The Apostle Paul as Coach

For the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul I wanted to write about a man who puts the fear of God in you while he encourages you. I have always loved the Apostle Paul, even though he scares me a little when I read his letters, since I fear he might step off of the page, sit me down on the bench and read me the riot act about my play and my need to get it in order, to suck it up and to get into shape.  I do not have the sense that my life is particularly out of order, that I am completely out of shape, just that in comparison with Paul, you feel that there is always more you could (and should) be doing. Amongst these things I could be doing is working out harder, definitely working out harder and longer.  Paul is someone who saw his vocation, his mission, his call – received in an apokalypsis (“revelation”) (Gal. 1:12) from Jesus Christ – as one that was never ending, at least until his race here on earth was run,  and he uses a lot of athletic imagery to make his point:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)


I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:23-27)

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

Note, too, that the athletic imagery of “pressing on,” “straining forward,””competing,” “exercising self-control, and “ fighting the good fight,” extends to Paul’s willingness to bring his "teams," or churches, into line. He asks the Corinthians, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21). The Greek word rhabdos, translated as “stick,” was used by ancient Greek athletic trainers and referees to maintain order. Indeed, the more I think about Paul and this athletic imagery, the more echoes I hear of coaches I have known or seen. The best of them are demanding, cajoling, challenging and, yet, caring in their own harsh and demanding way.

In fact, the reality and truth of their caring is seen in the fact that what they demand, they also offer. Paul is not a coach who fans himself in the shade while he demands that his players work out in the sun. Paul is engaged in challenging his churches to work out their spiritual lives as he too is working out his spiritual life, indeed his challenges to us all come in the context of his own athletic training.

Now, this might not be the imagery for all people, not everyone is attracted to the notion of the spiritual life as battle, race or competition. Jesus, for instance, uses agricultural and pastoral imagery far more often than Paul. Jesus’ parables are chock full of seeds, planting, harvesting, birds nesting and lost sheep. Jesus’ imagery speaks of growth, development and watchfulness, signs of pastoral gentleness at the heart of the Good Shepherd.

Yet, most of us need a coach at various times, to push us on, to help us up, dust us off, to correct our shooting stance, to teach us new drills and techniques, and tell us to keep on running, not to give up, that we can do it. Sometimes these coaches drive you crazy with their demands, after all, how long can you push?  But the reality is that most of us are capable of far more than we think and if we are properly trained, we are prepared for the battle that the spiritual life often is, when loss, pain, depression, death, addictions and crisis overwhelm us. Paul might remain the coach from whom you sometimes cower, from whose stern gaze you want to hide, but when the game is on the line and and you see him standing nearby, what a great relief. Paul is the coach who pulls you back to your feet and runs alongside you "urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:12) and letting you know that you can do it, you are worthy to finish the race. 

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


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7 years 6 months ago
Thank you for being inclusive!  There was a time when I didn't quite like Paul.  I thought he was a chauvinist, a female hater, until I read someplace that on the contrary, he was protective of women, especially of the newly converted female gentiles. ( I think the book is "Paul Among the People", by Sarah Ruden, or maybe I read it from one of your pieces.  Anyway, thank you for educating me about St. Paul.)
7 years 6 months ago
Hmmmm I'd say Paul would be great for teen-agers and young adult males!
Michelle Russell
7 years 6 months ago
I had never REALLY read Paul's writings until I became a lector last year, and was challenged to not only understand the text myself, but to become so familiar with it that I could proclaim it in a way that those listening would understand it as well.  Much study, much time with the text, and much prayer have endeared me to his letters and I now look forward to being assigned those really challenging readings! 

And, yes, I would agree with you most heartily that his imagery and style is right up there with the best of coaches.  The best coaches tend to be a bit scary, demanding, inspiring, etc... They train you to your highest potential, while knowing and accepting that reality is not perfection - but our reaching for perfection, our journey toward that goal, is what strengthens us and teaches us much about ourselves.  As a coach myself (and as a former athlete), I can really relate to the manner in which Paul instructs.  You can always do more, and as you said, often much more than you ever realized. The best coaches know their athletes:  they know when to push, when to encourage and when to praise.  I am probably going to get myself in trouble here, but, depending upon an athlete's level and development/age, there are different ways to coach:  beginners, young athletes, need a coach who is more of a benevolent dictator and who is "in charge", with the athlete having little or no say in their training .... on up to the older, more mature, elite athletes who do best with a coach who is more of a partner -there when they are needed, to encourage, point out errors in technique, go to bat for them when something "unfair" happens, support them in what is often a difficult choice to maintain their training and continue to reach for their goals.  The majority of coaches (and athletes) fall somewhere in between these two extremes, and it is unusual to find one coach who can effectively train a beginning athlete AND an elite athlete.  

The good coach, whether training our bodies or our souls, exhorts us to keep focused on what is most imortant, to continually train so as to be prepared for whatever situations may come up, to know that we can almost always do more and do better, and to continue to reach - even when we fall, or fail, we should get back up and keep reaching, keep sacrificing, giving all we've got and learning from our mistakes and failures.  Teaching us that "failure" is not the end, but more often a new beginning from which we can strive with even more attuned focus and effort - each stumbling block an opportunity to reach even deeper and eventually discover who we truly are and the oft surprising path that takes us to our "goal".

7 years 6 months ago
Thank you John, Michelle and Norma for your inspiring thoughts.  St. Paul's athletic metaphors can be applied to all ages and stages.  I'm more knowledgeable about the athletes and coaches in Special Olympics and have witnessed the different approaches the coaches have to the varying levels of athletic ability.  There is such great spirit in the athletes:  they love to compete and to win, just like all athletes.  My children gained so much in self-esteem and confidence through their participation.  I think that as we become healthier physically and psychologically we may be more open to spiritual growth.  What do you think?

When I was younger I hoped that my later years would spiritually be a comfortable  plateau and I would slide easily into home plate.  That hasn't happened  to me and I'm sure most older adults!  Michelle's description of the spiritual coach for the older, mature "athlete"  is so apt.  I find these "coaches" in my sister and my friends and through readings such as this blog.  As a Eucharistic Minister to the homebound, I've become more aware of the spiritual needs of the elderly (those older than me!).  The need to be forgiven and to forgive is paramount in their (our) spiritual lives.  Living long lives there are so many opportunities for personal conflicts, too often unresolved and needing resolution for the older person to die in peace.  Our parish has begun a healing prayer ministry (following the Order of St. Luke) .  We are now in a 12 session course to be prepared for this ministry.  Hopefully we will be spiritual "coaches"  to our parish brothers and sisters.


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