By Audrey Stallsmith
Since I’m one of those wimpy types who always got picked last in physical education classes, I find the Olympics awe-inspiring. I watch all that energetic running and flipping and jumping and throwing and paddling with open-mouthed wonder and a complete lack of envy.
About the only sport in which I enjoy participating is horseback riding. And, for that, as has been frequently pointed out, the horse does most of the work!
Although glorious for the winning few, the Olympics can be tragic for the losing majority. When an athlete fails, we spectators wince. Why, we ask ourselves, do you do it? Why throw everything you’ve got into four years of rigidly disciplined training, when the odds are stacked so heavily against you, and--even if you are the favorite--you can lose it all with one stumble or fumble? Is that gold medal really worth all the agony?
"Be reasonable," we might advise a child who wants to aim for those heights. "Set your sights lower. Don’t ask for the nearly impossible."
When it comes to extreme risk, after all, we prefer to be watchers. An event like the Olympics allows us to taste a watered-down version of victory and defeat without subjecting ourselves to all the rigors. We will never know the extremity of elation that athlete feels if he attains the winners’ podium, but neither will we experience the depth of his disappointment if he falls.
This reminds me of the modern attitude towards faith. A little bit of religion is good for you, we are told, but don’t go off the deep end. Why risk wasting your entire life to attain an ultimate that may be no more than a pipe dream? Settle for less.
Even nominal Christians are often willing to hold to Christian morals, since those are sensible after all, and tend to keep a person out of trouble. But too many of us languish in what Chesterton, in Robert Louis Stevenson, called "negative rather than positive purity." We are proud of all the things we don’t do, but we leave deeper commitments to the religious professionals or big names--as if we could somehow ride their coattails into the kingdom.
"Celebrityism," Charles Colson notes in The God of Stones and Spiders, "lets individual believers off the hook." Or, at least, we seem to believe it does!
We are, after all, becoming a spectator society. In Jesus Rediscovered, Malcolm Muggeridge describes the modern "obsessive need for. . .vicarious excitement." We expect our superstars to do the extreme living while we watch in safety from the sidelines. Computer games also allow us to experience virtual dangers that can’t really touch us.
Recently a reporter for 20/20 interviewed men who have become so addicted to cyber-porn they find it impossible to develop relationships with real women. Real women, after all, might reject them. Muggeridge warns the current "excessive interest in eroticism" can be attributed to "a growing impotence and fear of impotence."
That impotence (ineffectiveness) seems to be extending into other areas besides the sexual. Some of us seem to have become so afraid of failure we exclude even the possibility of it by never stepping outside our comfort zones. As a result, too many of us are no longer willing to make irrevocable commitments.
When you throw everything you’ve got into any enterprise, after all, you’re going to look an awful fool if it comes to nothing. That’s why so many people are "shacking up" instead of marrying these days. You can’t fail, after all, if you don’t make the commitment to begin with. But they find their elastic bonds somehow unsatisfying.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s On Happiness describes the tired (or pessimists) as desiring "the happiness of Tranquility: no worry, no risk, no effort." The Lotos-Eaters of Tennyson’s poem exhibit that "tired" peace-at-all-costs attitude, toward which much of the world seems to be drifting these days, by fatalistically declaiming;
Let what is broken so remain.
The Gods are hard to reconcile:
‘Tis hard to settle order once again.
There is confusion worse than death,
Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
Long labour unto aged breath,
Sore task to hearts worn out with many wars
And eyes grow dim with gazing on the pilot stars.
Their chosen languor brings them no real joy, however, merely a "mild-minded melancholy." In All Hallow’s Eve, Charles Williams speaks of "the delicate sweet lechery of idleness" as not simple laziness but "the tasting of unhallowed peace."
That peace is unhallowed because it goes against everything scripture teaches. God, after all, demands that we do all of the extreme things, such as asking for and attempting the impossible--not to mention making irrevocable commitments. "The pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues," Chesterton writes in Heretics, "and. . .the Christian virtues. . .are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be."
And we are required to make a massive effort to achieve them despite the fact that, according to scripture, not many win the gold streets either. "The gateway to life is small," Jesus said, "and the road is narrow, and only a few ever find it." (Matthew 7:14) Elsewhere he describes the kingdom of heaven being taken by the "violent"--the most fiercely determined.
In that old-time warfare to which he alludes, there was no push-button technology that allowed fighting from a distance. The storming of a city required brutal hand-to-hand combat. Backing out of the struggle will not save us, however. Jesus warned, "whoever insists on keeping his life will lose it." (Luke 9:24)
So, in a sense, we are ordered to be heroes despite ourselves. In Seven Suspects, Chesterton asserts "it is the root of all religion that anybody may be almost anything if he chooses. The cynics are wrong, not because they say that heroes may be cowards, but because they do not see that the cowards may be heroes."
We know, of course, that it is our faith that saves us. But we can only prove what we believe by what we do--or decline to do. Suppose my earthly father tells me to jump and promises to catch me. Up to that moment, I may think I really trust him. But, if I refuse to jump, my lack of action proves otherwise.
"Belief that has no practical result," Stephen Brown points out in If God Is in Charge, "ceases to be belief; it is fantasy." Helmut Thielicke puts it a bit more bluntly in The Waiting Father. "But a Christian who is only quiet. . .is. . .nothing but a dud. He is dynamite that fails to go off."
Those Olympic athletes can teach us something about commitment, since they persevered whether they felt like it or not. Although I’m sure they all started out loving their sports and wanting to make their countries proud, their grueling training probably caused plenty of resentment along the way.
As with marriage, they had to endure through dry times when they felt no affection at all for the cause to which they had "wed" themselves. "You are not bound to feel," George MacDonald informs us curtly in Creation in Christ, "but you are bound to arise. . .Heed not your feelings. Do your work."
Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 9:24-26, "In a race, everyone runs but only one person gets first prize. So run your race to win. . .An athlete goes to all this trouble just to win a blue ribbon or a silver cup, but we do it for a heavenly reward that never disappears." And, as those teary-eyed winners so clearly illustrate, only by "deep-end" commitment can you taste "deep-end" joy.