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The Excitement of Hope

Olympians have something to teach us about this cardinal virtue.

Athletes in the Olympic Games have invested considerable time not just in physical but also in mental training. We'll see them listening to their iPods, huffing, glowering, and meditating before their events. Mentally overriding physical distress and refusing to entertain the possibility of failure is called "championship thinking," and it has paid off for countless athletes. Studies and everyday experience suggest that athletes who convince themselves that they have the potential to reach their goals are much more likely to.

"We believe we are invincible," remarks an unnamed track Olympian in a recording at New York's National Track and Field Hall of Fame. "Because if we go in there with any other thought, there's no chance of us accomplishing our goal."

Such optimism is an amalgam of selective awareness and hope. Psychologists Joanna Starek and Caroline Keating studied how competitive swimmers filter out unpleasant truths—such as the first signs of an injury or the possibility of failure—before they're aware of them. Their conscious minds never come into contact with certain discouraging facts, or if they do, they are able to dismiss those facts quickly.

Those who are better at that kind of filtering tend to be more successful in life—and happier, according to Columbia psychology professor Harold Sackeim. Without a healthy sense of optimism—which seems to depend on passing reality through a sieve—we perish.

The apostle Paul was apparently as fond of athletic competition as we are, and he often used it to impart spiritual lessons: "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training" (1 Cor. 9:25-27). "If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor's crown unless he competes according to the rules" (2 Tim. 2:5). Similarly, Olympians are examples of Christian hope—with some important differences.

Christian hope, for example, does not have to filter out all that negativity, but in fact absorbs it and redeems it, through Christ's death and resurrection. Our hope—for salvation and redemption and the kingdom fully realized—is not grounded in thoughts of our invincibility but of our vulnerability, not on the strength of our will to accomplish our goals, but on the strength and finished work of Christ.

World-class athletes, though, are filled with an abiding confidence and expectation that is very much like Christian hope. Paul tells us that if we hope, we wait patiently for something currently out of our reach (Rom. 8: 25), but hope is more than just waiting. In 1 Peter 1, the apostle talks about the confidence we have in hoping, but hope is more than faith. Hope includes faith and patience, but it also consists of desire for that which we await. Our experience of hope, then, is not that different from what we see on the faces of athletes. Nor, says Matthew Elliott, the author of Feel, should it be any less intense. "There should be the excitement that you experience when you hope for non-spiritual things. If we hope less, it's because our concept of God is too small."

We who hope in Christ, then, are both realists and optimists, refusing the temptation of both the pessimist and of Pollyanna. Neither are we merely confident rationalists, who give intellectual assent to the future that awaits us. We are like the athletes who have that deep and abiding confidence, but in ultimate things, because we know intimately the author and perfecter of our hope: "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27), who enables us, like the ideal athlete, to run the race and not grow weary (Isa. 40:31).

This essay was originally published as a Christianity Today editorial and can be found online.

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