In 1973, Secretariat won horse racing’s Triple Crown by taking the Belmont Stakes in New York by a preposterous 31 lengths. How could a single beast gallop that much faster than all the other beasts? He was called “a tremendous machine” by CBS announcer Chic Anderson on the broadcast.
In an ESPN SportsCentury episode produced 25 years later, it was revealed that Jack Nicklaus, widely regarded as the greatest golfer of all time, was unnerved by Secretariat, the greatest horse of all time, running the Belmont. A horse racing commentator named Heywood Hale Brown told the tale of what Nicklaus later relayed to him: that Nicklaus stood alone in his living room, watching the race, and cried.
Heywood said to Nicklaus, “Jack, don’t you understand? All your life in your game you’ve been striving for perfection. At the end of the Belmont, you saw it.”
This exchange has never left me. I’ve seen it and listened to it maybe two dozen times over the last 15 years, and every time it reminds me of our future as Christians. As Genesis 1:27 reminds us, we were created for future perfection in the shadow of the only perfect creature in history—Jesus Christ—as humans made in the image of God.
What our world often confuses is the timing of this perfection. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of perfection on earth as long as we know we will never achieve it. But so many athletes and performers make this pursuit their entire lives. Even their gods. This is what the economics of our entire entertainment culture is built on.
Nowhere will this be more evident than in Rio this month with the 31st Olympic Games. Many of us will tune into our TVs August 5 – 21, as thousands of athletes vie for picture-perfect performances on balance beams, in pools and over hurdles. It will be, as it always is, an epic two weeks of athletic competition.
We will watch Michael Phelps’ last stand, Usain Bolt’s sprint for his own world record and the transformation of gymnast Simone Biles from unknown wunderkind to international superstar. We will get sucked in by these stories, and the reason we will get sucked in is because, as human beings, we are transfixed on the pursuit of perfection. It is who we are.
What is more enthralling for sports fans than a golfer trying to shoot 59 in a pro event or a quarterback completing his first 20 passes in an NFL game or an NBA superstar scoring 35 points in the first quarter of a huge contest? Not a lot, and you should not question why you are captivated by these performances when you watch. As a Christian, you are catching glimpses of an overwhelming future reality.
As image bearers of God, we innately seek out perfection. It is part of our DNA. We sweat for it in our own lives and are brought to tears as Nicklaus was when we witness even a fleeting glimpse of it, even in the lives of animals. Whether it’s a perfect note hit by our favorite musician or the greatest meal we have ever eaten, these events have the ability to bring us to our knees.
But why? In Philippians 3:12, Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
See what he says there? “Not that I … am already perfect.” The implication here is that there is a future perfection coming for us for which we were made. This is again referenced in Revelation 21:4 in regard to the beauty of heaven:
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
This is the essence of our spotless future, where sin no longer reigns and death will be no more. We will be made perfect by our heavenly Father who is perfect (Matt. 5:48). C.S. Lewis wrote about this in Mere Christianity:
He knows perfectly well that your own efforts are never going to bring you anywhere near perfection. On the other hand, you must realize from the outset that the goal towards which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal. That is what you are in for.
Hebrews is full of direct references to our future perfection. The famous chapter 11 about the heroes of our faith concludes, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
Apart from us they should not be made perfect. We will join Moses and Paul and Elijah for untold millennia, with perfect souls and bodies worshiping a perfect Savior in perfect unity with all the saints throughout history. Every second of it will be better than every Olympics ever.
I hope you enjoy watching these Olympics. They will be dramatic, and they will be a terrific time to come together with friends and celebrate humanity’s collective ambition. Don’t feel bad if you’re brought to tears by a mistake-free performance in rhythmic gymnastics. This is not absurd.
But remember that no matter what you see and no matter what world records are broken or new marks are set, all of it is a puny shadow of our future glory. No matter how perfect any human feat is for 10 seconds or 20 seconds or even 3 minutes, it pales in comparison to the radiant beauty of Jesus Christ, who will shine for all eternity in a blazing perfect glory that will make that torch in Rio seem like a dull candle. Thus it will be for those who believe in Christ Jesus. Perfection is imminent, but it will not be attained in a stadium, on a stage or, indeed, here on earth at all.