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Finding the Strength to Thrive

Finding the Strength to Thrive

By David Jeremiah

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Rafer Johnson’s career is almost unbelievable. A versatile high school athlete, he went on to play basketball at UCLA, and competed in long jump events in the 1956 Olympics. He also won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Retiring from athletics, he starred in various television shows and movies, including the James Bond film License to Kill. He also developed a close friendship with Senator Robert F. Kennedy. When Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, Rafer helped apprehend the assassin. In 1984, Rafer was the torchbearer at the Los Angeles Olympics, climbing the stadium stairs and lighting the flame to open the Games. Few people achieve Rafer’s level of success in one profession, but he excelled in every way—athletics, politics, and cinema.

Rafer credits his success to his college basketball coach, the legendary John Wooden. When he transitioned to UCLA from a small community near Fresno, California, Rafer said he felt intimidated long before he walked into the gym. He didn’t think he could possibly compete with all the great players in a big city school. That changed on the first day of practice when Wooden said, “Don’t worry about whether you’re doing better than the next guy. Just give me your best.”

Rafer later wrote:

My subsequent performance in the 1960 Olympics, held in Rome, had a lot to do with Coach’s philosophy of concentrating just on being the best I could be. Don’t worry about the score, the medal, the prize; don’t worry about the other guy; just concentrate on doing your best. It’s that simple…. Don’t worry about the competition; don’t worry about the gold medal or winning the race. Just focus on running the race that’s right in front of you.1

Wooden’s simple, homespun philosophy shaped Rafer’s life by helping him to believe he could succeed.

Three Reasons to Trust God With Your Tomorrow

It’s no secret that a good coach often becomes the greatest influence in a young person’s life. High quality coaches are more concerned about mentoring athletes than winning games. Former Canadian Olympian Dr. Penny Werthner has devoted her life to sports psychology. As I write, she’s serving as the Dean of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, and her husband is the President of the Coaching Association of Canada. After the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Dr. Werthner conducted a study to identify why some athletes did so well.

She found the most important factor was the relationship between the coach and the athlete. For example, Coach Xiuli Wang, a former Olympic speed skater for China who has since coached Canadian athletes, described how she guided Clara Hughes to a gold medal:

At the time of meeting Clara … She was very fit and she had lots of sport experience… but now she was changing sports. She needed help with skating technically well. She was asking lots of technical questions, but they were the right questions…. I was straight with her. I told her the truth, and I got on the ice with her to show her how to skate well.”2

Notice those three phrases: “I was straight with her. I told her the truth… I got on the ice with her to show her how to skate well.”

That’s the secret to excellent coaching, and that’s exactly what the Lord does with us. God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—plays many different roles in the life of a Christian. But have you ever thought of Him as your Coach, the One who will help you navigate through the ups and downs of life? He knows the scope of your ability reaches far beyond what you believe of yourself because He is your all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-faithful Coach. 

He knows the scope of your ability reaches far beyond what you believe of yourself because He is your all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-faithful Coach.

First, He’s straight with us. He watches how we run the race of life, how we wrestle with conflict, how we swing and miss, how we stumble out of the blocks or give up before the race is over. He knows when we’re spiritually dehydrated, lax on our disciplines, or off our game. Sometimes we don’t know what’s wrong, but the Coach always identifies the problem.

Take Jonah for example. At the end of his book, Jonah is sulking, angry, and depressed, though he didn’t really know the root of his problem. The Lord was straight with him, saying, in effect, “Your problem is you don’t really care about the people of Nineveh, its children, or its livestock. You care more about the vine over your head than about the eternal destinies of the multitudes in this city” (Jonah 4:7-11, paraphrased). Jonah evidently got the point, because his autobiographical book is the testimony of how God coached him throughout this phase of his ministry.

Think of how Jesus coached His disciples. When Peter fumbled at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus rebuked him before the whole team: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).

We must listen carefully to the Coach when He shoots straight with us. While reading our Bibles, we need to apply the truths to ourselves. While meditating on the Word, we need to ask God to search and try us. When reeling from a failure, we need to listen to God’s voice of rebuke and correction. The Bible describes our Christian experience as a “work out” (Philippians 2:12), and we have a Coach who helps us by being straight with us.

Second, He tells us the truth. His Word is truth. He’s the only infallible Coach in history, and we can depend on every word of advice, every syllable of encouragement, and every command and promise. Remember when Paul was aboard a sinking ship in a prolonged typhoon on the Mediterranean? Everyone had given up hope of being saved. All expected to drown. But the Coach stepped onto the deck and gave Paul a word of truth: “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar; and indeed God has granted you all those who sail with you.” Those words so encouraged the apostle he was able to lead his team to victory, telling his fellow sailors and passengers, “Take heart, men, for I believe God that it will be just as it was told me” (Acts 27:24-25).

He’s the only infallible Coach in history, and we can depend on every word of advice, every syllable of encouragement, and every command and promise.

The Holy Spirit takes His Word and gets inside us with the truth. That’s where we get the strong direction we need and the faith to move forward.

Third, He shows us how to live. Good coaches don’t just stay on the sidelines. They get on the field, on the ice, on the mat, on the hardwood. That’s exactly what our Coach did. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory” (John 1:14). Wanting to demonstrate a winning life, God entered humanity through a virgin’s womb, grew up like an ordinary child, and exhibited a wholly righteous life. He showed us how to play the game, how to consistently win over the world, the flesh, and the devil.

He sent His Spirit to live within us, and the secret to victory is allowing Him to work in and through us with all His strength.

Though Jesus returned to heaven, He sent His Spirit to live within us, and the secret to victory is allowing Him to work in and through us with all His strength. Paul said, “To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29, NIV). Vince Lombardi once said: “Coaches who can outline plays on a blackboard are a dime a dozen. The ones who win get inside their players and motivate.” That’s what our Coach does. He positions us to be the most forward-thinking, the most innovative, the most joyful people on the planet by giving us strong direction, fresh empowerment, renewed energy, and the strength to thrive in life.

1 John Wooden and Steve Jamison, The Essential Wooden (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007), 50-51.

2 Bo Hanson, “Coach-Athlete Relationships Matter (Canadian Olympic Study),” athleteassessment.com, https://www.athleteassessments.com/coach-athlete-relationships-olympic-study/, accessed on July 30, 2020. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Turning Points devotional magazine. Request your complimentary subscription today!

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