When the calendar turns to August, things change drastically for NFL players. Goodbye, sleeping in. Goodbye, hobbies. Goodbye, social life. Hello, training camp.
NFL training camps are brutal. Starting in late July, players go full-throttle to get ready for a grueling four-month regular season that everyone hopes will extend into a January playoff run.
The Super Bowl LII champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, hold training camp just a few blocks from Lincoln Financial Field, their home stadium. Even though camp is close to home for many players, the days are still long. Many arrive as early as 6:30 a.m. and don’t leave until 8:30 p.m., with just one day off a week.
Everything in training camp is extremely regimented. Players work with position coaches, drill on techniques, hold scrimmages, lift weights, watch film, hold meetings with their position groups, meet with their larger units – and then do it again . . . and again . . . and again.
For NFL athletes, training camp isn’t just about body strengthening, physical skills and muscle memory. It’s also about sharpening the mind through learning plays and communication. Miscommunication with the sideline, mixed messages inside the huddle and botched plays can be disastrous.
Through training, athletes strive to eliminate mistakes, refine their skills and achieve greatness. Last season, the countless hours the Eagles devoted to training paid off big-time in what turned out to be a remarkable run to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title.
Every sport, from peewee leagues to the pros, builds a training regimen into its preseason so athletes are better prepared once the season starts. The same principle applies to the Christian life.
The apostle Paul used athletic training metaphors in his epistles to encourage spiritual growth among New Testament churches: “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come,” (1 Timothy 4:7–8).
And, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified,” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27).
Verses like these resonate with the believers on the Eagles team. “It shows the impact of sports and what the correlation is between that and somebody’s personal walk with Christ,” Jordan Hicks told me for my book, “The Biggest Win.”
If athletes display passion, purpose and perseverance in their training for temporary rewards, how much more should Christians train in matters of eternal consequence?
Every athlete must commit to a dedicated training program. But athletes who commit to glorifying God must take their training to a whole other level – an unseen, spiritual level.
These players need inspiration – not the stuff of pregame locker room hype or emotionally charged sidelines, but the kind of lasting motivation that can only be fueled by the Holy Spirit. Likewise, here are three reasons every Christian athlete should commit to serious spiritual training:
God ordained training.
To understand the idea of spiritual training, we must understand the idea of sanctification. God doesn’t magically turn us into super-Christians who always make wise choices, speak kindly, and put others first. Instead, God ordained us to be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Sanctification is a gradual process of leaving sinful patterns and becoming more like Christ, and involves a beautiful, mysterious partnership between the Holy Spirit’s leading and our active obedience (Romans 8:13).
Scripture commands it.
Scripture is filled with instructions for believers to actively pursue biblically based training, honing their spiritual abilities like Olympic athletes. Notice the commands and active verbs found in the following verses:
· Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).
· Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
· Abstain from sexual immortality (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
· Strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
Training ultimately brings blessings.
God is not like that coach who enjoyed making you run laps as punishment. The spiritual training God requires might be challenging, but it is always meant for our good. Spiritual training increases our faith, joy, love, peace, and so many other godly characteristics that make us more like Christ and improve our lives. This training also helps us make earthly deposits into an eternal storehouse of heavenly riches (Matthew 6:19–20, Luke 18:22, 1 Timothy 6:19). So why wouldn’t we wholeheartedly embrace spiritual training?
Athletic training can feel monotonous. But spiritual training, while not always easy, shouldn’t be. We should never view it as boring, menial or a duty.
While athletic training is important, it only provides limited, temporary benefits. But training for godliness imparts countless blessings, both in this life and the life to come. Sanctification glorifies God and benefits the believer. There’s zero downside!
“The more you’re in the Word, the more you have that community to help spur you on, the more you’ll recognize that if you’re not training yourself for godliness, you’re really missing out on the opportunity to be with the Creator and how much more rewarding that really is,” says Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. “Some days, you don’t necessarily see [personal growth] tangibly, but I believe someday we all will.”
There’s another significant benefit for spiritual training: It provides a natural conduit of blessings to those around us. The Christians on the Eagles team call this their “overflow.” When we grow in godliness, we become a blessing to others.
What’s more, if we look again at Paul’s athletic metaphor in 1 Timothy 4:7–8, it’s clear that training for godliness also imparts great spiritual blessings in the life to come: “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
Paul makes a bold distinction between the earthly (“bodily training”) and the eternal (“godliness”), and explicitly claims that the spiritual training believers do on earth will reap blessings in eternity. Christians must keep this eternal perspective in mind.
A pole vaulter won’t soar high if her eyes remain locked on her shoelaces. A hockey player won’t hit the back of the net if he looking back at the bench. A quarterback won’t connect with his receiver if he is looking at his own hands.
Like them, we must look ahead–and look up.
Adapted from “The Biggest Win: Pro Football Players Tackle Faith” © 2018 by Joshua Cooley. Used by permission of New Growth Press. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the express written permission of New Growth Press. To purchase this and other resources, please visit newgrowthpress.com.)