I Entered the Best Race of My Life
As told by Karl-Erik Bergman
Running fast gave me a wonderful feeling. I had natural ability, so sprinting became the focal point of my life.
IN 1972, at the age of 17, I joined a sports club. Soon I realized how much work I had ahead of me if I was to become an elite athlete. Natural talent is not enough to become a champion sprinter. But I was ready to work.
When I was 22, I made the national team of Finland. The next year I had the best average time for the 100-meter sprint of any athlete in Finland. Injuries to my Achilles tendon and hamstrings, however, kept me from reaching my potential. But my enthusiasm for running was such that I turned to coaching promising athletes. In 1982, I made plans to move to California in the United States to study at a university and, in that more favorable climate, pursue a career in sports. I even purchased a plane ticket.
What Changed My Life
One evening shortly before my scheduled trip to California, my doorbell rang. I opened the door to find two women who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were very calm and poised, qualities one wants to see in an athlete. I invited them in, and we sat down to talk. After an enlightening discussion, they left me a book entitled You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth.* I began reading it. When I was about halfway through, I realized that what it said was the truth. The women returned, and I asked them how I could become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They answered that I would need a Bible study.
I not only accepted a personal Bible study but also began attending meetings with the Witnesses at the Kingdom Hall in Vantaa, where I was living. I found that what was taught was based on the Bible. In fact, the Bible truths that I was learning gradually began to change my views of what is really important in life. So I went to the travel agency and cashed in my airline ticket. I used part of the money to purchase a suit to wear to meetings and a briefcase for carrying my Bible and Bible literature. I was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses at a convention in Helsinki in 1983.
Other Athletes Join Me
As I learned Bible truths, I eagerly shared them with my friends. Their immediate reaction was disbelief. In fact, rumors soon began circulating that I had lost my mind. One after another, my friends started to avoid me. After my baptism, I would meet fellow athletes at the track, since I exercised regularly to stay in shape. Our discussions helped them to see that although I had changed, I had not lost my mind.
A number of these athletes, in time, came to appreciate that what I said was reasonable and worth considering. They noted that my foul language and aggressive personality had disappeared. A few were willing to learn more about the Bible. I enjoyed showing others that the Bible compares a Christian’s life to an athletic event. We are in the race for the prize of everlasting life.—2 Timothy 2:5; 4:7, 8.
The truth is, real meaning and happiness in life lies, not in winning athletic events, but in doing what pleases our Creator. My discussions with other athletes caused some to reexamine their goals, and several came to embrace the Bible truths that reshaped my life. Happily, a number of them have shown the same zeal in serving God as they did in athletics.
One was Yvonne, a gifted 800-meter runner. She was the fastest female runner in Scandinavia at that distance and held Finland’s national record. She successfully represented Finland in European athletic events. As a result of our discussions, Yvonne began to see the futility of reaching out for fame in today’s world. She learned, as the Bible teaches, that this world is passing away, which will make way for a new one of God’s making.—1 John 2:17.
Soon Yvonne accepted a Bible study. At the time, she was being courted by Jouko, who was a talented member of Finland’s national track team. He had, in fact, represented Finland in European and world championship athletic events. In time, Yvonne and Jouko moved to the United States to continue their athletic careers.
While there, Yvonne continued to study the Bible, and Jouko joined in. He did so to find a weak link and bring Yvonne back to her senses. But little by little, Bible truths sank into Jouko’s heart too. Yvonne and Jouko married and later dedicated their lives to God, symbolizing this by water baptism. Today both of them are pioneers, full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I was also able to start a Bible study with Barbro, who was a Finnish champion in the women’s 400-meters. She had recently represented Finland in European athletic events. Barbro and her husband, Jarmo, who had been a pole-vaulter, then moved to Sweden. There Barbro continued her Bible study, and Jarmo joined in. Both of them had been looking for a purpose in life, and after learning Bible truths, they were both baptized in Sweden. In time, Jarmo became a physiotherapist, and as a couple, they have been zealous in the ministry. Jarmo serves as an elder in the Christian congregation.
Then there was Heidi, also a gifted runner, who had just entered her teens. As her coach, I noticed that she had an interest in spiritual things. So one day I spoke to her about the Bible’s teachings regarding God’s Kingdom and the blessings that it will bring to the earth. I asked, “Do you believe that we can realize these promised blessings?”—Psalm 37:11, 29; Matthew 6:9, 10.
“Yes,” she responded. She wanted to study the Bible. So I arranged for a Christian sister to study with her. After a few years, Heidi also symbolized her dedication to God by water baptism. In time, she grew up to be a beautiful spiritual woman and became my wife. She has been an excellent companion, keeping alive her determination to serve God—a determination that if directed toward sports would have taken her a long way toward becoming an elite athlete.
My younger brother Peter, who was also involved in sports, at first reacted very negatively when I began to study the Bible. Then I gave him a copy of the Live Forever book. Later he came to me and said: “I have started to read this book, but I do not understand everything. Can you help me?” I arranged for another Witness to study with him, and after four months of study, he was baptized. Later he married, and his wife serves as a pioneer.
The Race Goes On
Even before I was baptized, I had set my mind on becoming a missionary. Shortly after baptism, I began serving as a pioneer. I understood that if you are in the race for life, you have to put forth your best effort. My wife, Heidi, and I applied to Gilead, the missionary school of Jehovah’s Witnesses located in New York, and in 1994 we were accepted. After our graduation we were assigned to serve in Latvia, where Russian is commonly spoken.
The collapse of the Soviet Union had left people disillusioned. The Bible had been discredited and even banned, but we found that many were interested in what it had to say. Learning Russian was one of the toughest challenges I have ever faced. But after six years of missionary service in Latvia, I was appointed to visit and encourage congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a traveling overseer. This is the work I continue to do, accompanied by my faithful wife.
Over the years, I have been able to train many to progress in the race for life, “the real life” in God’s new world. (1 Timothy 6:19) Coaching athletes to reach their maximum requires understanding them. The coach has to help them develop their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. He needs to inspire them to carry on and reach their fullest potential.
It has surprised me to see how much a Christian has in common with an athlete, as the apostle Paul emphasized in his first letter to the Corinthians. A successful athlete stays focused on his physical training and does not simply fantasize about winning. He sets realistic goals for himself and systematically works on realizing them. If he loses sight of the focal point and stops pushing forward, it brings to nothing all the hard work he has already done. A true Christian must likewise keep focused.
A successful athlete also sticks to a regimen, remaining disciplined when it comes to his diet. It is similar with a true Christian. He doesn’t feed on immoral teachings, partaking of “the table of demons,” as the apostle Paul put it. Instead, he feeds on rich spiritual food provided by God in his Word, the Bible. (1 Corinthians 10:21) Moreover, when difficulties arise, a successful athlete stays positive. He admits his mistakes and makes corrections. “The way I am running is not uncertainly,” Paul wrote. “But I pummel my body,” he said, so as not to be disqualified.—1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
My wife and I still enjoy keeping in good physical shape by regularly working out in a gym. Yet, we do not allow this to hinder us from serving Jehovah, who created humans so wonderfully. (Psalm 139:14) Together we are focused on reaching the prize of “the real life”—the one “to come” in God’s new world.—1 Timothy 4:8.
After describing the “cloud of witnesses” of pre-Christian times, the apostle Paul urged: “Let us also put off every weight and the sin that easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) There is nothing more worthwhile to do than run that race. This is because its successful completion will bring all runners everlasting blessings.—2 Timothy 4:7, 8.
Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses but now out of print.
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In the mid-1980’s, Heidi and me with Yvonne above and Jouko and their daughter below
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With Heidi in the ministry today
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At the 2009 convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Helsinki. Yvonne and Jouko on our left and Jarmo and Barbro on our right
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Published in Aamulehti 8/21/1979