Spirituality

Learning to love God thanks to an Olympic hero

Are you living for him the way Michael Phelps is living for the pool and Simone Biles for the gym?

Learning to love God thanks to an Olympic hero

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

-Psalm 37:4

The kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which someone has found; he hides it again, goes off in his joy, sells everything he owns, and buys the field.

-Matthew 13:44

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last week planted firmly on the couch watching all the possible Olympic coverage. I’ve actually taken my first vacation in 2 years so that I can watch more Olympics. Today, for only the second time in my life, someone came to the front door to try to convert me. Instead of inviting them in and challenging them (which is a dream of mine) I thanked them for what they were doing, told them I’m a Catholic missionary, and sent them on their way. Trampolining was on, after all, and I love trampolining. So yeah, I’ve been making a lot of sacrifices for the Olympics.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 04:  Divers in action during training at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre in Rio de Janerio on August 4, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 04: Divers in action during training at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre in Rio de Janerio on August 4, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

It’s nothing on the sacrifices the athletes make, of course. For years—decades, sometimes—they give up junk food, free time, and any semblance of a normal life. I knew a young woman who gave up her spot at America’s most elite high school so that she could spend more time swimming. We all thought she was insane, but she knew what mattered to her and she was willing to do whatever it took to pursue it.

We sacrifice for the things that are important to us, whether it’s going to the Olympics or binge-watching the Olympics. We all know the feeling Jesus evokes here of finding something worth trading your whole life for. Maybe it’s a relationship or a career, maybe a night of pleasure or a hit of your drug of choice. Many of us don’t have the passion or the commitment or the imprudence to follow through but, for good or for ill, we’ve all felt that impulse to give up everything for the dream we’re pursuing.

Jesus isn’t talking here about love or glory or enjoyment, though. He’s talking about the kingdom of God. He’s talking about whole-hearted pursuit of him. This image presents us with a person who is so awestruck by the beauty and value of the Gospel that he goes rejoicing to give up his life for it. “In his joy” he sells everything he owns. This isn’t a check tossed grudgingly into the offertory basket or a breakup you continue to regret. This is the beginning of a love affair, a passionate relationship you’re glad to suffer for.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 13:  Ibtihaj Muhammad of the United States reacts against Sofya Velikaya of Russia during the Women's Sabre Team Semifinal 1 Russia vs United States at Carioca Arena 3 on August 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 13: Ibtihaj Muhammad of the United States reacts against Sofya Velikaya of Russia during the Women's Sabre Team Semifinal 1 Russia vs United States at Carioca Arena 3 on August 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

This line from the Psalms has always struck me as one that’s misunderstood. “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” we’re told, which must mean that if we love God he’ll give us a BMW, right? That certainly hasn’t been my experience, nor is it the experience of the saints, nearly all of whom suffered greatly. No, I think this line is a promise that if the Lord is the desire of our heart, we will find him. If we delight in him, we will know him.

The trouble is that many of us do desire him. We seek him and sacrifice for him and try to love him and feel nothing in return. No butterflies, no goosebumps, no levitating ecstasies. We’ve given up porn and greed and selfishness and all we have to show for it is a duller (though likely less miserable) life. Just like our Olympic heroes, though, we don’t quit because we fail. We train harder. We keep fighting. We choose to live for what matters.

Swimming - Olympics: Day 7  Michael Phelps of the United States dives in at the start of the Men's 100m Butterfly Final during the swimming competition at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)
Swimming - Olympics: Day 7 Michael Phelps of the United States dives in at the start of the Men's 100m Butterfly Final during the swimming competition at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium August 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

But is God really your delight? Is he really your priority? Are you living for him the way Michael Phelps is living for the pool and Simone Biles for the gym? Most of us don’t have the luxury of devoting nine hours a day to prayer, of course. But we could make small choices that make prayer possible. We could get up ten minutes earlier or take 20 minutes on our lunch break to read Scripture. We could choose to abstain from meat on Fridays or start tithing. We could make the sacrifices if we wanted to. It’s a question of what’s important.

I spoke with a 75-year-old woman once, retired with no grandchildren and no volunteer activities, about her prayer life. “Oh, I don’t have time to pray,” she assured me, and detailed a daily schedule that was chock full of nothing. Of course she didn’t have time to pray—it wasn’t her priority.

I wonder if there’s ever been a day when Katie Ledecky didn’t have time to swim. I wonder if Kerri Walsh Jennings sometimes goes a week being “too busy” to work out. Somehow, I doubt it. This is the pearl of great price, the treasure they’ve handed everything over for. It’s worth the sacrifice.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s probably time I got off the couch and into the chapel. Run so as to win, friends. This race is the only one that really matters. Pray like an Olympian.

A Brazilian soldier stands guard in front of the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado mountain ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 4, 2016. / AFP / JEFF PACHOUD        (Photo credit should read JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images)
A Brazilian soldier stands guard in front of the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado mountain ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 4, 2016. / AFP / JEFF PACHOUD (Photo credit should read JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images)
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Meg Hunter-Kilmer

Meg Hunter-Kilmer writes for her blog, Held by His Pierced Hands, and travels around the country speaking to youth and adults and leading retreats and parish missions.