1 Corinthians 9:24-27
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.
What is the training necessary for our race?
What are the perishable crowns of this life?
If I was going to paraphrase Paul’s words I would begin this way, “Have you ever reflected on sports and how they teach us about life?” There are many potential parallels between athletics and life but the one Paul focuses his attention on here is the comparison between the single-minded focus needed in training for competition and necessary to the Christian life. It is important to recognize that Christians believe that salvation, our goal of life with God, is a gift of God and not something that is earned. Paul does not want us to make too much of the concept of winning the race, as if our admittance to life with God was somehow dependent on our training and “winning”. Paul’s focus is in helping us see that life with God requires the same focus and determination as an athlete because we are so unaccustomed to life with God. The human mindset is from birth so completely different from God’s mindset that when we first begin to see what God wants from us we could be compared to a 25 year old person setting foot in a gym for the first time. The first time a person steps into a gym to “get in shape” they do not know what the machines do, they do not understand the proper mechanics of working out, they do not understand what training will do to their body, and they do not know how to combine exercises to make the most of their time. The reality is that training is difficult and daunting, this is why most people quit their New Year’s resolution to get in shape within the first few weeks. Changing a lifestyle and creating new habits is difficult, as is staying focused on a goal.
Paul’s focus on training makes me think of the phrase “No Pain, No Gain” because the Christian life is about giving one self to structured daily training with the goal of changing the person in the mirror. The Church consistently preaches love and that often can delude us into a mindset that the road is easy, because we forget just how difficult it can be to love another person. We forget that it can be tough to care for the interests of another more than our own. We forget that becoming the best version of our self is a daily struggle throughout our lives. Just like the best athletes are generally the ones who are most mentally committed to achieving there goals the Christian life is best lived out by those who can continually focus on the goal– a deep transformational relationship with God.
The overall goal of the Christian life is this deep transformational relationship, but that is a huge goal and one thing I have learned in athletics is that such big goals are unrealistic and therefore undoable. Not that we cannot achieve such a life transformational change but if we are going to truly change we must focus on more manageable goals. When I lifted regularly my goal was always the next five pounds, when I played sports competitively my goal was always to improve in one small part of the game. Yes, I might have larger goals ideas for the season or standards of performance that would help me know I “arrived”, but what kept me motivated was the small goals– the next achievement.
The Christian life is the same, it is difficult to focus on everything necessary to becoming more like God, instead we must set small goals which are achievable. What are your goals for this stage in your journey. Perhaps like the person walking into the gym for the first time, your goal is simply to get started. Maybe your goal is simply to think about God regularly, maybe your goal is to pray more frequently, maybe your goal is to be more generous. When I am setting a short-term goal my thoughts turn to three places Matthew 5, 1 Corinthians 13, and Galatians 5. The characteristics listed in the Beatitudes, the Fruit of the Spirit,and Paul’s love chapter help provide me with measuring rods for how much my life reflects what God would want. If life with God will consist of living in these standards then committing to make my life reflect them is part of loving God. And so I set my goal, this year my goal is to be more patient, because I see where I allow my temper to control my actions and I see where that does not reflect God. So know that my character does not reflect my goal, I now begin to train myself to achieve this goal. Just like if my goal was to run a 6:00 minute mile (a realistic goal at my age), I would start to jog improving my endurance. My exercises would include sprinting, longer runs, stretching, and even strength training. So my goal of developing patience requires me to exercise building up my patience and recognizing that there will be mental and emotional struggles involved in improving in this area. Developing patience requires me to practice work outs like silence, reflection, meditation, prayer. Why? Because patience is about listening to others and letting them anger me without retaliating in kind. If we are to approach the Christian life like a world class athlete disciplined for their sport we must set small goals and stay mentally focused on completing that goal and when one goal is completed we move on to the next. repeating this pattern until before long the training is simply one of many of our habits.