Several years ago I had the opportunity to spend the better part of a day with former U.S. Olympic gymnast Shannon Miller. I remember watching Miller during the 1992 Olympic games and, particularly, the 1996 games in Atlanta when she was part of the group dubbed The Magnificent Seven. Miller is the most highly decorated gymnast in U.S. history, having amassed seven Olympic medals and nine World Championship medals over her career.
The time I spent with Shannon allowed for me to ask plenty of questions, of course, but the thing has probably stuck with me the most from our conversation was the amount of training that she went through. She would be at the gym for workouts each morning before school, then go to school, and then head back to the gym after school. There were many weeks when she was spending the equivalent hours of a full-time job in training in addition to a full load of school work. I remember Shannon told me about the time in 1992 when she dislocated her elbow in a training accident on the bars. She was taken to the hospital, and emergency surgery was done on the elbow–which included a screw being inserted to hold the elbow in place. Shannon told me that when her coach saw her at the hospital he asked how she was doing, and then told her, “You can take tomorrow off.”
I am sure I sounded incredulous when I asked, “He only gave you one day off? How could you do anything?” Well, she told me, she couldn’t do anything with her arms while the elbow healed, but there was still plenty she could do with her lower body. And after one day, she was back in the gym, continuing her training. Within just three months of the accident Shannon took first place in the compulsory portion of the U.S. nationals, and then won the Olympic Trials. Miller then went on to win five medals at the Olympic games in Barcelona, a feat that has only ever been matched among U.S. gymnasts by Mary Lou Retton and Nastia Liukin.
To become a world-class athlete, of course, requires tremendous dedication and commitment. It requires self-discipline. It requires sacrifice. Shannon Miller, and many others who have become Olympic or professional athletes, have worked incredibly hard to train their bodies to do incredible things. In my mind, the balance beam in gymnastics has to be one of the most difficult things anyone does in professional sports. Hitting a baseball is hard–the batter has only a fraction of a second to determine what kind of pitch is being thrown, where it will cross the plate, and whether or not to swing. The fact that a batter is considered successful if he gets a base hit only 30% of the time is evidence of the difficulty involved. But a beam is only 10 centimeters wide, and gymnasts not only maintain their balance while walking on the beam, but they flip, leap, tumble and roll. Beam performances combine elements of dance and gymnastics. And in 1996 Shannon Miller won the gold medal for the beam. Impressive…
As impressive as her accomplishments are, though, and as awed and impressed as I am by her dedication to physical training and practice, the Apostle Paul said that physical exercise has some value, its value pales in comparison to spiritual development and growth in godliness.
“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.” 1 Timothy 4:7-9 (ESV)
Paul compares training for godliness to bodily training because it requires the same things: dedication, commitment, sacrifice and self-discipline. And, just like successful athletes have coaches, God has given each believer a coach in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will guide, prompt and convict as necessary. Like the athlete with her coach, though, the believer must choose whether or not to listen to the Spirit.
Bodily training has very real, but very temporary, rewards. Athletes can do things with their bodies that those who do not train physically cannot do, but eventually age and injury catch up with them. They may still be in better physical shape than their peers, but sooner or later the human body will no longer do the things it once did when it was younger. Training in godliness, however, is eternal value. It is valuable now, because the believer who is growing in godliness is continuing to become more like Christ–a deeper understanding of Scripture, increased wisdom in applying Scripture, and so on. This also has benefit for the life to come, because as the believer grows in godliness he is laying up treasures in heaven. Even as the physical body gives out, and even dies, the spiritual can continue to grow and will eventually graduate to heaven.
Am I suggesting that anyone needs to spend 40 hours per week reading the Bible and praying? No. I’m not saying that would be wrong, necessarily, either, but someone once said–D.L. Moody, I think–that we must not be so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good. So reading my Bible and praying is valuable and important and necessary, but I never put into practice what I am reading I would be like an athlete who practices non-stop but never gets in the game. I believe I can say with certainty that it was knowing that she would compete and could win the prize that motivated Shannon Miller to spend hours and hours in practice and training, not the fact that she just loved training so much. She may well have liked training, but it was a means to an end; it was preparation for the contest. Likewise, reading the Bible and praying and spending time with believers and all of the other things that are necessary parts of spiritual development are valuable, but they are a means–their purpose is to help prepare believers for the contest, the daily spiritual battle. And, like the Olympic gymnast, the believer presses on to win the prize. But it is no material possession; no, it is the prize of hearing God say, “Well done, My good and faithful servant.” It is the reward of living a life that is honoring to God, and points others to Him.