Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. – 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV
The Christian life is not a competition. It is not to be one believer pitted against another in some kind of race for spiritual supremacy or religious recognition. Christians are not to compare themselves with one another in hopes of proving that they are somehow superior or further along in their faith. So Paul’s words in these closing verses of chapter nine are not to be taken as an encouragement to for believers to compete against their brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul is definitely encouraging that believers strive in the “race” of life. But his emphasis is on completion, not competition. He wanted the Corinthians to live their lives with purpose, keeping the ultimate goal of their salvation in mind. It was the way he lived his own life and why he was able to say to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8 ESV).
Paul knew his life on earth was not all there was to his existence. There was more to come. And he lived with the constant awareness that his days on earth were numbered, and the older he got, the more he realized the end of his earthly existence was getting closer. Which is why he told Timothy, “the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6 ESV). He knew that one day he would die and stand before God. And he also knew that his efforts at running the race on this earth would be judged and rewarded by God. So as long as he drew breath, he ran with purpose, with his eyes on the ultimate goal. He wanted to finish the race well, not worrying whether he came in first or last place, but that he had given it his all. When Paul talks about “the prize”, he is referring to the award given to the victor who participated in the Greek games. It was typically a crown of garlands. But Paul is using the word metaphorically to refer to our heavenly prize: eternal life. It is the same word he used when writing to the Philippian believers. “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14 ESV).
The goal of our existence is eternity, not earthly superiority, comfort, convenience, pleasure, recognition, or temporal rewards. We get our reward in heaven. We may experience God’s blessings here, but the best is yet to come. So Paul tells us to run with our eyes on the prize, with the proper goal in mind. This requires self-discipline and a determination not to let yourself get distracted or deterred from your goal. It requires training and persistent practice. Again, Paul told Timothy, “Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them. And athletes cannot win the prize unless they follow the rules” (2 Timothy 2:3-5 NLT). We have to stay focused. Distractions are a constant threat for those of us who are running the race of life as believers. The world would have us pursue other goals and tempt us with different finish lines. We could easily make our lives all about success or significance. We could spend all our time pursuing pleasure and prosperity. We could be driven to win the prize of temporal happiness rather than eternal joy. So Paul tells us to run purposefully, not aimlessly. He encourages us to do all that we have to do to make sure we cross the intended finish line. The author of Hebrews gives us similar words of encouragement.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. – Hebrews 12:1 NLT
Competitive runners have every right to eat what they want. After all, the expend far more calories than the average person. And because they put so much stress and strain on their bodies, they have the right to sleep in and take it easy. But the truly good ones don’t do those things. They may have the right, but they discipline their bodies. They forego their rights in order to gain the prize. They give up their temporal desires in order to achieve that one thing for which they desire most: Victory. And that is how it should be with us as believers. We should never let our earthly rights and privileges get in the way the pursuit of our eternal reward. And because our life on this earth is to be done in the context of community, we are to run the race collectively, not independently. Paul wanted to see the Corinthians finish strong. He was their coach and cheer leader. He ran alongside them, urging them on and keeping them focused on the prize. We are to do the same for one another. This last week in the Olympic games in Brazil, during one of the longer races in track and field, two young ladies were inadvertently tripped up as all the competitors jockeyed for position. They both crashed to the track, ending their hopes of advancing to the next round of competition. But then one of the fallen runners got up and reached down to help her fallen competitor get to her feet. Together, they made their way slowly and painfully around the track, until they were able to cross the finish line together. That is the picture that comes into my mind when I read these words from Paul. At some point, we have to focus our attention on completing rather than competing. We have to make it our aim to finish the race, whatever the cost. Because the reward that awaits us is well worth the effort. But we also need to care for those who are running at our side. We should desire to see them make it to the end as well. Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us, but let us not run, ignoring all those running beside us. And let us not allow our finish to be at the expense of other believers who might need our encouragement and assistance along the way.