Bronze boxer (ca. 2nd cent. BC) recovered from the ANTIKYTHERA shipwreck
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum

Continuing from the post on ancient athleticism and training regimes, I wanted to make a few remarks on the 1 Timothy 4:7-8 text: 

  • “Make no room for worldly or superstitious myths (lit. worldly myths and myths told among elderly women) but train (Γύμναζε) yourself towards godliness (πρὸς εὐσέβειαν). For bodily training (σωμτικὴ γυμνασία) is beneficial for a few things, but godliness is valuable for all things because it holds the promise of life in the now and for the life to come.

   Mention abstinence, discipline from a strict coach, self-control, and pushing the limits on endurance for a physical workout at Gold’s gym, and no one will think twice about how each training routine is vital to the growth of a competing athlete. Mention these same practices in the context of the Christian life, and people too often get offended or at least touchy that their freedom is being infringed upon. 
    Abstinence?! In this day and age. Yes, says Paul. Not only from immorality (cf. 1 Cor 9:25; 10:8), but in the case of the 1 Timothy text, Christians are called not to perpetuate, nor participate, but rather abstain from superstitious ideas and long-standing myths (e.g., the American dream that success is measured by material gain) that structure life outside the church but hopefully never within it. If an ancient athlete can abstain from desserts and sex, curb wine consumption, and diet to a strict regime, the Christian athlete pursuing godliness must learn to say “no” to the practices and lifestyles that cripple holiness.
    A spiritual coach? We pay physical trainers at gyms to help us go through a circuit of running and weight-lifting, but do we have a spiritual mentor whom we give permission to point out our sins and faults? Who tells me when I’m wrong and calls me, with grace, to repent? An athlete who listens to no one but “me, myself, and I” is doomed to failure.
   Self-control, discipline, and hard work, even pushing the limits so we pray, fast, and labor in ministry farther than we ever imagined is the kind of spiritual training we all need. Easy? No. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. But essential? Absolutely! Prayer, for example, is hard work. It takes the first 30 minutes of praying to stop babbling like a pagan and move from selfish prayer to a deeper, holier communion with God. When was the last time any of us were so caught up in prayer, it became – in the words of Thomas Merton – timeless? The Christian athlete in timeless prayer is unaware that hours have gone by because the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is that precious and sweet.  
   When I think about how hard ancient athletes train, it raises the bar for me to pursue godliness with greater zeal… and with greater humility.

About the bronze statue: the photo was taken from the Athens museum during my January 2014 Greece trip. The statue features a boxer posed to strike a punching bag (κώρυκος). The bronze boxer was part of a special exhibit on the cargo and remains of a Roman merchant ship which was recovered from the bottom of the Aegean Sea. It was called the ANTIKYTHERA exhibit because of the amazing recovery of a seafaring navigation device (called the ANTIKYTHERA mechanism; more on this much later when I finally get to post on ancient travel and Paul’s missionary journeys). But the exhibit also featured statues, armory, glass bowls, ceramics, clay vessels, jewelry, coins, and other cargo. So glad I got a chance to see the exhibit right before it closed at the end of January. MJL