Foreman was stronger than Ali. But Ali was savvier than Foreman.
In their 1974 boxing match, called the “Rumble in the Jungle,” reigning champion George Foreman rained blows on Muhammad Ali. Still, Foreman lost. Ali had a secret tactic. He had trained his body to not flinch. Jesus did the same over the course of three years. The payoff came during Passion Week, which is commemorated this week.
On October 30, 1974, World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman fought former champ Muhammad Ali, who was past his prime. The Rumble in the Jungle took place in Kinshara, Zaire on a hot, humid night. Ali was older than Foreman but told his trainer Angelo Dundee he was unconcerned. He had a secret plan – “rope-a-dope.”
Human beings have a bodily instinct to flinch in the face of impending pain. For boxers to become champions, they have to learn to not flinch and take a body blow. Ali took it to another level. He had developed a secret tactic. Ali would lean against the ropes when Foreman unleashed his sledgehammer blows. Resilient, the ropes would absorb much of the force of Foreman’s punches so that Ali’s body wouldn’t flinch and fold. In the early rounds of the Zaire fight, Foreman expended critical energy throwing punches that did little damage. Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round, the rope-a-dope strategy having sapped Foreman’s superior strength.
In the liturgical calendar this is Passion Week, when Christians commemorate Christ’s suffering. This pairing – passion and suffering – sounds odd to some folks. Passion is a positive thing today. The word however comes from paseo, “to suffer.” This is why the week of Christ’s most intense suffering is called Passion Week. It’s the culmination of Christ’s three-year strategy, summarized in Hebrews 5:8: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” Jesus learned obedience? Why?
In taking on a human body, Christ was subjected to the natural impulses of the human body, including the bodily instinct to flinch and pull away at the threat of impending pain or suffering. Jesus trained his body to cooperate with his spirit, to not flinch. Christ learned obedience because he had acquired a body, not because he was bad. Training camp ran three years for Jesus, as the writer of Hebrews notes that obedience was learned from “what he suffered.” The Son’s sufferings began with the temptations in the wilderness and closed with his pleadings in Gethsemane during Passion Week.
In the wilderness, Jesus practiced many of the disciplines of abstinence over the course of 40 days. They included silence, solitude, secrecy, prayer, and fasting. When Satan appeared, appealing to the lusts of the flesh, Jesus’ body served as an ally in warding off temptation. For the next three years, Christ further trained his body. Practice, practice, practice. By the last week of his life, Christ’s body was well trained. The final temptation occurred in Gethsemane, when his body made one final plea to flee. Christ subordinated his body to his spirit and stepped into the ring. He was beaten, spat upon, mocked, kicked, and cursed. Jesus had roughhewn, jagged nails driven through his hands and feet. There were no pain medications. He had the most severe societal shame inflicted on him – death on a cross. Yet Christ’s body didn’t flinch.
Since an untrained human body involuntarily recoils at the threat of pain, shame, or suffering, Paul urged Christians to “present your bodies as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). The flesh is weak. Serving others is strenuous. Laying down your life for others will routinely go unrecognized, unreciprocated, and unrewarded. That’s painful. You will suffer if you serve. An untrained body recoils at this prospect. It flinches. It fails.
The solution is “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Fixing your eyes means giving uninterrupted attention to how Christ lived. He practiced the spiritual disciplines to whip his body into shape. A healthy discipline for fixing our eyes might be diverting some attention from social media. It “is in essence an interruption machine,” writes Maggie Jackson in Distracted.1 For instance, when the TV is on, children ages one to three exhibit the characteristics of attention-deficit syndrome. When adults twitter, text, and update their Facebook page throughout the day, studies show they exhibit less ability to pay attention to important truths, most of which are invariably complex. Their bodies become fidgety. They literally cannot linger long enough to learn. As Nicholas Carr points out in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, the ubiquity of the Internet and social media is making it harder for people to stop and dig into difficult literature.2 Christians who joke that they are ADHD are unwittingly admitting they cannot fix their eyes on Jesus. Their bodies are most likely to flinch in the face of impending pain or suffering. They are poor candidates for following the Lord.
Muhammad Ali’s secret tactic paid off in crunch time. It’s no secret how Christians can do well in crunch time. To habitually serve others, practice serving others. Train. Secretly. Selflessly. Daily. Quit posting your good works on Facebook. Take U2’s admonition seriously – Get On Your Boots. An untrained body instinctively flinches in the face of suffering. That’s sobering, since only those who endure suffering for Christ will reign with him (I Tim. 2:12). That’s why Passion Week is a sober but healthy commemoration. It explains how Jesus won the Rumble at the Cross. With a body trained to absorb brutal blows, he didn’t flinch. Neither should we.
1 Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (New York: Prometheus, 2008), p. 72.
2 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010)