Talent won’t translate into success without working at it
by Mark Buchanan
Run in such a way as to get the prize. That was the Apostle Paul’s admonition. Rumour has it Paul was bony and rickety, all knees and elbows, a scarecrow of a man. And all those beatings with rods and whips couldn’t have done much for his physique. Paul was no athlete. If he ran at all—maybe hightailing it from a rock-hurling mob of incensed idol-worshippers—I picture him moving along in a hobbling gait, jerking and bobbing, like Forrest Gump in leg braces.
But the man understood the power of discipline. To do a thing well, you had to work hard at it—push yourself, deny yourself, weary yourself in the trying. The line between mediocrity and excellence only half depends on what you’re handed: strength, agility, intelligence, stature and the like.
The other half rides on what you do with it.
Paul understood that. No athlete ever gets to the arena without a long apprenticeship elsewhere. I think of what Kyle Hamilton, captain of Team Canada’s men’s eight rowing crew, said after his team won gold at the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. “Gold medals,” he said, “are handed out in summer, but won in winter.” It was the hard work in the lonely hours—in the cold and the dark, the wind and the rain, with no crowds anywhere—that won the prize.
Run in such a way as to get the prize. Paul means this, and other athletic references, as a metaphor for spiritual discipline. We all know that no giftedness—musical, athletic, intellectual—is of much use in and of itself. Unless these things are submitted to a regimen of discipline, they add up to nothing. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, documents that truth extensively and conclusively: the greatest natural capacity in the world, he shows over and over, only translates into lasting success if you work at it.
Paul’s logic is simple: what is true in the physical is also true in the spiritual. What applies to the athlete equally applies to the disciple. The most magnificent body will turn flabby and stiff without regular exercise and good diet, and the deepest soul will turn flabby and stiff without a similar set of spiritual disciplines. I wonder how many potential Olympians will be only watching the Games, not participating in them, not for lack of natural endowment, but for lack of discipline. They never ran in such a way as to get the prize. And I wonder how many real saints are only watching the Kingdom of God, not taking hold of it, because of a similar lack of discipline.
Men, run in such a way as to get the prize. God has given you a body, and He means for you to develop it. But above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. Above all else, nurture that part of you that is eternal. Tend that part that communes with God. Train that part that affects everything else.
I talked once with a pastor who had a karate expert in his church. The man could tie you up in little knots and dice you up into little pieces before you had time to blink. He spent hours each day in physical training. But he was a pathetic Christ-follower. Biblically illiterate. Sinprone. Stingy. Whiney. Faultfinding. He often complained to the pastor that he got little or nothing out of his sermons.
One day the pastor said, “If I took a run at you, gave it my best shot, could I hurt you?”
“Not a chance.”
“I’m trained. I’d have you on the ground before you know what hit you. I could maim you or kill you at will.”
“So what makes you so lethal is all your training?”
“Yeah, I’d say so.”
Then my friend said, “If you put into your karate the same effort you put into your spiritual life, my granny could whip your butt. You may be a karate expert, but you’re a wimp Christian.” And then he walked away (probably wise).
The man took the challenge, and became as good if not better at following Christ as he was at breaking bricks.
You may be a [fill in the blank] expert.
But what kind of Christian are you?
If you don’t like that answer, then run in such a way as to get the prize.
The article above was featured in the January 2010 issue of SEVEN magazine.