"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights." - Mohammad Ali
I've been thinking about this quote since I saw it on a poster in Jack Wang's frat house this past January. It strikes me that there is a string of wisdom that this motivational aphorism displays that cuts through many different areas of life. If you replace the word "fight" with "Christian life" and "dance under those lights" with "face trials", you get the following:
"The Christian life is won or lost far away from the witnesses - behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I face trials of many kinds"
Isn't that so true? James says that the testing of our faith completes it, making it mature by the addition of perseverance. But too often we overlook the nature of our trials: as that of "tests"! Our trials grow us when we emerge from them faithful and victorious. But trials also reveal to us the level of maturity we've already attained. I am struck by the implication of James chapter 1, which is that trials and tribulations come along as the last step of maturation; it makes us "mature and complete, not lacking in anything" (1.3). That's got to mean that there must be growing to be done beforehand.
The truth for any sport, perhaps especially boxing, is that you don't win or lose the match on the day of the match. You win or lose the match every day, out on the running path, in the sparring ring, in the weight room. You win or lose when you decide whether to finish the last set of push-ups or let the last set finish you. You win or lose when you decide it's too cold to go running today, or you should take a break because you had a big workout just two days ago, or you decide that an extra meal out with the guys to a place where you KNOW will tempt you to eat poorly is a worthy setback. Each of those are mini-trials and tribulations that determine the outcome of the big game.
Does any of that sound familiar? What if I "Christianized" it? The truth for the Christian life is that you don't defeat or succumb to temptation when you're facing it down. You win or lose that match every morning before work or school, when you decide whether you want to read your Bible or not. You win or lose when you decide you're too tired to work hard to understand Scripture and instead choose to surf youtube videos or flip through boring programs on the television. You win or lose when you think that you've earned a break from praying 'cause you attended that big prayer meeting Sunday morning, or that you can skip your reading because you were preparing a Bible study this week. Wow! What kind of damned spiritual barometer have you been measuring with?
You win or lose the big battles when you win or lose a multitude of little ones.
On fight nights, we triumph because we are a finely-tuned, disciplined warrior for Christ. We lose because we didn't see the significance of daily training and let ourselves grow those spiritual love handles. We win by making the competition not look like competition; when we are so deeply hidden in Christ that the pleasures of the world beckon from an eternal sky's distance away. We get our asses knocked to the ground when we think that we can walk this earth safely and that there is always time later to seek after things above.
These principles don't only apply to the areas of Christian life pertaining to temptation. They apply everywhere; meaning that every area of your Christian living is affected by your determination to be spiritually prepared. How do you deal with tragedy? How do you deal with loss? Can you cope? Will you grieve or will you despair? Why is it that some Christian men and women who lose what they most wanted out of life can move on while others are destroyed by it? There is only one factor, and that is the degree to which you have already placed your treasures in heaven. Are you working towards this, Christian? Or are you going find on that day when you face inevitable mortal suffering that, to your surprise, your spiritual reserves are gassed?
How do you deal with frustration? Can you love your enemy? Can you love a church member who rubs you the wrong way? Can you love a good friend who's made an insensitive comment? Or will it cause you to lose your cool, to blow your top, to break out the cold shoulder, to bottle up feelings of anger? Have you been working on being completely humble and gentle, bearing with all your brothers and sisters in love, or were you waiting for fight night? Have you been actively pursuing this by drawing every day from the depths of Christ's love for you, or did you think that you can just rock up to the ring on the night of the match and overcome your enemy the great tempter?
I venture that our culture doesn't do this well. We don't value spiritual discipline and preparation because, like all disciplines, there are no immediate results. In our culture which so highly esteems immediate gratification, we don't think the work of preparing every day is worth it. Or even worse, we don't see the desperate need to start today. We don't read our Bibles because we don't notice a day to day difference in our behavior, or our temperament, or our mood, or our character. We don't acquire an immediate increase in knowledge of Christ or spiritual wisdom and understanding. So we let ourselves get saggy. We grow those spiritual love handles. We eat that spiritual garbage. We sit on the couch and watch TV. We go out and enjoy life; we pursue other treasures. (What are those other treasures to us? Ultimately, they are the things that we regard as having more worth than our spiritual health). And then, one day it hits.
Tragedy. Testing. Trials and tribulations. Or maybe perhaps an opportunity for spiritual blessing that requires a certain degree of maturity.
The first three, we understand what will happen. We'll fall. We might survive, but only as one escaping through the flames.
That last situation I mentioned is of deep significance to me. I had to learn this lesson the hard way. I hope she doesn't mind me sharing this, but before I started dating Kat this time around, there were at least two other times that we could have gotten together. Both those times for us, the attraction was there but the maturity wasn't. And so we crashed and burned. Hard. Dear God, it took me so long to recover from each failure. For us, incidentally it was always the odd-numbered years that really kicked our tails.
But by the grace of God, those failures made me see this stark truth; that each time God had sought to bless me, I couldn't receive it because I lacked the faith and spiritual fortitude! So from that last time on, I was determined never to let this happen again. I would die in the spiritual weight room before I faced defeat of such bitter taste again.
I thank God for Kat because I know that our past attempts to date wouldn't have ended in such catastrophic, yet faith-building and life-saving manners if she hadn't so resolutely sought after Christ, despite giving up something that she wanted so badly as well. In quite a literal sense, I wouldn't be where I am now if it weren't for her. And we wouldn't be where we are now if it weren't for the past. And now we both know that if we're seriously going to love each other we better love God even more than each other.
Don't be fooled, Christian. You don't see the fight nights come. You aren't given 12 months to train. Just be thankful that you are given today to start.