Michael Phelps, Katey Ladecky, Simone Biles and every other athlete competing in this summer’s Olympic Games is a testimony to perseverance and endurance. They have all overcome obstacles of one kind or another to get where they are and every one of them could give us inspiration and instruction on how to persevere. Some athletes have had to overcome difficult family situations like Simone Biles who was raised by her grandparents after her mother gave up her children due to substance abuse. Simone could have allowed those problems to define her but she worked through them to become the most decorated women’s gymnast and now the gold medal winner in the women’s individual all around.
Every athlete has to overcome injury or accidents in their journey to the Olympics and some have had to deal with emotional blows and tragic loss. Nowhere is this kind of endurance seen more clearly than with this year’s refugee team made up of 10 athletes who have persevered through incredible hardship and the loss of their homes and nations. One of the athletes on the refugee team is the swimmer Yusra Mardini, a Syria refugee who literally had to swim part of the way from Turkey to Greece in order to find life.
All the members of the refugee team share similar stories. There are runners who trained by racing through refugee camps without shoes and athletes who found strength and courage to survive through the sport of Judo. These athletes have endured through incredible hardships due to war, poverty and disease and they have persevered to compete with the best in the world not just for personal glory but to be a witness of courage and hope for their nations.
Perseverance and endurance are not just required to be an Olympic athlete, they are necessary for all who want to follow of Jesus. Being a Christian is not easy, it never has been and Jesus told us from the very beginning that it was going to be hard. If we go back to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus said, Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you become of me. Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven. Matthew 5:11-12a
Jesus never promised that following him would be an easy road, quite the opposite, it was going to be a narrow and hard road and if we are going to make it through in this race of faith we are going to need to persevere and endure through hardships and suffering. We will not have to endure the threat of being beheaded during worship or forced from our homes like our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq, but we will be facing more and more persecution for our faith as our culture drifts farther from God. People are losing their livelihoods because they are choosing to follow their faith and conscience in how they operate their business. People are losing their jobs and positions in the community because they want to pray in public and every day many of you may face persecution if you want to even talk about your faith in the work place. We can choose to give up the race of faith or we can learn to persevere through the persecution and hardships. If you want to persevere, then I want to offer three steps we can all take to help us keep going.
The first step is to Surrender to God. Michael Phelps is one of the greatest athletes ever. He has competed in 5 Olympic Games, he has won gold medals in four of them and has more gold medals than anyone else. While what we often see during the Olympic games is an all American boy with a big smile who succeeds at every turn and with every stroke, the reality is that Michael has faced some difficult times and has had to learn to persevere. After the London Olympics you may remember the well documented and publicized problems Michael faced with alcohol and drugs and for many of us it looked like he was going to be another amazing athlete who allowed the glory and fame to ruin his life. But that is not how this story ended. Michael learned how to persevere through the pain and overcome the problems of his life and he did it by surrendering. Listen to Michael’s own words from an interview he did with ESPN.
Did you hear him say it? He had to surrender. Michael had to surrender control of his life to others when he entered into the rehab but in time he learned that what he really needed to do was surrender his life to God, the one who created him, the one who had a purpose for him and the one who saved him.
When we face trials and problems in life and when we struggle in our faith we don’t persevere by relying upon our own strength. That’s what Michael had been trying to do for many years and as far as that got him in life, it wasn’t enough. There comes a point in all our lives where our own strength is not enough to keep us going. The only way to endure will be to surrender to God. The apostle Paul talks about this kind of surrender, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.
We don’t know what this thorn in the flesh was for Paul, but it was an obstacle in his life and on his own he wasn’t able to get past it or overcome it so what he does is surrender to God. He comes to God saying that his strength is not enough but that God’s grace is. Paul states clearly that in his weakness or in his surrendering to God he becomes strong or maybe a better way to say that is that God becomes strong in him. In Philippians 4:13 Paul says, I can do all things through Christ who Christ who gives me strength.
We can persevere through all things in life and in faith but not on our own, we only persevere when we finally and fully surrender to God. For many people that moment comes when we hit rock bottom and have nowhere else to turn, but it doesn’t have to get to that point in our lives of faith. If we surrender to God today and everyday then when trials come we will endure through them because the strength of God will already be there to help us.
I have shared before that the moment of surrender in my life came my sophomore year of college when I faced problems and pain that I couldn’t overcome myself. Trying to work through things on my own got me nowhere and it was sitting on a bench under Beaumont Tower on the campus of MSU that I heard God say, Andy, with me there is life and without me there is death and that choice is yours. I wanted life and I wanted the fullness of life so I surrendered to God that day knowing there was no other way to get it and I’ll be honest, I still struggle everyday to surrender my will to God’s will, but I keep at it because I know that it is only in surrendering that I will find life and the strength to endure in life and in this race of faith.
I want to invite you today to once again surrender yourself to God. If you want to run the race of faith and if you want to stand strong in faith when the difficult days come, the only way you can do it is to trust in the strength of power of God. If you can’t remember every doing this in your life, I want to invite you to pray and tell God that you are ready to stop trying to life live on your own and that you are going to give yourself fully to him and that you are going to allow God to lead and direct you in life. If this is unnerving for you – good, it should be, it is a scary step, but it is the only one that ultimately will help us make it through. If you have surrendered before, great, do it again today and if surrendering to God doesn’t scare you – it should because God wants to do more in you then you ever imagined. This is not something we do lightly, we should do it with a certain amount of fear and trembling because my guess is that God wants to do more in all of us then we ever thought or imagined.
Surrender is the first step to enduring in life and faith and it leads us to the second step that can help us endure which is to See trials as opportunities. James 1:2-4, 12. When James wrote this, people understood trials and problems as an evil to be avoided at all costs, which is often how we see trials today, but James turns that idea on its head to say that problems are really just opportunities for us to grow in faith and to experience God’s grace and power. Now this doesn’t mean we should go out and look for problems, but we don’t need to look for them because they will be there. Jesus said, each day has enough trouble of its own. When trouble comes we need to look at it differently than the world does and learn how to choose joy in the midst of the pain.
Paul knew how to do this, when he was in prison with Timothy they were locked up and instead of giving in to their situation they surrendered to God, choose to be joyful and sang. Acts 16:22-31. Paul and Silas had a choice after they were flogged and imprisoned, they could have given up and cried out in anger and frustration to God, but they didn’t, they sang and prayed and it was by choosing joy that they were able to endure and overcome.
Choosing to rejoice in the face of problems helps us persevere and joy is a choice. Happiness depends upon what is happening around us, but joy is a choice and joy comes every time we fully surrender to God. Joy is listed as one of the fruits of God’s spirit which we don’t work to produce but is a byproduct of allowing God to dwell within us. When we are filled with God’s spirit then problems always become opportunities for God to be glorified and for our faith to be strengthened. What problem are you facing today and how can you turn it around to see it as an opportunity?
Financial setbacks can be opportunities to simplify life and set Godly priorities. Family problems can be opportunities to learn how to love and forgive. Even emotional and physical pain and suffering can be opportunities for us to experience God’s grace and power and for us to live more fully for God. Please don’t misunderstand me and think that pain and problems as sent by God or caused by God, they aren’t, they are often just symptoms of our broken and sinful world, but every painful situation is an opportunity for us to choose joy because it is an opportunity for God to be glorified. When we see the problems in life as opportunities we find the strength and grace of God to persevere through them.
The third step to help us persevere is to Surround ourselves with others. We can’t endure if we are standing alone. We can’t see problems as opportunities on our own – we need encouragement. We need teammates. Again the Olympics remind us that no one competes alone. No one wins the race by themselves, we all need help and it’s when pain and problems come that we really need to rely upon one another. Paul and Silas were able to sing in jail because they had each other for encouragement and support. Even Jesus invited Peter, James and John to pray with him in the garden the night he was betrayed and arrested because in his time of greatest trial he didn’t want to be alone. As we heard last week, we need people on our team. As the author or Hebrews says, we need to surround ourselves with a great cloud of witnesses so we can run the race of faith. We need teammates who can help us run when we are tired, hurt, empty and the end of our strength.
Let me close by showing you what this looks like with another Olympic image. This is from the 1992 summer games in Barcelona where Derek Redmond was favored to win gold in the 400 meters.
What more can I say. When we surround ourselves with others – we are able to persevere.
There are steps we can take to persevere in life and faith, we can
• Surrender to God
• See problems as opportunities and choose joy
• Surround ourselves with others.
The Games – Perseverance
What Olympic story have you heard this year that has inspired you to persevere? Check out the stories of the Olympic Refugee Team athletes who are competing in the games. Go to olympic.org or unhcr.org.
1. Surrender to God. Read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 and Philippians 4:13
• If you have never surrendered control of your life to God, do that today.
• Surrender to God every day using this prayer of John Wesley.
I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
2. See Problems as Opportunities. Read James 1:1-4, 12
• Name a problem you are facing today that God can use as an opportunity to grow your faith or the faith or others.
• Choose to be joyful in the face of your pain and problems. Joy is a choice we can make every day.
3. Surround Yourself with Others. Read Hebrews 11 & 12
• Who is on your team?
• Whose team are you on?