One of the most significant moments in Canadian sports history took place in September 1988. Many considered the premier event of those Seoul Olympics to be the showdown between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis in the men’s 100M sprint. Johnson blasted out of the blocks and only looked back as he hit the finish line in world record time, seeing a forlorn Lewis several metres behind him. At the medal ceremony a little later, Johnson said: “A gold medal – that’s something no one can take away from you.” Except that twenty-four hours later, they did take it away. While not the only one to cheat, Johnson had been taking loads of illegal steroids, and because he broke the rules, he lost the reward. “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2Ti 2:5).
Athletes are tremendously instructive for the Christian race. They are careful about their diet. They make sure they get proper sleep. They often forego times of fun in order to practice. They suffer but keep straining, because they have their eyes on the prize. And there are no shortcuts in the race. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that successful athletes are just lucky. There is likely a small amount of random chance that has contributed to their success. And natural physical talent plays a small role. But the vast amount of their success comes from their desires to do what it takes to win the crown. In their training and competing, they are models of self-control. And God has given Christians a spirit of self-control (2Ti 1:7; cf. Gal 5:23). Like a high-performance athlete, we need to take our Christian service seriously and be willing to make some sacrifices today in order to gain the eternal reward.
Is our problem in our own hearts – do we not care enough about the crown? There is an important distinction to make when looking at the athlete as a metaphor of Christian faithfulness. The picture is not one of competing against our brothers and sisters. It is not my being able to say, “I am the champion and you are the loser.” It is about growing in holiness and my relationship with the Lord. It is to become a better help to my fellow Christians in the local church. It is in order to gain a crown that will be to the praise and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ in His coming kingdom.
The mention of “rules” in 2 Timothy 2:5 is not to say that the Christian is under the law or that our life is one of legalistic rule-keeping. It is a reminder that I can’t just choose what feels good to me in the moment and still receive the crown at the end of the race. Through the gracious work of the Holy Spirit within, self-control needs to govern my schedule and choices. Don’t look for the shortcuts that may impress men in the short-term. Make decisions today that will stand the test of the fire at the judgment seat of Christ and secure the eternal reward.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.