In Scripture, we find St Paul seemingly referencing boxing in 1 Corinthians 9:26. Both the King James and Douay-Rheims Bible read: ‘fight, not as one beating the air.’ The ESV and NIV, on the other hand, have ‘box’ and others ‘shadow boxing.’ When St Paul uses athletic examples (run the race, boxing), it is likely because the Isthmian games were held in Corinth every two years. The Isthmian games were, like the Olympics, another set of games held in Ancient Greece. Plato, much earlier than when St Paul was writing, had wrestled in these games and did extremely well from what we are told by extant sources.
These references to physical exercise are non-accidental. The reason is that we are embodied beings. A misconception – which seems to have entered the world at around the same time as the advent of modernity – is that body and soul are entirely separate. We tend to think of the tweedy scholar who sits at his desk and smokes a pipe, without any thought given to care for his physical health. Or, we tend to think of the sporty ‘jock’ who is cerebrally challenged. This false dichotomy is enforced and sustained by Hollywood. Why? Because it sells. Good against evil, strong against weak. And so on. But the truth is that we are holistic beings, with a need to care for both body and soul, for in the end we are embodied beings with a spiritual soul.
Sporting events, such as the Olympics, show us the importance of struggle and training. They show us that the world is not given to us in perfection, but that we also have to strive to improve both ourselves and our surroundings. The material realm is generally much easier for us humans to grasp, as we can all see it, feel it, and engage with it. That which allows us to do so, our soul, is less clear to most moderns. They may call it ‘mind’ or an extension of the brain, but the fact is that the soul is the most important part of us humans, as it is what gives us life. Moreover, it is no surprise that the Bible continually uses athletic metaphors to describe religious truths. We can think of Jacob wrestling with God, just to take one example. The care for the soul is equally – if not more – important than care for the body, but through care for the body we see very clearly the effects our actions can have. Hence, the monk John Cassian could speak of the faithful as ‘athletes of Christ.’
Besides showing us the truth of caring for the soul and the struggles, which spiritual realities bring, sports point us to another truth: there are objective standards. Plato uses athletic examples to prove what he calls the ‘invisible measure’ or ‘the good.’ Standards for what is right and what is wrong are objective, not subjective and emotively motivated. When we exercise, we see that there is a correct way to go about it and there are incorrect ways. If we make mistakes, we can amend them, but if we use the wrong techniques we threaten interminable damage to ourselves. When we watch athletes compete with each other, we see that the results are fruits of their labour, although we seldom see the pain and suffering behind a moment of joy when the victor raises his prize. But all of these things show us that there are standards in the material world, and the same goes for the immaterial realm.
Sports help us to excel in life. They help us stay healthy and enforce discipline in our life. Beyond this, they ought to show us how to translate these lessons into our spiritual life. We need to work on the soul, to keep it healthy just as we do the body. We must remember that prayer life is not a static relationship, but one that requires effort. Watching the Olympics, it is fitting to recall the religious origins of the event. Reports from Open Door UK, a charity serving persecuted Christians globally, tell of church services being forced to ‘lay low’ due to pressure from the Chinese authorities. The Chinese government may deny the fundamental connection between faith and sport – or any other aspect of life for that matter – but we would do well in aiming to be athletes of Christ.
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