Play like a champion today

I am a competitor. If there is a winner to be declared at the end of a certain activity, you had better believe that I will be contending for it. Growing up, it might have been a little unhealthy. I was the kid that ruined family game night because I was so intense. And I’ll admit, sometimes Noland still has to call me out on my irrationally passionate competitiveness. Losing a game of ski ball is just not a good reason to be the 23 year old throwing a fit in the arcade.

The point, though, is that I love to win. But probably even more than the intensity of my love for winning is the intensity of my hate for losing. I. Hate. Losing.

As I grew up and was an athlete all the way into my college years, I had to learn the fine line between being someone who loves excellence (which is absolutely God’s heart) and being someone who operates in a spirit of performance (which is not God’s heart). And as we hear all the time that team sports teach us life lessons, I was learning this within the parameters of my soccer career, but it translated in to every part of my life.

The question I started learning to ask myself was, “Am I doing this because I genuinely want to be the best that I can be, or am I doing it because I want the approval of man?” The approval of man will always test our humility and motives, but the approval of God when we’re being the best version of who we’re created to be will always test our hunger, and our dedication to our calling as believers. It’s a good heart check to do on ourselves once in a while. Who am I living for? What am I living for? What’s the end goal here — the prize to be won, so to speak?

My dad asked me last week, as he was preparing for a sermon, what is it about our culture as the American church that belittles and takes lightly the power of being in the word of God daily? Not just on Sunday mornings when a pastor is regurgitating it to us, or just on whatever night of the week we’re in life group and people are challenging us, but every morning in the secret place with God, seeking more of Him in the book He’s left us to be our guide for life.

Is it because we think we grew up in our Sunday school culture knowing everything and we have nothing left to learn from God’s word?

Is it because we’d rather read a book that has a more “relevant” topic and uses scripture within it, so we think that’s enough?

…we went through what seemed like hundreds of questions like these as we talked that night, and Dad and I both landed on the same resolution of why we discipline ourselves and get in the word of God every morning: because we want to set ourselves up to win. Our culture has equated discipline with punishment, but the word discipline is actually defined as, “mental or physical training; the practice of training people to obey.”

So what’s happening when I read my Bible is I’m learning to obey. I’m training to obey. And I don’t know about your life, but my life experience has been that obeying whatever God is saying in that moment or season always ends up as a win.

When I think about my soccer career, the majority of my time was spent training, not competing. I can count way more times that I was preparing to win than times that I was actually winning. And that’s not because I lost a lot of games, it’s because I trained a lot of hours. And even though the hours of training vs. the hours of winning big games are exponentially greater, the feeling of winning was always worth it.

If you’ve ever won a big game or achieved some big goal you set out for, you know the feeling when it finally comes to pass. Your body hurts from playing so hard, you can barely breathe, there’s tears and there’s cheering and celebration — I mean really, some of the most glorious, victorious memories of my life happened on a soccer field. 

My walk with God should be no different. Ministry is not easy. Making disciples is not easy. That’s why we put in the time to train for obedience, to fill ourselves up, to get His word in us so that His word is what comes out of us. We do it for those glorious, victorious moments where it all comes together and we think, “this is why it’s worth it.” 

Maybe this is the race Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 9, when he says that we should run the race in such a way to get the prize. Or in Hebrews 12, when it says to run the race with perseverance, throwing off anything that hinders us and fixing our eyes on Jesus. We don’t win races if we don’t train for them.

I woke up one day this week, and I felt like God said, “Play like a champion today.”

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If you know anything about sports or at least saw Notre Dame play in the national championship football game this year, you probably know something about that phrase, or about the sign that the Fighting Irish football team hits on the way out of the locker room every Saturday. Around the national championship, ESPN did a story on the history of the sign, going back to 1986 when Lou Holtz was coaching the Irish. He had seen a sign like it and wanted to get one for his team, so he had one made and on the first Saturday that they began the tradition of hitting the sign, Holtz gave his players this speech:

“Every time you hit this sign, I want you to remember all the great people that played here before you, all the sacrifices that your teammates have made for you, all the people, your coaches, your parents, who are responsible for you being here.”

Similar to what the Notre Dame football team does every time they head out on to the field, what I should be doing every day on my way out the door into whatever battle is ahead of me, is remembering those who have gone before me. This is what we do when we read the word of God. We remember what He’s done, and it carries us through as we fix our eyes on Jesus to remember what He’s promised is still ahead. Because really the race we’re running is only a leg of a relay — and someone has passed us the baton of faith, as Christine Caine puts it, and we’re to carry it in such a way that sets our team up to win when we’re done with it. This isn’t an individual race — it’s a team sport. 

This makes my training so much bigger than me and my personal relationship with God. It’s what my personal relationship with God will do in the lives of the rest of His people as we move closer and closer to the day of His return. It’s about laying my life down for the sake of His purposes coming to fruition in the earth. 

Suddenly, discipline isn’t a punishment anymore. It’s a gift. The gift of the invitation to know him deeply and lead others into that same communion with him. We can’t do it if we don’t know him first. 

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