When we moved to Central Asia six years ago, I never imagined that God would use physical combat with other men to share the gospel and transform lives for the kingdom.
Involved with some form of physical activity since I was a teenager, and growing up with five brothers, we spent a lot of time wrestling each other – sometimes playfully, sometimes less so!
After we had been living here for six months, I opened a gym with a local partner and was soon training athletes from a variety of sports. I discovered that wrestling was the national sport and most, if not all, young men competed in some form of grappling at some point in their lives. In the summer of 2019, when we were home visiting family, I began training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. As a strength and conditioning coach for grapplers here, I wanted to better understand the physical demands of grappling sports. I soon fell in love with the sport and have been training ever since.
Talking about faith
On returning to Central Asia, I found one school that taught Jiu Jitsu and began taking private lessons from a young man named Mehrab*. He and his brother had lived in Dubai for eight years where they had learned this sport and were now teaching it in Central Asia. As I trained one on one with Mehrab three days a week, we began to develop the friendship that I had been praying for. In the culture here, men are proud and macho, so opening up with personal feelings is not something they typically do, especially with foreigners.
However, as we spent more time together, we began to talk about our families and our spiritual background. He assumed, as most people do here, that I was a Christian simply because I was an American. We talked about his faith and he had many questions about my own. He had made friends in Dubai with westerners, but saw something different in my life and the way I spoke about my relationship with God.
“Lying on the mats catching our breath after a particularly hard wrestling workout, he initiated a conversation about sin.”
Mehrab had been raised as a devout Muslim, but his father had taught him to be open and accepting of people of other faiths, not only because God requires it but so that he could learn from them.
Lying on the mats catching our breath after a particularly hard wrestling workout, he initiated a conversation about sin. He told me that he believed everyone has their own personal weakness and that Satan knows how to tempt each one of us with that knowledge. He confessed to me what we would describe as his own besetting sin, and we agreed that without God’s help it is impossible to avoid falling into temptation.
I was encouraged by this interaction – it was a turning point in our relationship. He has been more open to the gospel and learning about Jesus since that day.
Breaking down emotional barriers
While I’m not sure why wrestling has had this effect, I suspect that the close physical combat breaks down emotional barriers. I have noticed a bond unique to the sport, both here and back in America.
Like Jacob wrestling with the LORD at Jabbok, we come face to face with our limits and failures and hopefully we learn and grow from this experience. Though we may walk with a limp from that point on, the knowledge gained is invaluable.
Please pray for Mehrab and others like him in Central Asia, as we seek to share our faith with them, through whatever means God provides.
Joel*, with his wife, Amy*, serve in church planting in Central Asia
* Names and identities have been changed