“Be Training Yourself”
CITIUS, altius, fortius—faster, higher, stronger! These were the ideals to which athletes in ancient Greece and Rome aspired. For centuries, in Olympia, Delphi, and Nemea and on the Isthmus of Corinth, grand athletic events were held with the “blessing” of the gods and under the gaze of thousands of spectators. The privilege of competing in these games was the result of many years of hard work. Victory would heap glory on the winners and on their home city.
It is not surprising that in such a cultural context, the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures compared the spiritual race of Christians to athletic events. To convey powerful points of teaching, the apostles Peter and Paul both skillfully employed illustrations based on the games. In our day, the same intense Christian race continues. The first-century Christians had to deal with the Jewish system of things; we today have to ‘contend’ with a worldwide system on the brink of destruction. (2 Timothy 2:5; 3:1-5) Some may find that their individual “race of faith” is unrelenting and exhausting. (1 Timothy 6:12, The New English Bible) An examination of some of the athletic comparisons in the Bible will prove most beneficial.
A Superb Trainer
An athlete’s success depends to a large extent on the trainer. Regarding the ancient games, Archaeologia Graeca says: “The contenders were obliged to swear they had spent ten whole months in preparatory exercises.” Christians too need rigorous training. Paul advised Timothy, a Christian elder: “Be training yourself with godly devotion as your aim.” (1 Timothy 4:7) Who is the trainer of a Christian “athlete”? None other than Jehovah God himself! The apostle Peter wrote: “The God of all undeserved kindness . . . will himself finish your training, he will make you firm, he will make you strong.”—1 Peter 5:10.
The expression ‘will finish your training’ comes from a Greek verb that according to the Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, basically means “to make an object [or person] fit for its purpose, prepare it and adapt it to its usage.” Likewise, Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon comments that this verb can be defined as “prepare, train, or furnish thoroughly.” In what ways does Jehovah ‘prepare, train, or furnish us thoroughly’ for the demanding Christian race? To understand the comparison, let us consider some of the methods trainers employed.
The book The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece says: “Those concerned with training the youth employed two basic methods, the first of which was aimed at encouraging the pupil to make the greatest possible physical effort so as to achieve the best results, and the second at improving his technique and style.”
Similarly, Jehovah encourages and strengthens us to reach our highest potential and to improve our skills in his service. Our God invigorates us through the Bible, his earthly organization, and mature fellow Christians. Sometimes he trains us through discipline. (Hebrews 12:6) At other times he may permit various trials and hardships to come upon us so that we can develop endurance. (James 1:2-4) And he provides the needed strength. Says the prophet Isaiah: “Those who are hoping in Jehovah will regain power. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not tire out.”—Isaiah 40:31.
Above all, God abundantly grants us his holy spirit, which strengthens us to continue rendering him acceptable service. (Luke 11:13) In many cases God’s servants have endured long, hard trials of faith. Those who have done so are ordinary men and women like any one of us. But their complete reliance on God has enabled them to endure. Indeed, ‘the power beyond what is normal is God’s and not that out of themselves.’—2 Corinthians 4:7.
A Sympathetic Trainer
One of the jobs of an ancient trainer was “to judge the type and number of exercises that were needed for the individual athlete and the particular sport,” notes one scholar. As God trains us, he takes into account our individual circumstances, abilities, makeup, and limitations. Quite often during our training by Jehovah, we implore him, as did Job: “Remember, please, that out of clay you have made me.” (Job 10:9) How does our sympathetic trainer respond? David wrote of Jehovah: “He himself well knows the formation of us, remembering that we are dust.”—Psalm 103:14.
You may have a serious health problem that limits what you can do in the ministry, or you may be struggling with low self-respect. Perhaps you are striving to break a bad habit, or you may feel that you are unable to face up to peer pressure in the neighborhood, at the workplace, or at school. Whatever your circumstances may be, never forget that Jehovah understands your problems better than anyone else—including you! As a concerned trainer, he is always there to help you if you draw close to him.—James 4:8.
The ancient trainers “could distinguish exhaustion or weakness that derived not from the exercises but from other, psychological causes, bad humour, depression and so on. . . . The jurisdiction of the [trainers] was so wide that they even followed the private lives of the athletes and intervened where they thought it necessary.”
Do you sometimes feel exhausted or weak because of the unrelenting pressures and temptations of this world? As your trainer, Jehovah is keenly interested in you. (1 Peter 5:7) He is quick to discern in you any sign of spiritual weakness or fatigue. Although Jehovah respects our free will and personal choice, out of concern for our eternal welfare, he provides ample help and correction when needed. (Isaiah 30:21) How? Through the Bible and Bible-based publications, the spiritual elders in the congregation, and our loving brotherhood.
“Self-Control in All Things”
Of course, more was needed to succeed than merely a good trainer. Much depended on the athlete himself and on his commitment to the rigorous training. The regimen was severe, since the training included strict abstinence and dieting. Horace, a poet of the first century B.C.E., said that contestants “abstained from women and wine” to “reach the longed-for goal.” And according to Bible scholar F. C. Cook, participants in the games had to undergo “self-restraint [and] spare diet . . . for ten months.”
Paul used this analogy when he wrote to Christians in Corinth, a city very familiar with the nearby Isthmian Games: “Every man taking part in a contest exercises self-control in all things.” (1 Corinthians 9:25) True Christians avoid the materialistic, immoral, and unclean life-styles of the world. (Ephesians 5:3-5; 1 John 2:15-17) Ungodly and unscriptural traits must also be stripped off and replaced by Christlike qualities.—Colossians 3:9, 10, 12.
How can this be done? For one thing, note Paul’s answer by means of a forceful illustration: “I pummel my body and lead it as a slave, that, after I have preached to others, I myself should not become disapproved somehow.”—1 Corinthians 9:27.
How forceful a point Paul made here! He was not recommending physical mortification. Rather, he admitted that he himself had internal conflicts. At times, he did the things he wished not to do and did not do the things he desired to do. But he fought never to allow his weaknesses to get the upper hand. He ‘pummeled his body,’ vigorously subduing fleshly desires and traits.—Romans 7:21-25.
All Christians need to do the same. Paul told of the changes made by some in Corinth who had formerly indulged in fornication, idolatry, homosexuality, thievery, and so forth. What enabled them to change? The power of God’s Word and holy spirit coupled with their determination to conform to it. “But you have been washed clean,” said Paul, “but you have been sanctified, but you have been declared righteous in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) Peter wrote similarly of those who had left off such bad habits. As Christians, they had all made real changes.—1 Peter 4:3, 4.
Paul illustrated his single-mindedness and sharp focus in pursuing spiritual goals, saying: “The way I am directing my blows is so as not to be striking the air.” (1 Corinthians 9:26) How would a contestant direct his blows or thrusts? The book The Life of the Greeks and Romans answers: “Not only rude strength was required, but also firmness of eye in finding out an antagonist’s weak points. No less useful were certain dexterous thrusts learned at the wrestling-schools, and quickness in outwitting an antagonist.”
Our imperfect flesh is one of our antagonists. Have we identified our personal “weak points”? Are we willing to see ourselves as others see us—especially as Satan might see us? That requires honest self-analysis and self-appraisal and the will to make changes. Self-deception occurs very easily. (James 1:22) How easy it is to justify an unwise course of action! (1 Samuel 15:13-15, 20, 21) That is tantamount to “striking the air.”
In these last days, those who would please Jehovah and gain life cannot afford to hesitate in making the choice between right and wrong, between God’s congregation and the corrupt world. They must avoid wavering, being ‘indecisive, unsteady in all their ways.’ (James 1:8) They should not waste their efforts on fruitless pursuits. When a person follows this straightforward, single-minded course, he will be happy and his ‘advancement will be manifest to all persons.’—1 Timothy 4:15.
Yes, the Christian race continues. Jehovah—our Grand Trainer—lovingly provides the instruction and assistance necessary for our endurance and ultimate victory. (Isaiah 48:17) Like athletes of old, we need to cultivate self-discipline, self-control, and single-mindedness in our fight for the faith. Our well-aimed efforts will be richly rewarded.—Hebrews 11:6.
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‘Grease Him With Oil’
Part of the athletic training in ancient Greece was done by the anointer. His job was to anoint with oil the bodies of the men who were about to exercise. The trainers “noticed that a skilled massage of the muscles before training had beneficial effects, and also that a careful, light massage assisted the process of winding down and recovery by an athlete who had completed a long training session,” observes The Olympic Games in Ancient Greece.
As the applying of literal oil to one’s body can be soothing, therapeutic, and healing, the application of God’s Word to a tired Christian “athlete” can correct, comfort, and heal him. Thus, under guidance from Jehovah, the older men of the congregation are admonished to pray over such a man, figuratively “greasing him with oil in the name of Jehovah,” an essential measure in effecting spiritual recovery.—James 5:13-15; Psalm 141:5.
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Following a sacrifice, the athletes swore that they had trained for ten months
Musée du Louvre, Paris
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Copyright British Museum