As the world looks back on the year 2015, it will be difficult to see much that was good. This was a year of wars, terrorism, a massive refugee crisis, along with a full complement of droughts, famines and epidemics. And here in the United States, we saw a significant increase in violent crime, a boiling over of racial tensions and the beginning of a presidential race that plumbed new depths of incivility, xenophobia and demagoguery. With such trends in motion it does not seem to bode well for 2016. Still, there are things people will look forward to, such as the summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August.
The modern Olympics Games, which were first held in Athens in 1996, were inspired by the ancient athletic games festival held in Olympus, Greece every four years from the 8th century BC until the 4th century AD. The revival of the games was inspired by the hope that they would bring nations closer together and provide an alternative to violent conflict. Sadly, the games have been interrupted twice by world wars and the 2016 summer Olympic Games are shadowed by the fear of crime and terrorism. But there is another athletic event going on that we should be aware of. It has been in progress for thousands of years and each of us is called to participate in it. And unlike the Olympic Games, everyone who participates in it can be a winner.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians of the Greek city of Corinth, says “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) In the Greek athletic contests, only one received the prize, the one who beat all the other competitors. But in the spiritual contest, we have but one opponent: our selfishness. And it is not as though we do it alone. As Paul says elsewhere, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me!” (Philippians 4:13)
“But”, you might say, “don’t we have the schemes of the devil and the ungodly influence of the world to contend with as well?” Yes, that is true, but those two sources of temptation have only one thing through which to reach us and bring us down and that thing is what the Bible calls “the flesh” or “the mind of the flesh.” (Romans 8:1-13; Galatians 5:13-25) The race or match is won or lost on whether we follow the Spirit of God or our fleshly desires. Our fleshly desires are limited to what our finite minds can fathom and they are bounded by what causes us pleasure or pain. They were strongly forged in us while we were infants and children, though we were innocent because we were then ignorant of the law of God, which is the law of love. As Paul says, “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died…” (Romans 7:9) Once the idea of the intrinsic value of the happiness of others formed in our minds and we saw that selfishness was wrong, we became responsible for our choices. However, the force of our feelings and the already well-established habit of following them were more than a match for our fledgling conscience. Time and time again, we marched up to our duty and, more often than not, slunk away from carrying it out. Weak rationalizations covered our retreat, but we knew we were beaten.
Consciousness of our guilt needed to be buried deep and one of the handier tools for that job was finding fault with others. This did a double service. It distracted us from our own moral defeat and it helped us to look better than others by comparison. “Well I might cut a corner now and then, but this other guy is a complete disaster!” we think to ourselves or even say to others. What a delight and relief it became to dwell on the failings of others! We became very alert to the ways people failed to live up to our moral standards and felt it most keenly when their wrong-doing affected us personally. For this condition, Jesus offers a sound remedy: “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5) The contrast between a speck and a log is not purely objective. Often, they have logs in their eyes as big as yours, but that’s not the point. The point is one of responsibility. You’re first and main responsibility is removing the evil from your own life. The extent you can help others will be determined by how well and thoroughly you have overcome the evil in yourself. An honest and deep reckoning with sin in your life will make you a very humble and not at all a judgmental reader of other people’s characters. Besides, the contest is not with others. You are not competing against others. Your opponent is within you! It is the “mind of the flesh” that is in conflict with the “mind of the Spirit”. Which one you side with is the one that will win. And when the Spirit wins, so do you. And can we win? Of course we can, and will, with Christ on our side! Half the battle is coming to terms with the nature of the contest. We are in a race, so it will take perseverance. We are in a boxing match so it will take vigilance and skill. Of course we are no match for our opponent but our trust is in the Lord. And the more we win, the more others will be encouraged and helped to win also. In fact, the Bible says, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) We are not just forgiven sinners. We are also called to be winners in our contest with the flesh, the world and the devil. May 2016 be a winning year for me and for you too!