The Olympics captivate the world. While the range of ability and competition level of athletes engage fans, it’s their work ethic that is most inspiring – specifically their self-discipline. Situated at the top of Greece, Corinth was well acquainted with the Olympics. The games took place in their country every four years from 776 BC until AD 393.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Paul uses an athletic metaphor to help illustrate how Christians ought to pursue Christ.
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. 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. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeong Cheng feature four sports for the first time: mixed curling, mass long-track speed skating, big air snowboarding, and mixed alpine skiing. The new events will increase the number of gold medals handed out, but this doesn’t take away from the novelty of winning. To be the best in the world is a feat that few can boast of – bragging rights for the next four years. The athlete’s preparation, execution, and focus make this a possibility. Would these disciplines be characteristic of your faith?
This is the question that Paul is asking: Is your self-discipline where it should be so you reflect Jesus?
The Individual Component
Paul points out in verse 24 that only one runner wins the prize.
Often we look at self-control as a character trait that we need to work on by controlling our own will, but it’s a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22). If we live by the Spirit, this discipline should naturally flow out of our lives. Living this way involves regularly denouncing evil, and controlling impulses.
The ‘self’ aspect is still vital; Paul reminds us that there is only one who wins a race. The church is to reflect Christ as a team (Hebrews 3:13), but this isn’t possible unless each of us is running to win.
Part of an athlete’s training consists of a proper diet. This nutrition fuels him to successfully complete a workout. Afterwards, the athlete’s muscles have been strained, so protein is most effective for recovery. In order to repeat, the athlete must keep replenishing.
The Christian’s life takes a similar cycle. Daily prayer and Bible reading keep him anchored in Jesus, and therefore able to fight off temptation and bear effective witness. At the end of the day, the Christian is spiritually drained and must seek more food.
Without proper training and nutrition, an athlete is useless for their event, and without feasting on God’s Word and being led by His Spirit, we’re ineffective for the Lord. Personal holiness is most important. Our mindset towards life should reflect it.
John Piper puts it like this:
The serious athlete doesn’t just ask how to get by in training. He asks what will bring about maximum performance. So the mature Christian asks, what will make me most useful for the kingdom? What will stir up my zeal for God most?
The point is to run the way winner does. Give it all you’ve got.
This discipline is not necessarily glamorous.
Boxing legend Muhammad Ali famously said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’.” Ali’s words speak to the excruciating pain he endured preparing for fights, but this was what enabled him to land some the hardest punches in boxing history.
Paul reminds us that “everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (1 Corinthians 9:25).
Athletes in Olympia swore an oath confirming that they abstained from meat, wine, and sex over the ten months before. The word competes is a translation of the Greek word agonidzomai, which is where we get ‘agonizes’. By competing in an Olympic event, athletes expect agony and hardship. They expect sacrifice.
Canadian figure skater Eric Radford grew up in Balmerton, Ontario – a Northern Ontario town of about 1000 people. When he was 13 years old, Radford’s family moved to Kenora so he could pursue skating more competitively. From there, Radford moved many more times throughout his ice skating journey.
The gracious skater has now won both gold and bronze at the 2018 Olympics. These accomplishments are well deserved but ones that didn’t come without costs. Radford’s childhood, like many other Olympic athletes, was dominated by their sport. Their family commitments, social life, and leisure activities came secondary.
The Christian race is no different: “run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24).
When you wake up in the morning, still tired from a lack of sleep, do you scroll through social media on your smartphone or do you force yourself into God’s Word? Our emotions shouldn’t be neglected, but they also shouldn’t alter the direction we’re running.
Fixing our eyes on Jesus ensures that we’re running the race marked out for us (Hebrews 12:1-2). Since Jesus has already taken hold of our lives, we run in His power, and we also run with clear purpose.
Paul contrasts the way he lives his life with focus and precision to the way a runner runs aimlessly and to the way a boxer beats the air (1 Corinthians 9:26). As soon as we lose sight of the finish line, we’re more likely to give up.
Florence Chadwick was an accomplished American swimmer in the first half of the 1900s. When she was just 13 years old, Chadwick came second in the U.S national championships. She even became the first woman to swim across the English Channel both ways.
Hailing from San Diego, California, Chadwick had a goal close to home: she wanted to swim across the Catalina Canal – a 21 mile route. The day Chadwick embarked on this lengthy swim was one that was so foggy that she could barely see the support boats that followed her. Hours into her swim, this fog never lifted. Finally, she consulted with her mother and decided to give up. The fog was so thick, she couldn’t see the coastline. However, later Chadwick found out that when she quit, she was only less than a mile from her finish line. Had Chadwick been able to see her destination, she likely would have reached it.
An athlete performs to the best of his ability when he remains fixed on a targeted goal. Thankfully, this crown we’re pursuing is one that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25). Unlike an athlete, who has a goal, but might adapt it during his training, ours is permanent.This gives us momentum to push towards it in a passionate way like Paul. In verse 26, Paul suggests that rather than boxing the air, a boxer “strikes a blow to his body.”
The importance of self-control is to not miss the mark. In the context of our Christian life, it is the body that sins. Striking it doesn’t mean we will overcome the impulse, but this is the kind of mentality we ought to take – a radical one.
Most of the athletes at the Olympics have been training for it their entire life. It takes years to reach the International stage. It also usually takes years to mature as a Christian. Until that point, progression is needed.
Are you practising your faith in a way that you can get there one day? Are you training like a professional athlete?