Every four years another Olympics begins and the whole world becomes obsessed with activities they haven’t thought about since the last games. Suddenly we find ourselves waking up early and staying up late to watch athletes pole vault and throw javelins and dive into pools. We can’t help but cheer as we watch little-known sports like field hockey and handball and water polo. What is it that compels us to watch these strange events and to cheer for people we don’t even know?
We watch the Olympics because we want to see the best of the best. Athletes do not get to the Olympics on the basis of natural talent or wishing upon a star. They do not earn the opportunity to represent their countries through parental privilege or dumb luck. They get to the Olympics by hard work, by committing their whole lives to the pursuit of their sport. They have a body that is very much like ours—the same 650 muscles, the same 206 bones, the same two feet—yet they can do things with their bodies that we can only dream of. We may not know much about high jump, but we do know that we are watching something that required thousands of hours of training. We may not know a tuck from a handspring, but we do know that it took years of painful labor to perform such an acrobatic move. They have become the best in the world because of their total devotion to their sport, because of their grueling training, because of their rigid self-discipline.
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul uses athletes as a metaphor to describe how believers are to approach the Christian life. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Of course the Corinthians knew. Their city was the home of the Isthmian Games. Every two years, the best world’s athletes would arrive, their minds set on claiming the prize. In that day, there were no team sports, so each athlete competed alone, and there were no consolation prizes, so each athlete competed to be first. Paul tells these believers to think of the Christian life as a race and to imitate the kind of athlete who runs not just to compete but to be victorious. Striving against the deadly competition of the world, the flesh, and the devil, he urges them, “Run in such a way that you win!”
But how? What must they do to ensure that they win this race? Paul continues: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (1 Corinthians 9:25). Athletes become successful through self-control. They commit themselves wholeheartedly to their sport and put aside any vices, habits, or activities that might keep them from peak performance. The athletes who competed in the Isthmian Games underwent 10 months of dedicated training before the games. In this time, they followed a strict regimen of training, exercising, and eating. They were absolutely single-minded in their pursuit of victory. Paul is saying that just as self-control is the key to victory in athletics, it is the key to victory in the Christian life. Good intentions will not carry Christians to victory, half-hearted effort will bring no reward, lack of discipline will lead only to disqualification. It is only by self-control that athletes would get the prize, and it is only by self-control that Christians get their reward.
So what was the reward these athletes stood to gain? “They do it to receive a perishable wreath but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25). In the early days of the games, athletes were rewarded with a crown woven of dry celery leaves. Later, in Roman times, this was replaced by a wreath of pine. These crowns were organic and perishable so that in 10 or 20 years they would fade to dust. Paul draws a comparison: If athletes exercise rigid discipline for the sake of a rotting wreath, shouldn’t Christians labor even harder for a reward that will endure forever? Paul doesn’t tell what this reward is, but his point is clear: The Christian who wins this race receives a prize of immeasurable value and limitless duration.
Then Paul provides an illustration from his own disciplined life: “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27). Paul refuses to be like a half-hearted athlete, content to take a leisurely jog. He will not be like a boxer who shirks his training and ends up futilely flailing his fists in the air. Instead, he will be like a runner who is driven to vanquish the competition and like a fighter who has been trained to deliver brutal blows. He applies self-discipline to every part of his life—his body, mind, and soul. He exercises self-control to avoid sin and to practice godliness, to flee immorality and to pursue holiness. He allows nothing that increases the risk of disqualification. He is as committed to the Christian life as the greatest athlete is to his sport. He is determined to win his race, to receive his reward.
In Paul’s mind, self-control brings freedom. Like an athlete, he exercises self-control to free himself to achieve what he most wants to achieve, to live how he truly wants to live. No longer controlled by illicit sexual desires, he can live in purity; no longer controlled by the love of money, he can be content with little; no longer controlled by the opinions of men, he can be content to live for the glory of God. Self-control is the training regimen that will bring him to victory, the program that later allows him to proclaim this benediction upon his life: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day” (2 Timothy 4:8).
Run to Win
I am beginning a series of articles for men who are running this race. Women can read the articles, too, and will benefit from them, I’m sure. 1 Corinthians is an epistle that applies to men and women alike! But I am writing specifically as a brother to my brothers. In these articles, I will suggest a number of disciplines meant to help you compete at peak performance and assure you of victory. Each one will be an imperative, a command to consider and obey: Embrace your purpose! Renew your mind! Prioritize your church! Control your sexuality! Treasure your marriage! And many more. As I interact with men near and far, as I talk to the men I pastor, as I look within my own heart, I see far too much apathy and far too little zeal. I see men who are content to slumber instead of train, who treat life as if it’s a leisurely jog instead of a grueling race. I see men who are unmotivated, who are uninspired by the imperishable reward that awaits across the finish line. I see men who are undisciplined, who regard self-control as a burden instead of a joy. I see men who are indifferent, who seem to care little whether they break the tape in victory or are shamefully disqualified. I want these men to know that the race is on! I want them to long for the prize, and I want them to begin the life-long regimen of self-control to obtain it.
My friend, you are in the race for the imperishable prize. Are you running to obtain it? You have no hope of victory unless you are determined to prevail and unless you prove your determination with dedication and discipline. Will you follow along as we explore how to run with zeal and self-control? You’ve got just one life to live, one race to run. So live it with all your might, and run to win!