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 a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 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.
Way back when, in High School days, I was on the track team, running what was then called the “440” (now 400 meters). I can remember the intensity in the pit of my stomach as I positioned myself at the starting line, ready to blast into the race as the gun fired, followed by the heart-pumping drive to fly down the track, rounding the corners, focusing all energy and stamina on the finish line, endlessly distant, but over so quickly. I won sometimes, not others. But there was no point in even taking part without that drive and determination to give it my all.
Yes, there was competition, with only one of us winning each time, but every time I entered there was the same determined expenditure of pent-up energy.
Paul’s first sentence in this portion of chapter 9 could give us the idea that, as Christians, we’re in an incredibly intense competition with each other – “only one gets the prize.” But that sentence only sets up the illustration. The main point is each individual’s intense engagement of focus, energy, and passion. It’s not that we’re trying to outrun everyone else. It’s that we ourselves are meant to give it everything we’ve got.
It's how we’re meant to engage in discipleship with Jesus, giving it our all. Don’t run aimlessly, Paul says – it will get you nowhere. Changing the metaphor, he says don’t be a boxer who simply punches air – what’s the point? Instead, be intentional.
Paul disciplines his body to make it his slave, rather than being mastered by it. He’s highlighting the many deeds of “the flesh” which can rise up to distract and, indeed, stumble us – sloth, gluttony, sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, fits of anger, dissensions, drunkenness, and more. If we’re running the race with passion, we need to purposefully avoid each of these, training the body to stay focused on the Lord. It takes hard work. Peter makes the same point: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” (1 Peter 4:1).
Similarly with the mind. An athlete needs to stay focused. “The mind of sinful man is death … the sinful mind is hostile to God … Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God”(Romans 8:6-7). If we’re to run the race effectively, we need to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Re-direct your thoughts and imagination continually to keep eyes on Jesus.
Similarly with the will. It’s so easy to lose intentionality, and therefore run aimlessly. Time is a gift. Sabbath rest is included, given for refreshment and recreation. But like an athlete maximizing present time so as to succeed in the race later, we, too, are called to live now motivated by the goal ahead. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” is a prayer that infuses all of life. It needs to impact present time.
I’m now retired. I’m in a new season. My schedule is much more my own than ever before. This portion of Scripture awakens me afresh to be purposeful, to engage the energy of an athlete, running hard, determined, and with passion, setting aside distractions and focusing relentlessly on the prize. It’s a day-by-day challenge.
How about for you?
O Lord, thank you for the gift of being in your service. Renew my mind to take it seriously at every step. Focus my eyes on you and on the hope of your calling. Keep me running toward the goal of your kingdom come, your will be done. I commit myself afresh to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Amen.
Reflect: Is there anything in your schedule that needs to be intentionally re-arranged to better run the race, focused on the prize? Ask the Lord. Set plans as he directs.