Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24)
I coach the boys track team for the high school I work at (despite being a chubby white dude who only runs to the refrigerator). Other than extremely long meet days, it is a relatively easy sport to coach with short practices and straight forward workouts.
Even at the high school level, students must be self motivated and focused to reap any success in competitions.
I’m always a bit amazed (and perturbed) at the disparity of work ethic in seemingly identical athletes. Sprinters, jumpers or distance runners with the same genetic hand, background, and coaching can yield very different results because of one thing:
Some of my lazier athletes are quite shocked when they go up against another more focused athlete during competition and get flat-out smoked. I wonder:
What did you expect with no effort or discipline during training?!
Some get it now and succeed. Others will get it later in life when circumstances force them to.
But honestly, I have more in common with my lazier athletes than what I would like to admit. Spiritually speaking.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 cuts my non chalant approach to many spiritual matters at the knees.
Paul lived in a day when athletics dominated Greek society. The much-lauded Olympic games were right down the road. Every third year in Corinth, the Corinthians had the Isthmian Games where athletes competed on a more local level. Sometimes the stakes feel even higher when you’re competing in local rivalries. In order to get into the finals at the Isthmian games athletes had to give proof of ten months of training, and the last 30 days before the actual event they all came into the community to partake in intense highly scrutinized daily training.
Only after that preparation were athletes eligible to run. And if they ran and won the victor was awarded a pine wreath crown (along with being immortalized).
These ancient men worked tirelessly for months and years for a crown of weeds that would wither in weeks.
The Prize That Lasts
The context of the verse shows the great prize Paul speaks of is not our own salvation (we could never earn that), rather it is preaching the gospel and seeing men drawn to Christ (9:18, 22). Running is analagous to preaching/sharing the gospel. Paul says in effect: I want to see men won to Christ so I will run (read “preach”) as hard and as diligently as it takes for me to win that prize.
But see the preparation period in this type of preaching. During pre-season, I ran one 100 yard sprint with my team during a workout. I subsequently pulled a hammie in the process. For a couple days, I ended up limping like Jacob did after rasslin’ with God.
I hadn’t, in the most basic fundamental level, prepared my body for such physical exertion.
There is a crucible every gospel preacher should pass before attempting to set the world on fire. There is no benefit in sprinting ahead of the Holy Spirit when God tells you to sit and be still for a while. Praying, studying and repenting over the God breathed word is not a task taken lightly.
If you do take such weighty preparation lightly, you just may herniate a disc in your spiritual backbone.
Beating Your Own Body Like A Rented Mule
The language used in this passage is pervasive: The apostle “threw down” in a fisticuff rage with his own sinful flesh on a daily basis (1 Cor 9:27).
By the grace of God, we must first conquer the formidable enemy within, before attempting to conquer the supposed enemy out there.
The weapons of our warfare work on our own flesh too. Intercessory prayer, the testimony of Scriptures, and the blood of the Lamb are too great of foes for any latent sin remaining in us. Paul used these to make his body his own slave instead of being a slave to his fallen fleshly desires (v 27).
We (I) desperately need such spiritual discipline.
The stakes are eternally high.
The prize is eternally worth it.