Have you ever heard a parent tell their child something like this: “it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, what matters is that you have fun?” That might work in little league baseball or bantam hockey, but in the race of the Christian life, winning actually does matter.
At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “Christianity isn’t a competition!” And yea, you are right in one sense … but perhaps wrong in another, or so the Apostle Paul might conclude. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul admonishes the church saying “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. 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” (1 Cor 9:23-24). Paul here uses the metaphor of a runner to describe the Christian life. More than that he compares the Christian life to a racer. Some might shudder at the thought that a Christian is supposed to compete like an athlete, but Paul does not. For Paul, the Christian life is a battle and the sinful nature and spiritual principalities of darkness are our competitors. So are Christian’s really like competitive athletes?
Paul continues his metaphor to show what he means: “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” (1 Cor 9:25). What Paul is talking about here is training. Anyone who plays a sport, whether football, soccer, tennis or figure skating knows what that means. It means grueling hours of hard work and endurance training, strength training and mental study. The great athletes are the best because they train the hardest. In hockey (the sport I love most), the best players on the team are always the players who are on the ice first for practice and who leave the ice last. The greatest athletes in the world are driven like no one else. They are driven by the goal, the prize at the end of the game, and nothing will stop them from winning. Like Paul in Phil 3:14, they “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call.” In this world, that call is often empty metal trophies, but for Paul, the call is Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately for athletes here in this world, even winning the World Series, the World Cup, the Super Bowl or any number of other prizes will fail in some way to satisfy. I heard Gary Sheffield a few years ago talk about winning the World Series with the Florida Marlins. He said that he just stood on the field feeling empty. He thought that he should be happier than ever at that moment, but he was left unsatisfied. There is one race, however, which is guaranteed to satisfy. The goal of the battle against the sinful nature and principalities and powers is an imperishable prize. Eternity in union with God, and whatever else that means, is the prize that we strive toward. This race, contrary to some modern Christian teaching, does not come easy. This competition requires extreme endurance and discipline. Paul once again describes this battle saying “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). In order to overcome the sinful nature, we have to take charge and discipline our bodies to turn from sin and temptation. Discipline here is not a gentle sort of nudging though. Here, Paul uses the Greek term hypopiazo which literally means to beat black, to punish, to bring into submission (BDAG, 1043). Thus, what Paul is saying is that if you are a Christian, you are in a competition against the sinful nature and the dark spirit world. To win the race, sometimes you will have to suffer not just through external persecution, but through the the internal struggle of self discipline. In the race of the Christian life, the Christian is like an athlete who is focused and resilient, willing to do anything to be victorious. Are you willing to put it all on the line for the prize? Are you eager to discipline your body for the sake of the Kingdom?
The good news is, the Christian life is also a team race. We are not competing against those around us. We are competing with them. On the team called Christian, we all run the race together and the wind at our backs is the Holy Spirit blowing us towards the prize. So let us, a team called Christian, compete to win, with a tenacity and fire that would put Mike Tyson or Ray Lewis to shame. Let us press forward towards the prize, even when it hurts, because our destiny has already been written and victory is the only option!