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Have you been watching the Olympic Games? I have. I am constantly impressed by the drive and determination of these athletes. Their ability to keep going against the odds--age, injury, weather and course conditions, broken equipment--that make most people think they don't have a hope, is inspiring.

Some examples:

Mark McMorris, a slopestyle snowboarder, competed with a broken rib. He won the first medal of the games for Canada.

Marie-Michèle Gagnon, a skier, also from Canada, dislocated her shoulder in the middle of a race. She popped it back in right there on the ski hill, made it to the bottom and was sent off in an ambulance for some medical attention. She tweeted later that night that she would be back for her next race.

Noriaki Kasai, a ski jumper from Japan, competing in his seventh Olympic Games, won his second silver medal twenty years after his first. He is 41 years old. Among his competition was an 18 year old rising star from Germany. In the finals' weather conditions, experience won out. Kasai is determined to return for the Games in Korea. He is still after that gold.

The Apostle Paul knew that his readers would understand the analogy of an Olympic race when he used it in his letter to the Corinthians. (I Corinthians 9:24-27) And even if we have never competed in a sport, watching these games gives us an opportunity to see the discipline it requires. Even if it is a sport that we do not enjoy or understand, we can see the dedication of the participants. It is that example that Paul wants us to follow; he wants us to exercise self-control, as though we were training for an Olympic event. I'm sure he would want us to not give in to our natural desires to be lazy or to eat food that doesn't contribute to making us stronger, but he is more concerned with the state of our spiritual health. He wants us to discipline our actions so that when we tell others about Jesus they will have no cause to criticize us. (Titus 2:7-8) He wants us to give everything that we have within us for the sake of God's kingdom, because he knows that this life is just temporary. We are not striving to be the best in order to win a piece of inscribed metal. We are fighting for people's eternal souls. (I Corinthians 9:25)

Spiritual discipline, also known as self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) is not entirely achievable in our own strength. It is a fruit of the Spirit. That means that in order to improve it, we have to have the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is not just a matter of following the rules or going through the motions of training. Bible reading and prayer are vital to gaining spiritual strength, but without the Holy Spirit we will not succeed. Thankfully God's Spirit is available to all who invite Him in. Don't hesitate to ask for His help in developing your self-control so that you may run the race to win a prize that will last through all eternity.

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My father used to coach track and field, specifically running. For many years he coached a girls’ cross country team. Unlike the 100 metre dash where participants finish milliseconds apart from each other, long distance and cross country runners usually don’t have someone running right beside them. So the only way to see if someone is closing in on you is to turn your head and look behind you. This will cost you precious time, may cost you a personal best and may cost you victory. Any good coach will tell you to run your own race and don’t look back.

The Apostle Paul gave that same advice to the people of Philippi, (Philippians 3:12-14) and it applies to us as well. Paul had been regarded as a Christian leader for about 30 years when he wrote this letter, and he encouraged people to follow his example. (Philippians 3:17) But he also wanted to make it clear that he did not believe that he had reached the top level of spiritual maturity. He was still running the race too. He was still striving toward the goal that he outlined in Philippians 3:10-11. The word translated goal (Philippians 3:14) is actually a goal mark, the finish line. The analogy of running a race was a common metaphor in Paul’s writings, (I Corinthians 9:24-27, II Timothy 2:5, II Timothy 4:7) and he uses it again here. His audience would have been very familiar with the Greek games which we now know as the Olympics, and so they would have understood his imagery.

When Paul says that he is forgetting the things that are behind, (Philippians 3:13) he does not mean that he literally cannot remember. Unless some health reason affects our cognitive function, we cannot force ourselves to not remember, though sometimes that ability would be highly desirable. What Paul means is that he won’t let his past failures or successes influence him. Sometimes we dwell on our failures and replay in our minds what we should have done differently, even though the damage has already been done. Sometimes we think about our successes and believe that we have already attained our goal. That reminds me of a different race, the one between the tortoise and the hare. The hare was so confident of his ability to outrun the tortoise that he stopped and took a nap. The tortoise toddled right past him. We should not assume that the last success we had is enough. Instead, like Paul, we should focus on the future and continue striving to be more like Christ.

Serious runners are devoted to their sport; they train, they follow a healthy diet, and they focus on what it takes to do their best. Paul encourages us to have the same devotion, discipline and determination. We will face obstacles. Like the cross country runner we will encounter hills and valleys and a few potholes along the way. We must do our best to get through them with God’s grace. Keep running the race. Don’t compare yourself with others. Set your standards based on what God desires from you, and don’t look back.

Do you have a dream? Something you really want to do? A plan? A course of action to follow that will lead you to a better life? Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps you are just taking one day at a time, working, trying to make ends meet. I know of people who have been given a terminal diagnosis by their doctors. They aren’t doing much planning for the future; they are just living each day to the fullest and being thankful for every moment. Some people use Proverbs 29:18, which in the King James Version reads, “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”, to suggest that if you don’t have a dream, a plan for the future, your life is worthless, or at least not meeting its potential. If you’re not the type to plan ahead, this might be quite discouraging.

Here’s the good news. That is not what this verse means. Other versions, including the New King James, more clearly translate the Hebrew word “hazon” as revelation. The NET Bible and the English Standard Version clarify it by specifying that it is a prophetic vision. In other words, where there is no guidance from God, transmitted through someone on the Earth, the people… well, “perish” isn’t the best translation there either. Most versions now say “cast off restraint”, but what it generally means is to live in chaos. They are living without structure. There are other verses in Proverbs 29 that say very similar things. (e.g. Proverbs 29:2, 6, 8, 11, 16) The overriding theme is that there is much more benefit when we live according to God’s mandates than according to our own selfish desires.

There is some debate among Bible scholars as to whether the “law” in the second half of the verse, refers to the written law only, the Torah, or whether it includes prophetic revelation. As I see it, either way, following God’s principles is required. We have so much more revelation than the people did when this proverb was written. We have Jesus and His teachings to guide us as well. Having the revelation is not enough. Following the revelation is what will bring blessing and help us to avoid chaos.

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When I was very young, there was a comedian by the name of Flip Wilson who had a TV show. I don’t remember the show all that well because, like I said, I was very young. But I do remember that one of his routines made popular the saying, “The Devil made me do it.” It became common to hear people use that phrase to excuse any kind of inappropriate action that they may have committed. Did you eat the last piece of cake? Yes, but the devil made me do it.

Interestingly, people today still use a similar excuse for bad behaviour, though they may not use the same words anymore. Somehow in their minds they believe that Satan has power over them. Nothing makes Satan happier, I’m sure. Yes, Satan will surely put temptations in our way. In the book of Job, we see that Satan spends his time roving around the earth looking for someone to provoke. (Job 1:7, Job 2:2) I Peter 5:8 tells us that we need to be alert and aware because Satan is surely out to devour us. He does this very cunningly, by deception. He doesn’t want us to know that his goal is to devour us; he makes it look much more pleasant than that, (II Corinthians 11:14) but what he really wants is to turn us away from God.

The truth is that if we have God on our side, we are more powerful than Satan. God gives us this promise, with instruction, in James 4:7-8. The instruction is to submit to God and resist the devil, to cleanse our hands and make our hearts pure. We are still responsible for the choices that we make. We need to focus on God and His purposes, instead of our own human desires. (James 1:13-15) We need to think with an eternal perspective. Sometimes we just need to think before we act. Then the promise comes into effect. If we resist the devil, the devil will flee from us. If we draw near to God, God will draw near to us. In both cases we need to take the first step. We are not just puppets in this game. We are responsible for the decisions we make and for the actions we take. But the more we spend time with God, through prayer and Bible study, the more easily we will be able to recognize Satan’s schemes and then make good choices.

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The following video is an example of Flip Wilson's routine:

Have you ever noticed that many people seem to focus on what is bad in their lives instead of what is good? Maybe that’s because we keep trying to fix the bad; that’s the part of our lives that needs the work. If we’re not trying to fix it (perhaps because we know that it is beyond our ability to change the situation), we may be trying to understand the reason for it. But all this dwelling on the negative only succeeds in depressing us. Maybe that is the reason that the power of positive thinking has been a topic of self-help books for years—for at least a century that I know about.

Despite the benefits of thinking about the positive aspects, we know that doing so won’t solve all of our problems. In this world we will have trouble. (John 16:33) The Apostle Paul (who also encouraged positive thinking in Philippians 4:8) knew more trouble than most of us will ever encounter, (II Corinthians 11:24-27) so he had some authority to speak on the subject. After careful consideration of all of his hardships, and the troubles faced by fellow Christians, Paul concluded that the glory that will be revealed to us when Christ returns, far outweighs anything that we are facing now. (Romans 8:18) The word that is translated as consider in this verse means to compute or to calculate. It’s not just a passing thought; Paul weighed both sides on a balance and determined that the value of the coming glory would make the present seem as nothing.

We are currently in a state where our soul is redeemed (or can be if we choose to accept God’s gift of grace), but our body is not yet. We are in a race that we must finish before we can fully know the glory that is in store for us. We can, however, draw strength for the course by having our outlook on life shaped by the Holy Spirit instead by our earthly desires. (Romans 8:5) If we, instead of dwelling on our troubles, will put our focus on eternity, it will not only help us to do the more important things in life, but will also help us to see that our present sufferings are temporary and small in comparison to the glory and restoration (Revelation 21:4) that we will enjoy forever.