The Focus of an Athlete ... and Christian?

Single-mindedness and tunnel-focus: Are these beneficial or burdensome qualities that sport and competition can develop in a disciple of Jesus Christ?

[This post is the third in a series exploring a theology of competition. If you haven’t already, here’s the first and second posts.]

The Context

Paul understood how to find joy in spite of circumstance (Phil. 1:3–8; 3:1) and, longing for the believers in Philippi to also understand this truth, the Apostle urges them to examine Jesus Christ, the perfect model of humility (2:1–11). Paul explains that true joy and contentment is found by pouring our own lives out for the sake of Christ (3:7–11). 

The Text

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13–14).

Paul grabs the attention of his audience with the vivid metaphor of a runner to describe his own life story of progressive spiritual formation (O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, in NIGTC, 425–26). Just as the runner has not yet arrived at the finish line of his race, Paul emphasizes that he too is “in process” of reaching the goal (v. 13a) of conformity to the image of Christ (v. 14b). 

Certainly if an apostle admits to merely being en route to Christlikeness, let no other person in the church make the claim to have arrived!

Rather than being discouraged, Paul is zealous to press on (3:13b)! The forceful interjection, “But one thing I do,” suggests a narrow, singleness of purpose (see also 1 Cor. 12:20; Fee, Philippians in IVPNTC, 152).

Paul’s focus doesn’t allow him to look backward. The verb translated “forgetting” can also carry the connotation of being inattentive or caring nothing about. This is important because it’s clear elsewhere that Paul did not forget the events of his past (3:4–8; Acts 22:3–21; 1 Cor. 15:9). So, he’s not advocating for self-induced amnesia! Instead, he’s explaining that he won’t allow his past to hinder his current service of Christ.

It is of little benefit, while in the middle of a race, for a sprinter to dwell on her less-than-ideal start out of the blocks, on another runner a few feet behind, or on the race she won a month prior. Likewise, it is of little benefit for that same runner to focus on her retirement party that is planned for two months in the future. No, in the middle of the race, a seasoned runner focuses on the tape that stretches across the track ahead and nothing else. Their focus is narrowed for optimal performance. 

It’s with this focus that Paul moves through the Christian life, undistracted from the finish line of his race—the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. “The greatest reward is to know fully, and so to be in perfect fellowship with, the one who had apprehended Paul on the Damascus road. And this prize Paul wants his readers also to grasp” (O’Brien, 433).

The Principle

The Christian is to pursue Christlikeness with intentionality and focus, refusing to be distracted from this goal by the the events of their lives—good or bad.

The Application

A good coach advises their athletes that, while they would be foolish not to learn from past losses, to spend time mourning those defeats will only hinder the preparation and training that leads to improvement and later success. 

So often the past events of our lives—the past losses and successes alike—can distract from the actual purpose for which we live. The Enemy of our souls would like nothing more than for us to lose sight of the finish line! Instead, we must be diligent in constantly reminding ourselves of the purpose for which we “compete” and the reason to avoid distractions. Focus on Jesus.