Watching athletes compete in a contest of strength, endurance, skill and speed should impress the observer with many lessons for life. When compared to a Christian’s race for salvation it has several things in common. Look at the words of the apostle Paul: “Know you not that they that run in a race run all, but one receives the prize? Even so run; that ye may attain. And every man that strives in the games exercises self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, as not uncertainly; so fight I, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage: lest by any means, after that I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected” (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
We are brought to appreciate many facets of the athlete by this text. We are also challenged to apply some of the lessons he may teach us:
1. Dedication. The years of training and practice, the many hours or special preparation, the sacrifices made all these things spell out one essential: dedication. Without it they would not have spent the time or made the preparation or sacrifice as they have. The more dedicated they are, the greater their chances for success – and they know it. Seldom are they just “lucky” or “unlucky.” When they win and the more decidedly they win, it is usually to be explained in terms of their dedication. “I therefore so run, as not uncertainly; so fight 1, as not beating the air,” writes the apostle. He has his goal before him. He has made it his aim and he had dedicated himself to attaining it. Nothing can stand in his way. Nothing else is so important. Can the Christian do less than the athlete? With heaven as our goal and an eternal crown as our prize, can we manifest an attitude that is short on dedication and still hope to reach that goal? “They do it to receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. ”
2. Self-control. As most athletes, a Christian must do without the pleasures which surround them in order to obtain a better prize. They can’t party or eat certain foods or stay up too late if they intend to get in the shape to win a race. Even so, the Christian must also of necessity stop indulging with the pleasures of earth. If he is rich, he must give it back to the poor (Lk 18:22). He can’t commit fornication, adultery or any fleshly pleasures outside the bonds of legal marriage in the sight of God (Heb 12:4). Instead of running toward fornication he will flee from it (1 Cor 6:18). The child of God will try to spend time with the Scriptures in study, time with people in trying to bring them to Christ, time with their families in carrying out their responsibilities there, and assisting to those who are in need (2 Tim 2:15 ff; 2 Tim 4:2-5; 1 Tim 5:8; Gal 6:10). In short, the Christian will try to balance his responsibilities and control himself and his time. He will not allow his habits to control him: “I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage.”In essence, he must lose his race of earth in order to win the race to heaven. (Mt 16:24-26).
3. Training and Practice. Pity the poor contestant who has been injured and cannot practice for a prolonged period of time. He gets “rusty” and does not perform well. He needs practice. The Christian who leaves the race and finds himself “out of duty” will soon awaken to a multitude of evils in his life. One needs the association with other Christians and the constant practice that derives from living the godly life on a day-to-day basis. If one does not watch it, he is soon completely out of the race, for good and forever!
4. Few Actually Win the Prize. Most people these days go about their religion as though everyone was somehow guaranteed a win. That is not what Paul says: “Know ye not that they that run in a race run all, but one receives the prize?” He assumes that, for lack of dedication or practice or whatever, there are some who will not complete the race, or will finish it too late to gain the victory. This is what Paul did in the end. He fought the good fight, he finished his course, he kept the faith, and he won his crown of righteousness (2 Tim 4:7,8).
How much does heaven mean to us? It is certainly worth the effort, but will we be willing to put forth those energy essential to gaining the prize? “Even so run; that you may attain!”