyler Clary took home the gold in the 200-meter backstroke, beating out defending Olympic champ Ryan Lochte, whom many had favored to win. Talking poolside with NBC interviewer Andrea Kremer afterward, Clary said that one of the keys to his upset victory boiled down to two simple words: “minimizing drag.” In other words, eliminating any movement that could possibly slow him down in the pool.
Now, I’m not an Olympian. Never was, never will be. Just living in Colorado Springs is about as close as I’m ever going to get to that hallowed status. But I immediately recognized that Clary’s strategy for victory is one that sounds similar to counsel that the author of Hebrews gave to believers in Christ who want to run their spiritual races with gusto right up to the finish line.
In Hebrews 12:1-2, we read, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
We live in a world that’s full of potentially entangling distractions. Here, the author of Hebrews exhorts us to pay attention to anything that could weigh us down in the long-distance marathon of the Christian life, and to jettison it. In other words, to make sure that we, like Tyler Clary, are “minimizing drag.”
Interestingly, this isn’t the only passage of Scripture that compares the Christian life to the disciplined training of an athlete who’s determined to do everything possible to win. Paul frequently employed comparisons to athletics as he urged believers to take striving for eternal rewards as seriously as earthly competitors take striving for temporal glory.
In 1 Corinthians 9:23-25, for instance, he writes, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
What slows you down in your race? What hinders, entangles, keeps you from running the race in such a way as to get the prize? Whatever it might be, we’re advised to let go of it.
At this point in my own personal race, I’m more than a few laps in. But this idea of running purposefully, of offloading the habits and indulgences that hinder my performance is a reminder I need to return to again and again.
Early in my race, my passion for Jesus as a new believer made getting rid of stuff that tripped me up seem like a breeze. Twenty-five years down the road, though, I can see that some of the habits I so easily relinquished early on have a tendency to creep back into my life if I’m not vigilant. Thus, the process of throwing off everything that hinders is a continual one. We may even have to keep discarding the same sinful habits over and over and over again. It is, in pastor and author Eugene Peterson’s words, “a long obedience in the same direction.”
At times, that can feel painful. But the author of Hebrews reminds us a bit later on in Chapter 12 that cultivating discipline for the sake of the Gospel will yield eternal rewards: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (v. 11).
Tyler Clary, then, is absolutely right. If we want to win the spiritual race over the long haul, we’re going to have to focus on “minimizing drag.”