A friend asked me if I as an athlete would share my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 9 for a Bible study group that she is leading. I have been contemplating that passage a lot these last few months, especially the part about not racing with uncertainly, so I was very excited for the opportunity. And I wanted to share it with any of you as well!
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 NKJV
We are all runners in this race of the Christian life, and Paul wants us here to focus on how we are preparing to race and how we are racing. For some quick clarification, he is not talking about our salvation, that is never in contention to be won or lost, that comes freely to all who believe that they are imperfect people and that Jesus died to pay the price for their sins and that He rose again. That faith gains us entry into heaven and an eternity with God. But there are still prizes to be won or lost in our life with Christ. In this passage, all of us who have chosen faith in Christ are equated to runners in a race, but God doesn’t call us just to run. Just having faith in Christ will get us into heaven, but that is not how God wants us to live our lives. He wants us to live with a passionate, dedicated, self-disciplined pursuit of Him and Him alone, the way that the runner trains and races who is seeking to win.
Living the athlete life for the last few years I have had the privilege to get to know and watch Olympians, Olympic medalists, and those striving for a spot on the Olympic team. In athletics, the Olympics is the ultimate goal, the competition of competitions, and what I have observed is that the people who make it the Olympic Games have a singular aim, a singular focus, that carries into their entire lives with an intensity that I have not observed in any other aspect of my life. If the church was as focused and dedicated to pursuing life in Christ as an Olympian is to their athletic pursuits, I can’t even imagine the effect that would have on the world. Yes, these athletes train hard. They work their bodies to the limit day in and day out to achieve everything possible from themselves. But it doesn’t stop there. Rest is just as important as training, as that is when the body recovers, repairs, and gets ready for the next training session. Nutrition is just as important, not just the type and quality of food consumed, but the amount and timing of it can have a huge impact on performance. Then there is a mental piece to training and racing that is arguably more important than the physical preparations. For the athletes who make this choice, It is all consuming of their time and life. It requires huge sacrifices because if you really want to win, you can’t be involved in any activity that would distract from that. You don’t get indulgences in life, you don’t get to stay up late, you have very little time to spend with friends and family, you have to avoid any activity that would put you at risk of injury or poor recovery. All of your energy, time, and finances are focused on the goal. And the thing that really impresses me is the certainty with which these athletes do it. Their eyes seemingly stay entirely focused on the goal, leaving no room for doubt, questioning, or feeling that they don’t belong at the top. Because if uncertainty of realizing the goal starts to creep in, then everything starts to crumble.
The certainty has been my biggest struggle as an athlete. I don’t want to choose between the 50km and 20km distances. I want to keep every possible opportunity open. I am constantly plagued by what ifs, self-doubt, and thoughts of not being good enough. I still want to go for a run in the sand dunes two weeks before an international competition even though there is a real chance of injury that would prevent me from competing. I compete at an elite level internationally, but I don’t have the focus and the certainty of the Olympians that surround me. It is something that I watch and admire and hope that I am slowly growing those habits in my athlete life as well as my spiritual life.
So, to translate that back to our spiritual race, what does God want from us? An undivided focus on Him. He wants us to cut out of our life anything that distracts from that focus on Him, even if those things are otherwise fine activities or pursuits to be involved in. He wants us to sacrifice everything to pursue Him with everything within us. And He wants us to do it with certainty, without doubts, without asking “what if”, without looking back at the things we feel we are missing as we chase Him and Him alone. When I put my racing shoes on, I am chasing a temporary prize, a victor’s crown of leaves and flowers twined together, that feels so prestigious and celebratory at the moment. Yet the feelings quickly fade and the flowers quickly wither. The crowns we obtain in our spiritual life? They last forever.
A good cross-reference is Philippians 3:12-14 where Paul says, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”