Three Things to Learn from Olympians David Boudia and Steele Johnson
As the world bids farewell to the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, I find myself reflecting on the variety of ways in which God has been displayed over the course of these games. He has been appealed to in a countless number of prayers, affirmations, and “sign-of-the-cross” rituals: some sincere pleas for intervention, and others likely superstitious attempts at divine brownie-points. Additionally, the tendency to replace him has been displayed over and over again. It’s seen every time an athlete testifies that his or her essence is contained within his or her success in a particular sport. It’s seen every time an unstable personal identity – reliance only on him or herself – comes crumbling down in the wake of defeat or disqualification.
In my mind, nowhere was God more uniquely displayed than in the testimony of divers David Boudia and Steele Johnson.
After clinching silver medals in the Synchronized 10m Platform diving event, David Boudia and Steele Johnson delivered an interview to NBC’s Kelly Stavast (you can watch it here). In the interview, there is no “new-found elation” brought on by victory, nor is there the deflated exasperation which often follows defeat. The two display satisfaction – satisfaction of a variety that transcends any momentary circumstance. It doesn’t take long for the divers to identify the source of their joy-filled stability; on numerous occasions, each man affirms that his ultimate identity is not defined by performance or status, but rather “rooted in Christ.”
Here are three things we can learn from the divers’ remarks:
1.It isn’t sinful to enjoy God’s good gifts. This may seem like a no-brainer, especially in light of Paul’s writing in Romans 14:14, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself…” Even so, there are a growing number of people who tend to view meaningful involvement in sports, extracurricular activities, hobbies, and pastimes primarily from a viewpoint of skepticism and trepidation. I confess that I find myself among this camp’s numbers. As a student pastor who has the privilege of shepherding a number of 6th-12th grade students (as well as their families), I’m daily met with the realization that the human heart is, as Tim Keller says, “an idol factory.”¹ I often see the same tendency in these young people that I remember living out during my own years as a student: setting goals in the realms of academics, college acceptance, athletics, Boy Scouts, and music. As a teen I thought, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.”² In a well-intentioned effort to shepherd believers away from building such false identities for themselves, I often find myself concluding that we’d all be better off living lives free of commitment outside the realms of “formal worship.”
Boudia and Johnson present an alternate, biblical viewpoint. In his portion of the interview, Johnson speaks plainly about the joy he derived from giving his best effort in the competition. These men present the reality that it is possible (and even good) for Christians to maintain a gospel-identity while enjoying and attaining success in any number of earthly pursuits, and that doing so is actually a form of worship. As John Piper writes in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, “The right use of your body and your mind may enable you to see so much of God that you would sacrifice your life for Christ.”³ Through athletics, academics, art, craftsmanship, gardening, cooking, or anything in-between, God can be glorified when we enjoy such pursuits for what they truly are: good gifts of His grace, and opportunities for worship.
2. Christ gives us a much better identity than we could ever give ourselves. While enjoying God’s good gifts is a form of worship, dedicating our existence or defining our identity by such things are forms of idol worship. The tendency to worship creation rather than the Creator is a clear and present danger for every believer; Boudia’s words ground us in the good news of the gospel: “When my mind is on [diving], and thinking I’m defined by [diving], then my mind goes crazy. But we both know that our identity is in Christ…”
Johnson adds, “The fact that I was going into this event knowing that my identity is rooted in Christ, and not what the result of this competition is, just gave me peace…”
The gospel frees us from “building our house on the sand” (Matthew 7:26-27). Rather than staking our sense of worth and identity on fleeting pleasures, fickle pursuits, or a faulty righteousness of our own construction, the posture of our loving savior welcomes us to be fully known and accepted exactly as we are. In John 10:14-15, Jesus powerfully states that He knows us better than we will ever know ourselves: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…” The beauty of the gospel is that, even knowing every dark corner of our broken lives and twisted hearts, Jesus is pleased to do every bit of work necessary to bestow upon us an everlasting identity: “I know my own and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Rather than working tirelessly for an identity of our own making, we may rest in the grace-bought identity that is ours through the Son.
3. Disciple-Making Matters. Had it not been for a multiplicative disciple-making process, Boudia and Johnson’s post-event interview may never have been a reality. But as He’s been pleased to do throughout His people’s history, God advanced the gospel message through the faithful investment of “older” generations of believers into “younger” generations. Boudia came to Christ through the witness of his college coach, and Johnson describes Boudia as his “mentor” in his portion of the interview. 4 The sport of diving proved to be more than a “good gift” to be enjoyed. It served as the setting for the making of a disciple (Boudia), who turned right around to instruct a younger Christian (Johnson) in the particulars of the faith.
Discipleship with any age group is often difficult and discouraging. People are flaky, feelings get hurt, and (spoiler alert), non-Christians have been known to act like non-Christians. But praise be to God who not only promises to orchestrate the gospel’s expanse throughout the whole world, but also to bring such work to completion in His timing (Philippians 1:6). True believer, you can take solace in your tumultuous work of disciple-making, knowing that your faithfulness is not without the promise of fruitfulness. I can’t necessarily guarantee that our “spiritual children” will one day tout the gospel on a global scale, but I do rest in the fact that our God is in the business of accomplishing “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us…” (Ephesians 3:20, ESV). In that affirmation, let us be busy with the work of disciple-making, while enjoying God’s good gifts and the beloved identity He’s bestowed on each of us through Christ Jesus. Let us watch and be amazed at the work God accomplishes through His Spirit, which is already at work within us.
¹ Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), xvi.
² Ibid., xx.
³ John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry, Updated & Expanded Edition (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), 186.
4 Bethany Jenkins, “6 Christian Athletes to Watch at Rio 2016,” The Gospel Coalition, August 6, 2016, accessed August 16, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/6-christian-athletes-to-watch-at-rio-2016.