Former heavyweight champion George Foreman's search for God showed him that faith and hope can help you through any challenge.
- Posted on Oct 1, 2007
I'm from Houston, Texas, and proud of it. Back when I was growing up, Houston didn't show up in the news a whole lot. We had a Texan—Lyndon B. Johnson—as president for a while, and we had the Astrodome.
But in general we weren't all that used to making headlines. So one of my greatest sources of pride as a professional boxer was being able to represent my hometown to the world. With every opponent I put on the canvas, I felt like I was putting Houston on the map.
These days, I live a quieter life as pastor of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, only a few miles from the neighborhood where I grew up. My congregation is small—about 150 people most Sundays—and that's just the way I like it. In my new life, the Lord has called me to serve him with humility. It's a role I treasure and work at.
But I still have my hometown pride—especially since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Katrina put Houston in headlines around the country and around the world. It also gave this city challenges it had never seen before. Challenges so great that many people wondered if we'd make it through in one piece.
During my boxing career I conquered most of the challenges I faced in the ring. But the challenge of being genuinely happy was another matter. In 1974, when I fought Muhammad Ali in Africa, I received a five million-dollar paycheck—and I lost the fight!
But if you think that that five million made me happy, think again. I've been poor with millions of dollars, and I've been rich when I was broke. Money never gave me any real joy, but with God in my heart I'm a rich man no matter what.
Katrina underlined that for me. It taught all of us here in Houston that no matter how good you have it in this life, it could be gone in a second. A single storm can sweep through and take it all away. But if you've got God, you'll be okay.
Here are four things I want you to remember when you have to face down adversity, four things that have helped me:
1. Giving Helps Everybody
"It's more blessed to give than to receive." I used to hear that all the time as a kid, but believe me, I didn't buy it. About the only thing I enjoyed giving with regularity back then was a punch.
But today I know that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And the blessing lies in how it makes you feel. Every good feeling in life passes—from enjoying a delicious meal to becoming heavyweight champion of the world. (I can personally vouch for the truth of both those statements.) But the feeling you get from helping someone else is different. It lasts.
I remember very well the day I discovered this. It was shortly after I'd regained the title of heavyweight champion of the world at age 45 back in 1994. I was driving along when I passed a cousin of mine who was walking down the street. I pulled over and picked him up. "How are you doing today?" I asked him.
"Pretty good. I'm looking for a job and I'm sure I'll find one. I just wish I had a car." Right then and there I drove my cousin to my house and gave him one of my cars. He was so grateful, and so happy. And seeing how much help I'd been to him made me happy. I still get joy when I think about it, and when I think about how I was blessed to be in a position to help him.
I'm not the only one who knows this secret. One Sunday soon after the evacuees came to the Astrodome, I looked out at my congregation and saw a whole lot of new faces. I knew why. My congregation was taking people into their homes and bringing them to church. Some of them were even wearing clothes that I recognized.
These people had lost so much that my congregation literally had to give them the shirts off their backs. My congregation is not affluent by any means, but nobody was saying, "I can't give because I don't have enough myself."
People often use the expression, "You could feel the love in the air," and you really could that day in my church. After the service, I got introduced to some of the visitors.
When I shook hands with someone who I knew was wearing borrowed clothes, I didn't let on I knew, but just said, "That's a real nice outfit." There was such gratitude from those people at the way my congregation had opened their hearts to them. It was a day I'll never forget.
2. It's Not Our Circumstances That Determine Our Happiness
It's our attitude toward those circumstances. The Bible says, "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God." Those words don't promise that only good things will happen to you if you love God. But they do promise that if you love him, whatever happens can turn out to be in your favor.
God can turn any loss into a gain. Want proof? If you followed my boxing career you might recall that I was not always very well-disposed toward Muhammad Ali. And vice versa. We weren't just opponents in the ring; we were enemies. After he defeated me in that fight in Africa, I spent months thinking of nothing else but how I'd pay him back.
But believe it or not, that defeat turned out to be a big blessing. I was on the comeback trail, fighting my way back to a rematch with Muhammad, when I lost to a journeyman fighter named Jimmy Young in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In the dressing room after the fight, I was taken out of my body. I met God, and realized the life I'd been living without him had been empty.
Soon after that experience, I called Muhammad and let him know what had happened to me. I told him I didn't hate him anymore. In fact, I told him I loved him! He responded to my kindness, and a true friendship developed between us.
In my trophy case at home, I have a photo on display. The picture shows me right after I've been knocked down in that fight in Africa, with Muhammad standing over me. That photo is the first thing you see when you come into the room. Why? Because it was that exact moment that got me started on my search for God. The worst single thing that ever happened to me turned out to be the best.
It doesn't matter what your own worst moment is. Storms of all kinds rage through our lives, and sometimes they can take everything from us. But if you have faith, your own worst moment can become your best.
3. You Never Know What God Will Bring You
Some years ago, a business friend gave me some advice. "George," he said, "you ought to have your own product." He sent me a small, funny-looking grill built with a slant to it and told me the people who made it were looking for a personality to market it. I put it aside. After all, who would want a slanted grill? That's when my wife Mary stepped in. "That grill works great," she said. "The grease rolls right off and the food tastes delicious." She fixed me a burger to prove it. I took a bite. Mary was right. It was good.
"Okay, I'll tell them I'm interested," I said. "Maybe they'll send us a bunch of free grills and we can give them away." Well, I got those free grills. But I have to tell you, they weren't the best part of the deal. I never would have dreamed what God was sending my way the day that funny-looking grill arrived on my doorstep. And if I hadn't listened to Mary, I still wouldn't!
4. No Storm Lasts Forever
It's funny how often people use storm images when they talk about adversity. Jesus calmed a storm that terrified his disciples. The fact is bad times really are like storms. They flood in and knock you down, and it can seem like they're going to sweep away everything good in your life. But eventually the waters subside. Sometimes—as in the case of Katrina—they can take a long, long time to go all the way down. But they always do.
Not too long after I gave my life to the Lord, my first marriage broke up. My then-wife just couldn't cope with this new George she suddenly found herself living with. The pain of her leaving me was so great. And there I was, the pastor of a church. I was supposed to be giving people advice on how to live their lives, when I could barely get my tears to stop long enough to deliver any sermon at all.
The pain was so fierce I made a deal with God. Lord, I said, if you'll take away this pain, I promise I'll tell people they can make it through anything.
The next day I woke up and something was different. Losing my wife still hurt—bad—but I felt a strength inside that I hadn't the day before. I was ready to move on.
Eventually, I met and married Mary. After my life came together again, I didn't forget that promise I made to the Lord when the pain was at its greatest. With faith, you have the strength to survive any adversity. I've been giving my congregation—and anyone else who will listen—that message ever since.
Which gets me back to my hometown, and to our life after Katrina. We've had some struggles—overcrowding, housing shortages, job shortages, kids starting school—but in the end we did make it through in one piece. In fact, we've grown stronger in the sharing of adversity.
Adversity is never far from us in this earthly life. But neither is the help we need in getting through it. If I have the Lord in my heart, I have the one thing that truly matters. I believed that before Katrina and I believe it even more passionately now. We have proof of it right here in my hometown.
Did you enjoy this story? Subscribe to Guideposts magazine.