by Pastor Doug Pratt

…Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

– 1 Timothy 4:7-8 (NIV)

One of the greatest legendary players in college and pro basketball was a coach’s son by the name of Pete Maravich. Pete holds all-time records in college and the pros for scoring and was so proficient at long range shooting that he earned the nickname “Pistol Pete.” He could not only shoot, he could dribble, pass, rebound, and set up plays for his teammates with such dazzling skill that left his opponents speechless and the crowd roaring. When I was growing up, my high school friends and I passed countless hours playing pickup basketball. We revered “The Pistol.” He was born in a town near ours in western Pennsylvania, so we felt a special affinity for him as one of our own.

After his successful pro career was cut short by nagging injuries, Pistol Pete went through a time of trying to find himself and figure out who he was outside of basketball. Then, in his late 30s, he found the Lord (or rather, the Lord found him!). Making a full and enthusiastic commitment to Jesus, Pete grew dramatically in his faith and shared it with all who wanted to hear. And then, at the tender age of 40, he suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack. He was actually in southern California, where he had traveled to record interviews with Dr. James Dobson for the Focus on the Family radio program. Dobson, who played in a pickup league at his local Nazarene church gym, invited The Pistol to come meet his friends and play with them. In the middle of their shoot-around, his heart stopped. An autopsy revealed that he had been born without one of his coronary arteries, and his other arteries were greatly enlarged trying to compensate. Finally, his flawed heart gave out.

But the legend and the legacy of Pistol Pete live on, along with his vibrant testimony in his final years. The secrets of his basketball success were divulged in his biography. From the time he could bounce a ball, Pete practiced incessantly. Hours of shooting jump shots and free throws, dribbling, passing, and spinning the ball on his finger made him remarkably proficient. That same single-minded commitment to achieving excellence carried over into his new spiritual life. Pete threw himself into reading the New Testament and Christian books, and he talked with everyone he could find about how to grow as a follower of Christ.

I believe there are two principles that we can learn from Pistol Pete and apply to our own growth as Christians. First, Pete discovered as a boy that his hours of practice would be more enjoyable if he thought of them not as a drudgery or discipline but as a challenge and enjoyment. He would make up games to play. How many shots could he make in a row? How many times could he dribble between his legs without dropping the ball? Pete would keep a notebook of his goals and when he had accomplished them. He tried to take pleasure in the sheer fun of playing the game with his friends. As I think about the task of developing our spiritual “muscles” and, in Paul’s words, training ourselves “to be godly,” Pete’s first principle applies. Rather than seeing the discipline of reading the Bible and praying as a burdensome obligation or a task to check off our to do lists, we can focus on enjoying the time we spend with God and the insights, comfort, encouragement, and gratitude that those times bring to us.

The second Pistol’s Principle is to keep our ultimate goal before us. Even as he played his self-made games in an empty gym, young Pete’s mind was on his future destination. He knew that he wanted to play college and pro basketball. Practicing each individual skill of the game had a purpose: to prepare himself for when it would really count—when that shot or pass he had worked on for hours would make a difference in his team winning.

In the same way, Christians who are “training [ourselves] to be godly” are preparing for the big challenges that lie ahead of us in life. In the future, we will all need to draw on our faith, whenever we face health or family issues, temptations, or trials. The skills we develop in the quiet moments—when we read and reflect on Scripture and when we talk honestly with our Heavenly Father—will be there for us when we most need them.