There’s no substitute for competition. Having been dormant since my high school days, I knew that there was no other way to tear off the bandage than to start joining official tennis leagues and tournaments again. As you might expect, the first two weeks were nothing short of miserable. But after expressing to my friend—himself a coach—that I felt like the way to get over the hump was by getting more matches under my belt, he responded, “You don’t need to compete as much as you think. You need to do drills.”
While it was true that I was dealing with early season nerves, it was also true that there were some technique-related issues with my game that were causing problems during my matches. And so I took up my friend’s offer to coach me, and implemented my own physical conditioning program. We fixed my footwork on short balls. We tweaked my technique on my volleys. We worked on early racquet preparation on the forehand to make my best shot even better, and weight transfer on the backhand. And while I wasn’t exactly stout to begin with, I shed about ten pounds to gain the ever so slight edge in movement. It wasn’t too long before the L’s started turning into W’s. It was truly a testament to me how, as it is often said, games are won on the practice field.
Athletes aren’t exactly sea turtles: they don’t come out of the shell immediately knowing how to navigate the seas. Even those with the greatest natural talents understand that potential is turned into reality through practice. That’s why competitive athletes spend far more hours practicing than playing: although it is what happens in competition that matters, competitive performance is simply the product of one’s training.
Even the most gifted of athletes risk being outperformed in competition by those who are less gifted but who outwork them in practice and conditioning. Michael Phelps found this out with Ryan Lochte. Usain Bolt found this out with Yohan Blake. It’s no wonder then that, in the latest research study done in the realm of exercise physiology, a zoo-raised cheetah was somehow outrun by racing greyhounds (yes, this actually happened!). As one person said, “The distance between dreams and reality is called discipline.”
And in the same way, the distance between desired godliness and realized godliness is discipline. Using athletic analogy, Paul tells Timothy, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness,” (1 Tim 4:7). A Christian isn’t saved by his godliness, but he is saved for godliness. And that godliness is achieved not by “letting go and letting God.” It is achieved through active spiritual training. “Discipline yourself” Paul says. That Greek word gumnazo (where we get the English word “gymnasium”), implies this: “If you want to be godly, you need to hit the gym.” The spiritual gym, that is.
To constantly be nourished by the Scriptures (1 Tim 4:6) requires great discipline, self-control, and persistent application of a particular action against instinct or impulse. Godly character, in other words, is not gained instinctively and without effort. The resilience of a man that shines in the midst of adversity is produced in the quiet hours on the coffee table spent reading the Bible and praying. The sermon that proclaims Christ boldly and deftly unleashes the power of the gospel to salvation is produced in the hours of labor in one’s study.
Conversely, how can you expect to see true godliness be produced in you if you spend hour upon hour plopped in front of the TV or by spending even more hours scrolling through your Facebook and Instagram feeds while neglecting your time in Scripture, meditation, and prayer? How can you expect to see the kind of Christ-like fruit produced in your life if you let your life waste away in those “lawful” desires without restraint? Let not the man of God neglect the discipline and training that God ordained as the means to true godliness and effective ministry.