It is a one-mile race. I’m 12 years old, and I am racing my cousins. It’s a warm, sunny summer day on the island where my grandparents live by the otherwise windy and rainy Norwegian Atlantic coast. We are running down the narrow, quiet, one-lane country road where only a few neighbors will drive to their small farms, and occasionally some tourists to watch the ocean. When we reach the main road across the island, we turn around and race back. The finish line we’ve agreed upon is where the paved road ends and the gravel road begins. We give everything our young legs have got. We have no breath left. Our legs and even our lungs hurt. But only for a brief moment. The next day we go out and do it again.
I can’t remember who won. Maybe it mattered a little bit then, but it doesn’t matter now. What matters now is that it is a nice childhood memory. And that it was the beginning of my life in sports. From running to skiing, cycling to mountaineering, it’s been a journey of pain and pleasure. Has it been worth it? What has it added to my life? Have others benefited from it?
On May 22, 2022, seven other cyclists and I will embark on our most challenging sports adventure ever. The “I Will Go” ride1 will start at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Two weeks and 1,000 miles later it will end in St. Louis, Missouri, the day before the General Conference Session starts.
We have been inspired by Phillip Reekie, a literature evangelist who on his bicycle rode to remote parts of Australia selling Christian literature. In the town of Eugowra, Phillip met Tom Kent, who had just lost his wife and was left with the care of their 11 children. Just prior to her death, she had called her husband to her side and said, “Tom, I am going to leave you. Bring the children with you.” But how could he bring the children to heaven to be reunited with their mother when he did not know the way himself? As Tom searched for the way, Phillip found him and sold him the book The Great Controversy. As Tom read the book, his life was transformed. But not only his life. Tom lent that book to his neighbors and five other families. They and their families were moved by the book, received Christ, and went on to contribute significantly to the development of the Adventist Church in Australia and beyond.
On our ride we will likewise share The Great Controversy and other books with people we meet; we’ll pray with them and share Christ. We do not know what the fruits of this sports and mission adventure will be, but we hope and pray that lives will be touched and blessed.
Whether by sharing Christ through a mission project like the “I Will Go” ride, or by interacting with people through everyday sports activities and events, sports represent a wonderful opportunity to connect and make new friends. In the mutual interest and time spent together, we may share Christ and our faith. If we do not go to those who are engaged in sports, meet them where they are, join them in what they are doing, will they come to us? Who will reach them if we do not go to them? As Jesus went everywhere to seek and save (Luke 19:10), so should we, including those who are into sports. If you are into sports, you’re in a position to use that talent you’ve been given as a witness in that space. Why not pray for and seek opportunities to be Christ’s ambassador in the world of sports?
Almost every time I climbed mountains in the Alps, I promised myself that I’d never do it again. There wasn’t pleasure in the altitude symptoms, carrying a heavy backpack, sleeping poorly in a tent, eating simple food, or being in the cold snow. On the contrary, it was truly unpleasant. Of course, there were spectacular views, satisfaction in making it to the top, the joy and blessing of being in nature. Still, on those long days of walking and climbing, I sometimes questioned, Why am I doing this?
The answer was quite simple. I did it with friends. And I made new friends by doing it. Even though I had mixed feelings about the climbing itself, the reward of community made it worth it. Strong bonds were created when suffering together, seeing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, fears and triumphs. The joys of succeeding together were pure. The evening conversations we had in the camp about life and faith were open and honest.
Shared interests and passions are excellent gateways to meaningful and rewarding connections. Some of my best and closest relationships have developed in the context of doing sports with others. Relationships emerged that might not otherwise have grown deep and strong. We all need connection. We all need to spend time with others. By doing sports together, you may not only satisfy your own needs for connectedness, but also meet the needs of someone else who desires exactly that.
When I was in medical school, I was usually most regular in exercising when I was having exams. I chose that in order to function optimally physically and mentally, I needed the boost that exercise gave me. Maybe there also was an element of procrastination in it, a good excuse for taking a break from studying. Anyway, I believe it was an excellent investment of time.
The benefits of exercise to our physical health are well known, proven, and undisputed. Equally, the benefits to our mental health are just as important and often even more immediate. Few things boost our mood and provide a sense of calm as fast as vigorous exercise. My motivation for exercising is just as much what it does for my mind as what it does for my body.
Our bodies, minds, and souls were not made for the motionless life many of us would live if we didn’t exercise. In the Creation story we are told that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15, ESV).2 In the original and natural world, as God created it, physical activity was a natural, God-ordained part of everyday life. Today most of us live far removed from that world. Most of us are sedentary throughout most of the day. We were given muscles and bones so we would be able to move: 30 minutes a day or more is what we need. And if you struggle to make it happen, make appointments to exercise together with someone. It is easier to do the right thing when you are accountable to someone. You may be helping someone else as much as you are helping yourself.
A mountaineering friend of mine who was single at the time said he would never marry someone with whom he hadn’t climbed a 13,000-plus-foot (4,000-plus-meter) mountain. Why? Isn’t a dinner date just as good for getting to know someone? No, it’s not. Climbing a mountain requires perseverance, the ability to endure suffering, soundness, self-control, calmness, and courage in the face of risks. What is the other person like when they are tired, cold, hungry, in pain? Do they become grumpy, miserable, uncooperative, self-centered, aggressive, passive? Or do they keep going; do they see and care about others and help them; do they work together in a constructive, pleasant, and supportive way?
Who people are when they engage in sports says something about who they are in general. Sometimes engaging in sports is criticized for bringing out the worst in people. And yes, some people behave and relate in deplorable ways in the context of sports. But sports really can’t bring out something that isn’t already there. Sports may bring things to the surface, but sports do not create appalling traits in people.
Therefore, sports can reveal to us who we are and who others are. Through sports we may learn about ourselves and others, and we can help each other grow and develop through practicing self-discipline and other-centeredness. This way, sports can help us develop and cultivate desirable character traits and weed out undesirable ones.
The apostle Paul in his writings used metaphors from the world of sports. In writing to the Corinthians, he said:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, 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” (1 Cor. 9:24-27, ESV).
Participating in sports, particularly solo or small group sports, is a good metaphor for life in general, even for the spiritual life. If one is to grow, discipline, patience, perseverance, and even tolerance for pain will all be needed at some time. But the rewards are plentiful. With that understanding I’ll continue to enjoy the pain and pleasure, the challenge and growth, the fellowship and witness of sports, for as long as I can.
1 https://www.iwillgoride.org and https://www.instagram.com/ iwillgoride/
2 Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Psychiatrist Torben Bergland is associate director of Adventist Health Ministries for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.