Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
In Australia, we have a love for fine sportspeople. We always have. We love sporting heroes, like American swimmer Michael Phelps. He is best remembered for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, when he won five gold medals and one silver. It was quite an achievement, and was honoured for his swimming abilities.
But 2016 was not the only win in the Olympic Games—he won a number of gold medals in previous world games. When he was 11, swimming experts predicted that Michael Phelps would one day rule the world of swimming. He’s been patiently training and growing and learning under his mentor, coach Bowman. He practically grew up in a pool and now we, the world, are seeing dividends of that willingness to work hard all those years.
We seem to build up an image of elite sportsmen like Michael Phelps—that he is extraordinary, probably having lived a charmed life. But this super-athlete has some dramatic ups and downs in his life. After winning eight gold medals in Beijing, Phelps says he “…despised the image of perfection his success had created.”
From the Olympic Podium Down to Rehab
In 2014, he was arrested on drugs charges. It was an extremely difficult time, when he seriously contemplated suicide. He felt his career and life was over. He did face dark days, according to some sources. Thankfully, someone reached out to Michael Phelps before he acted on those devastating thoughts. And what happened was quite remarkable. A fellow athlete named Ray Lewis gave him a book. It was the million-plus seller The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. You may have heard of this book—published by Zondervan in 2002, and by 2007 over 30 million copies sold. Evangelist Billy Graham warmly recommended the book, saying it would guide you to greatness through living the great commandment and commission of Jesus.
Here was super-swimmer Michael Phelps, in rehabilitation reading this powerful Christian book. It addresses one of life’s most basic questions: Why am I here? If you’ve read the book, you’ll know it’s about finding God and your purpose in life by giving your life to Jesus Christ. Rick Warren’s opening comments are that life is not about you—but about finding God for yourself. This thought grabbed Michael Phelps’ attention. He was at rock-bottom. In a TV interview on the US Channel ESPN he said, “It turned me into believing there is a power greater than myself, and there is a purpose for me on this planet.”
His friend Ray Lewis offered friendship and support while he was in rehab, telling him he needed to fight and not shut down. And Michael followed his friend’s advice. He made contact again with his estranged father, Fred, who had divorced his mother when he was 9-years-old. A lot of bitterness was dissolved. He said, “I didn’t want to go through life without sharing emotions with him. I missed that as a kid.”
He came out of rehab in November 2014, and resumed training for the Rio Olympics. He also was engaged to long-time girlfriend Nicole Johnson. Things certainly improved—and one of America’s greatest sporting heroes was deeply moved and challenged by a book that can, and does, change lives. If there’s one thing the Olympics can teach us, it’s that hard work and perseverance can pay off. If there’s one thing it can’t teach us though, it’s how to measure your life. Surely if you’ve won an Olympic medal, you would feel accomplished, right? Surely if you’ve won as many as Michael Phelps, you could feasibly ride that feeling of accomplishment the rest of your life.
The Best Award You Can Have
But it proves, once again, that a relationship with Jesus Christ is the best award anyone can have. Michael Phelps had stumbled onto a truth that many Christians know: Our sense of worth and purpose was never meant to lie in our own accomplishments or the praises of other people. Lewis had given Phelps a copy of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, and Phelps explained the book helped by turning him into “believing there is a power greater than myself and a purpose for me on this planet.” The book contained the message Phelps needed to hear: it’s not about accomplishments; it’s not about praise; life is about God and our need for him. Not even an Olympic medal can mask the feeling of personal emptiness that comes from not knowing God.
The Bible promises in Proverbs 3:6 – TLB, “In everything you do, put God first, and he will direct you and crown your efforts with success.” What type of success? Winning a gold medal? Probably not, but you will have a sense of God’s divine peace deep down in your heart, and the sense that ‘my life is complete—I have made my peace with God’. And nothing else can compare with that feeling.
Want to make your life better? It may seem that you can do so by simply getting more of what you want—such as an exciting job, a loving spouse and children, strong health, or the money to buy a bigger home or newer car. Enjoying the best life possible isn’t about what you can get, however—it’s about what directs your life. That’s because whatever force has first place in your life will drive your decisions and shape your future.
If you decide to make your relationship with God first in your life, everything else will naturally fall into place in the right order, creating the fulfilling life you hope to enjoy. And I would suggest you adopt this attitude: Maybe this job that I’m in right now is a phase of my life and I’m not going to be here the rest of my life. But this is where I am for now; therefore I will worship God right now. The Apostle Paul says, “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going to work, and walking around life—and place it before God as an offering.” (Romans 12:1 – The Message)