Habits of Grit

Athletics, Grace, and the Christian Work Ethic

Not many of us are farmers. Not anymore. And relatively few of us have served as soldiers in combat. But perhaps some of us have tried our hands at competitive athletics — the kind you train for, and not just show up to play.

You may not have been aware of it at the time, but if you have been a soldier, an athlete, or a farmer, you have been challenged, like increasingly few modern people, to learn how to really work. That is, you were presented with some objective, concrete challenge — train for battle, till the field, practice for gameday — and you either put in the required effort to be successful on the field, or you grew weary, cut corners, and soon gave up. You either demonstrated you didn’t have it in you to keep straining forward, against the obstacles, to persevere and achieve the goal; or you found it, doubtless with help from coaches or teammates.

However firsthand your experience as a soldier, athlete, or farmer, Scripture stands ready to fill in, supplement, recast, or override our personal experiences (or lack thereof) and teach us a Christian work ethic — for our own joy, the good of others, and the glory of Christ. And one of the classic places to anchor in Scripture to ponder our work ethic mentions the very concrete and objective occupations of soldiering, athletics, and farming.

Like the Apostle

What Paul has in view in 2 Timothy 2:1–7 is gospel advance through disciple-making. The gospel he has entrusted to his disciple, he now charges Timothy to “entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). That’s four generations in a blink: Paul to Timothy to “faithful men” to “others also” — and implied is that the “others also” will disciple still others also.

But simple as the plan for gospel multiplication may sound, the work will not be easy. It will be opposed by the world, the flesh, and the devil, almost constantly, and often at the most inconvenient times. Paul himself writes from prison. Timothy can read the writing on the wall: if such efforts dedicated to gospel advance landed Paul in jail, how long until it catches up with Timothy? But rather than shy away from the task, Paul calls his protégé to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Then verses 4–6:

No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.

Consider first, and together, the requirements of soldiers and farmers; then we’ll turn at greater length to athletics.

Like Soldiers and Farmers

Even if soldiering and farming are foreign to you, as they are to me, the broad nature of the work is plain enough.

Soldiers are men “under authority” (Matthew 8:9; Luke 7:8), who do not serve alone but alongside other soldiers (in bands or battalions). A single trained champion with a weapon may be a formidable foe — until met by hundreds or thousands trained to act as one. The power in soldiering comes from this collective force: men trained together, to act together, under the authority and clear direction of an able commander. And to do so — to both get battle-ready and stay ready — soldiers must overcome the temptation of getting “entangled in civilian pursuits.”

The soldier is one who has been called out of normal civilian life, and received into a new company, to train and stand ready to act to defend civilians. And good soldiers, Paul says, aim “to please the one who enlisted” them. They deny themselves the immediate appeals and comforts of civilian life to endure in their calling and, in the end, enjoy greater, more enduring satisfaction than abandoning their mission for trivialities.

“Maturity comes through training, not through coasting or indulging desires for comfort.”

Similarly, though distinctly, farming requires the hard work of both foresight and physical labor. Farmers plan, till and sow, weed, wait with patience for rain and growth, and in the end, engage in the arduous labor of harvesting. And in doing so, the farmer holds in his hands, and enjoys, the reward, as he ought: “the first share of the crops.” Farmers have much to teach us, not only about hard work, and anticipating rewards, but also patience: “See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient” (James 5:7–8).

Like Athletes

Paul in particular may have more to teach us through athletics than we first expect. In addition to 2 Timothy 2:5, he takes up athletic imagery in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27; Philippians 3:13–14; 1 Timothy 4:7–8; and 2 Timothy 4:7. Hebrews also (not written by Paul but someone in his circle like Luke) draws on athletic imagery (Hebrews 5:13–14; 12:1–2, 11–13). The lesson in 2 Timothy 2 is consistent with the portrait of athletics elsewhere in Paul’s letters and in Hebrews.

First, maturity comes through training, not through coasting or indulging desires for immediate comfort. That is, even before the competition, even before the discomfort of enduring on race day, is the obstacle of training. Effective training requires discomfort (Hebrews 12:11). The body is not conditioned by leisure but by stress and strain, and especially through persisting in discomfort. Both body and mind are “trained by constant practice” (Hebrews 5:14), leading to maturity. “Those of us who are mature,” Paul writes, “straining forward to what lies ahead . . . press on toward the goal for the prize” (Philippians 3:13–15). All training, whether bodily or spiritual, requires some measure of toil and striving (1 Timothy 4:7–10).

Second, then, in the competition itself, athletes press on through weariness, frustration, discouragement, and pain. Learning to press through and endure discomfort in training readies the body, and will, to press on through resistance on race day. Verse 5 highlights a specific temptation to overcome: cutting corners. “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” Whether in training or competition, the successful athlete knows that his subjective desires do not rule over the objective rules of the contest. He is not bigger than the race or the game. He cannot train or compete as he pleases, according to his momentary wishes, but must exercise self-control. This is Paul’s own testimony in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Third, and most significantly, across the New Testament passages, the key to enduring discomfort is looking to the reward. Whether in training or in the event itself, Paul and Hebrews emphasize the reward, the crown, the prize — a vital element that makes the lesson for work ethic particularly Christian. Paul explicitly commends the prize: “So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). The imperishable crown that awaits is not icing on the cake but the reward to be kept in mind, and remembered, to keep us going when met with obstacles and resistance. Paul himself, as he comes to the end of his “race,” is not ashamed (but intentional) to draw attention to the reward, which, through anticipation, has fueled his perseverance:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7–8)

But not only Paul. Where did he learn it? No one teaches us to look to the reward like Jesus, in his teaching, his example, and more.

Like Jesus

In his teaching, Jesus again and again draws our attention to the reward that is “from your Father” and “great in heaven.” In Matthew 5–6 alone, he explicitly mentions the reward some nine times (and then does so again in 10:41–42; see also Mark 9:41 and Luke 6:23, 35). Perhaps it was this plain, almost hedonistic thread that prompted Paul to capture an aspect of Christ’s teaching as “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Yet every bit as clear as Jesus’s teaching is the power of his example. The climactic eleventh chapter of Hebrews turns our attention, several times, to the coming reward (10:35; 11:6, 26) and then presents Christ himself as the paradigm of pressing on, and persisting through pain, by looking to the reward:

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)

“Christ’s perfect grit comes first, which then makes our imperfect but growing effort possible.”

When we look to Jesus, we look to one who himself endured the greatest of pain and shame — the cross — by looking to his reward: for the joy that was set before him, that is, being seated at his Father’s right hand. He finished his course, looking to the reward. And so too, in like fashion, and looking to him, Hebrews would have us run our race with endurance, not grow weary or fainthearted, but lift our drooping hands and strengthen our weak knees (Hebrews 12:1, 3, 12).

Like a Christian

But Jesus not only taught us to look to the reward, and then practiced what he taught. In finishing his course, and achieving the victory of the cross, he secured us, who have faith in him, as his own. Mark this: we do not earn him with our holy grit, but he earned us with his. We press on, as Paul did, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). Don’t reverse the order. Slavery or freedom hangs on the sequence. Christ’s perfect grit comes first, which then makes our imperfect but growing effort possible. Or, you might say, Christ’s full acceptance comes first; then he goes to work on our work ethic.

So, a common thread links the work ethic of soldiers, athletes, farmers, Christ himself, and Christians alike: we recognize and own the particulars of our calling; we exercise self-control to overcome the immediate desires of the flesh; we endure in discomfort, with God’s help, for the reward, the greater joy promised at the end, which streams into the present to give meaning and strength to keep straining and striving.

And what makes it particularly Christian, and not simply human, is this: we do all our pressing on, from fullness and security of soul, not emptiness and insecurity, knowing that Christ Jesus has made me his own.