When Apostle Paul likened Christian life to a race, he was certainly drawing his metaphoric language from the ancient Greek Olympic games that started way back in 776BC. Traditionally, the Olympic games took place after every four years; but in a major city like Corinth, where Paul’s audience lived, major games were hosted after every two years. This analogy therefore served well to illustrate profound biblical truths in familiar terms. I hope it also does today.
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. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
How does this athletic metaphor enrich our understanding of Christian life?
- There is a course marked out for every Christian to run– You see, God’s call to salvation does not invite us to a life of inactivity. Rather, we are called to run a race that is marked out for us. Simply, there is a race that you must run. Christian life is not like boarding a matatu with a ticket at hand and waiting to arrive at your destination. No, hapana. It demands focus on what is marked out before you; the race has to be run irrespective of distractions, discouragements, obstructions, and interference that the enemy might place on your path.
- Run in such a way as to get the prize– In a race there are false runners (pacesetters), who unsustainably begin the race so fast that within a very short period of time they bow out. Likewise, there those who snail their way through for the purpose of just earning a participation certificate. Paul exhorted his audience to run the race not just for the purpose of participation, but more importantly to WIN the prize. Winning the prize is important. It is glorious! The prize rewards all the toils, self sacrifice, and cumulative efforts spend during the preparation. Genuinely, a christian should not just run the race for the purpose of getting to heaven; but to win the prize that is kept in store for the faithfuls in that glorious day.
Elsewhere, Paul says, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). Run the race marked out for you with a goal, and a purpose. A focus fixed on a particular goal helps one overcome distractions from within and without. We are to fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfector of our faith (Heb. 12: 2). In the words of apostle Paul he committedly presses on, “to take hold of that which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil. 3:12).
- Any true athlete goes into strict training– This can’t be exaggerated. Any successful athlete knows that to produce record-shattering results, time has to be invested in preparations. This is the tough part of the Olympics. It demands discipline, self-denial, sacrifice, patience, long suffering, forfeiting your privileges, and determination. How does Paul accomplish this?
- He focuses on the Crown– It sounds repetitive here but the fact is, it is easy to lose focus in preparation unless we keep in mind the bigger picture of winning the glorious reward. In Paul’s day, athletes competed to win a crown/wreath of olive leaf which, of course, withers within a very short period of time. Perhaps the winner could also have enjoyed other favors and incentives like monetary allocations, honors, recognition, and relieve from taxation. But as Christians we run the race marked out for us in order to receive a crown that lasts forever. In this case, the focus on the crown/prize makes him give up what is good now and settle for the best that lies ahead. Like a boxer, Paul is not without aim, he is not beating the air because of his deliberate end-goal.
- He beats his body– You can’t win a race with an overweight. The plus-size weight has to be worked on. Otherwise winning will remain a dream. We must pay the price of hard work if we want to win. We must master our bodies, desires, and affections. Part of the weight we have to shed off to stay “fit” includes “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” Heb. 12:11.
- Beware of disqualification–
Here Paul is clearly not talking of salvation; because every believer, through repentance and faith in Christ, is enlisted to the race. Disqualification or specifically “disapproval” can be construed in relation to the prize. It is disqualification for the prize not the race. The aspect of disqualification is serious because then the strict training in preparation and the running becomes in vain. Therefore the rules (God’s terms) must apply (2 Tim. 2:5). Paul was conscious of this reality.
I pray that when we finish running our race of life we shall say like Jesus, “it is finished” or like Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race” 2 Tim. 4:7.
But for now, there is a race to be run, there is preparations to be made, there is a prize to be won!