I love sports – the grit, the passion, and the dedication it takes to succeed is truly remarkable. To recognize the relentless drive to achieve a glittering trophy, the final push beyond oneself to reach for the gold, and the subsequent heart-felt weeping of them who fail.
For all the admiration and fame it receives, we all probably recognize that sports is one of the most useless things on earth: a time consuming, money sucking, and emotionally draining pursuit. Should a soccer player get paid twenty to thirty million dollars annually to play a kids’ game (see: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo)? Should a quarterback make over twenty million per season to throw the pigskin around in the snow (see: Peyton Manning, Aaron Rogers)? Should a Formula One driver make more than both of them combined to go monotonously around a concrete speedway (see: Kimi Raikkonen, circa ’09)? Or should a guy who is paid to knock someone’s teeth out make upwards of seventy million a year (see: Floyd Mayweather)? This is only annual, guaranteed salary mind you, not including endorsements, signing bonuses, personal name-brands, etc.
Fans are quick to defend them, and ultimately it is them that pay the athlete by buying tickets, jerseys, memorabilia, etc. There is a definite futility in sports, a “vanity” as Solomon would point out. What mankind doesn’t understand though is that everything in this life is a different kind of futility, if done for one’s own sake, without ultimate purpose.
The athlete trains for a prize, and he who attains it always wants even more, and he who has none longs for the taste of one. The sweat, tears, and blood shed to achieve such a goal is almost unparalleled, yet the prize cannot equal the investment.
The student invests incalculable hours in learning, studying, and memorizing, all for a piece of paper that tells them they are now more of a something than they had previously been. This drive to learn, succeed, and supplant those before the student will always consume the avid learner, and being known as ‘learned’ becomes a greater goal than applying his learning to his life.
The businessman endlessly competes to refine his product, promote it, and become renown for it. Unfortunately the frustration, fear, and tiredness only seems to grow with the years, and even more so with success. The promise of peace and prosperity for the blue-collar worker is ever-elusive, like the mirage on a long, desert highway.
To point out the futility of the athlete and other such occupations is to ignore the one in every other sector of life; this is because of our failure to analyze ourselves and the flow of our world. All things are full of futility, if done solely for personal gain and without an eternal purpose.
Now, the simple fact that humans are so willing to give-up so much in order to gain so little speaks to the reality that there must in fact be something worth living for, fighting for, and dying for that has eternal consequence. If we are willing to invest so much time, money, and energy into our cyclical and ultimately useless human pursuits, it tells me that we not only have a desire that needs fulfilling, but that such desire is not yet fulfilled nor can it be as of yet. CS Lewis spoke of that deep want in all humans, saying: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
I sense that the Apostle Paul was often faced with criticism over his way of life – that reckless pursuit to preach the Gospel, the burning passion to do whatever it took to have truth be heard. Paul seems to answer this question in 2 Corinthians 4, and he provides some incredible insight into our purpose for God and value to Him as Christians. Many missionaries, evangelists, and Christians have faced such criticism – being the ‘radical’, ‘doing too much’, or ‘looking to get killed’. To take Paul’s words to heart, we must dedicate ourselves to searching for our ultimate purpose in life and seek to support and enable others to do so as well.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Cor. 4:6-10, ESV)
The Gospel is the light, the power of God to change this world and reclaim lost souls for eternity. It is God who sent His Son to bring such a light, as John 1:5 expresses of Christ. We come to the ‘knowledge of the glory of God’ by recognizing that Christ is God incarnate, the revealer of God the Father: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Christ reveals who God is as the perfect one, then showing us as God sees us – rebellious and corrupt sinners destined for condemnation by this God. The Gospel, the light which comes out of these two truths, teaches that Christ as perfect God and fully man took our hands and God’s hands as it were, and joined them, having them reconciled through his outstretched arms on the cross.
This Gospel, the message of reconciliation, mercy, and grace, is ours to retain and share with others, as the ‘jars of clay’. I think Paul chose to call us ‘jars of clay’ to show us that the greatness of the Gospel is not in the carrier but in what is carried. In a similar way the power of a credit card is not in the plastic it is made of, but in the bank account behind it. Paul recognizes that the power of the Gospel is the payment behind its message, the cross of Christ. We are bearers of a message, living this life with the ultimate purpose of sharing this message, whatever the cost, whatever the pain, even unto death itself.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed (‘transformed’) day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
It is easy to become tired of doing good, easy to become distracted from our purpose as Gospel-bearers in word and deed, easy to become frustrated, to criticize, and become destroyers instead of restorers. Paul, in spite of all the affliction, suffering, and struggle, knew that to become discouraged is devastating to accomplishing our purpose as Christians.
The dark powers of this world, our sinful flesh, and our egocentric society which surrounds us would want nothing more than to discourage and quiet us as message-bearers. Our competition is great; our enemy is powerful and not afraid. We must train better, push harder, and rise higher in order to overcome the challenge. Paul’s great secret in order to overcome this deadly and constant enemy is hope. Hope that our affliction is “momentary” and “light”, hope that He who is with us is greater than he who is against us. The most important part of our hope is yet in the future, and we must put our eyes there. For although our affliction, pain, and frustration here may seem heavy, it is featherweight compared to the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” that God promises us on the day when we shall see Him face to face.
Therefore, the athlete may yet teach us something. Humanly speaking, few must prepare more for battle than the quarterback facing a great defense on an icy field. Few must train harder for success than the boxer, fighting to retain lucid with blood and sweat running down his face. Few must exercise mental discipline more than a Formula One driver, exacting hair-pin turns at extreme speeds. Few must dig deeper and push harder than the Olympic marathon runner, steadily moving on with only the hope of seeing the finish line. Few must have as much perseverance to face greater odds than the underdog, the one down by much late in the game, or the one with his face shoved in the mud in the heavy rain.
They fight so very hard for a truly “light weight of glory”, as it were; for a metal, a trophy, a ribbon, and mere paper in a bank account. All of that will soon disappear, a legacy which will last but a time, and fame which will vanish in but a short time.
The Christian is charged with a much greater mission, he must battle against much greater odds, must overcome even greater obstacles, and far greater enemies. Well did Daniel write of our reward: “[T]hose who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (12:3).
In the midst of this spiritual war, being but a weak ‘jar of clay’, may we remember the Message we carry, and the One who not only helps us on our way, but prepares us place for us as recompense. Since “the things are unseen are eternal”, the things done to impact mankind for eternity have ultimate purpose. Such is our calling, may we not “lose heart”, with our minds set on the hope of heaven, for only this fulfillment is equal to and greater than the deep-seated longing of our hearts.