Was Paul a sports fan? He at least had an active interest in races.
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.
Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.
Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, NASB
The ancient Greeks loved speed and violence in their sports as much as any people before or since. So they loved sprints much more than distance runs. Competitors ran full tilt for one stadion, or about 200 meters. The Olympic games had been held for 50 years before holding a longer race, the dolichos, which may have been 5,000-10,000 meters. It probably looked more like power walking than running.
Ancient Greek athletes trained vigorously—at least by their standards. The race judges oversaw the races and forced competitors with no chance of winning to withdraw. Even as the games began, the hosts made one last effort to persuade all who had not “banished all sloth and cowardice from their lives” to leave town. A false start on race day earned a public flogging.
The winner received a wreath. It soon faded and crumbled. Today we give medals. A medal lasts longer than a wreath. But in the end, it’s just a physical thing to hang on a wall, put in a drawer, or lose.
Faith in God is like a race, but instead of some shiny object, the prize lasts forever. How do we run to win?
Finishing well starts in the training room
It takes determination to win anything. No one decides to enter a race the day of the race. And training involves more than running.
Today’s runners work with weights. They do lunges, squats, pushups, and all kinds of exercises.
I heard someone say it doesn’t matter how many pushups you can do. It matters how many you can do after it starts to hurt.
Athletes must also follow a strict diet. (A strict diet for running a race is not the same as for a couch potato trying to stave off diabetes.)
Modern athletes probably subject their bodies to more intense pressure than the ancients ever thought of, but the strategy is the same. Paul expressed a thought that agrees completely with Aristotle and all the other major Greek thinkers: “self-control in all things.”
For the Christian, though, “all things” encompasses more than it ever did for the pagan Greeks. Ten months before the Olympics, entrants had to promise the judges not to “sin” against the games. When the games ended, they could do as they pleased. Christians promise not to sin against the Judge. This lifetime commitment entails not only what we do with our bodies, but extends to our thought life.
God’s standards as expressed in Mosaic law proved impossible to anyone (except Jesus himself) to keep. In Jesus’ telling, over and over, they are really even more demanding than Moses’ teachings.
Apart from God’s grace, it is impossible for us ever to be good enough. But Jesus sent the Holy Spirit as a coach. A very patient coach. He will provide instruction for our training in righteousness. We must supply the determination.
Finishing well requires discipline
Where did we get the idea that discipline means punishment?
Punishment properly happens after doing something bad. A parent takes toys away from a naughty child as punishment, not discipline. A judge sends a criminal to jail for punishment, not discipline.
Jack LaLanne, the pioneering fitness guru, remarked in his 90s that he had worked out for two hours every day of his adult life. And hated every minute of every workout.
Because he wanted to reach accomplishments impossible to achieve otherwise. That’s discipline
Running a physical race requires LaLanne’s discipline. Running a spiritual race requires more. The race begins at our new birth and ends only at our death.
Many a Christian finds daily devotional time onerous. Some great saints spend hours a day in prayer. It seems unimaginable. Every role model started out like all the rest of us. They thought praying for as much as five minutes at a time seemed impossible. At first they could pray for their own needs, and had trouble remembering to pray for anyone else consistently.
But they disciplined themselves. They learned to improve their spiritual fitness little by little. So can anyone else. Prayer, Bible study, and other spiritual disciplines turn our minds toward God. While we are spending time with God, we are not listening to the desires of our own sinful nature or Satan’s suggestions.
Finishing well require focus
I’ll confess. All my life I have been interested in many things and reluctant to give up any one of them to focus fuller attention on another.
I have therefore known some success in a wide variety of different endeavors. I have rarely been the best at any of them.
But at least I know how to focus on one thing at a time.
I am writing this post. I will not think about what to write for other posts now. I will not check email now.
I may stop and do something else before I finish. In fact, I will if it becomes hard to focus on writing this post.
Whatever else I’m doing, I must always keep focus on my faith in God.
No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. 2 Timothy 2:4-7
When Paul says, “according to the rules,” I don’t think he means “without cheating.” The soldier focuses his attention on his orders in order to finish his tasks well. Runners on the rules for the same reason. They must stay in their own lane, for example. They change lanes only when required, only at the prescribed place.
Careless runners don’t finish well. Modern judges no longer publicly flog violators. But they do disqualify runners and entire teams.
Paul used these three metaphors for the Christian life. That time alone with God that seems so hard for so many people helps give focus.
- As Christian soldiers, our orders come from God.
- As runners, we follow the course laid out by God.
- As farmers, we spend enough time and energy in the field to keep the weeds and vermin out of our crops. Otherwise, we will have no crop.
Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13-14
I may spread myself too thin with too many interests, even in my Christian life. But I must not allow any of them to take my primary focus from seeking Jesus’ face. I’m running a race.
Finishing well requires proper motivation
It’s hard to keep discipline and focus in the face of disappointment and discouragement. Disappointment and discouragement come to everyone.
After all, he faced every temptation we face.
God has us covered. We don’t face anything alone. God is always with us, whether it feels like it or not. He also provides for humans to encourage each other.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us.
And let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 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.
For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart Hebrews 12:1-3
Running a race requires the runner to keep his eye on the finish line. People in the stands can shout encouragement. Runners can hear the cheers. Our cheering section includes friends and family, both living and dead. They encourage us as we run. They encourage us as we train.
The ancient Greeks ran sprints. To this day, it’s probably easier for most of us to think of a world-class sprinter than a marathon winner. But our race of faith in God lasts a lifetime.
In modern track and field events, everyone enters hoping to reach the medal stand. The three fastest to finish sprint get medals. Everyone else goes home empty handed. At international events, everyone has already had the experience of earning medals. Only the top three win anything.
Thousands of people enter marathons. Only a few of them have any hope of winning. Wilson Kipsang currently holds the record for the fastest time in the London Marathon: 2:04:29. Angus Macfadyen holds the Guinness World record for the slowest time. It took him more than seven hours to cross the finish line. He made the entire distance on crutches.
Why would anyone do that?
Because the point of running a marathon, for most runners, is to finish. Finishing brings satisfaction. Finishing first does not cross most runners’ minds.
So it is with running the race of life. Jesus finished first. He didn’t do it to win a wreath, or even a medal. He did it to show how to run it. Finishing well is prize enough for the rest of us. God waits eagerly at the finish line, cheering us on as enthusiastically as anyone else in that great cloud of witnesses.
Are you running to finish well?
Finish of a women’s race. Some rights reserved by Beat Küng
Lunge. Public domain. U.S. Air Force photo / Senior Airman Myles Stepp
Greek runners, ca. 500 BC. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Greek runners, ca. 530 BC. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Runner getting encouragement / Pingswept. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.