24 Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. 25 Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown. 26 So I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. 27 Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
While visiting my family in Arizona last month, I drove past the martial arts studio where I trained for almost 21 years. To be ready to compete once a year, I spent at least three days a week training in the studio and the remainder of the week training at home or the gym. Simply competing was never enough for me; like most athletes, I trained to win.
This type of daily discipline is what Paul is writing about in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. In this passage, Paul is using the Isthmian games as a spiritual analogy. In order to compete in the Isthmian games, competitors had to commit to at least ten months of intense training, including abiding by strict dietary restrictions. These athletes understood that preparation for the race was going to cost them something. In most sports, whether you win or lose depends more on how you trained than it does on the race or game itself.
Just as the athlete’s daily eating, sleeping, and training habits contribute directly to their performance, the way we as Christians live our lives directly contributes to our spiritual health. We are running a spiritual race, and the prize is eternal. One of my favorite passages in Scripture is 1 Timothy 4:8, which says, “For the training of the body has limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Instead of competing for a gold medal, we train for something more significant—we train for transformation. With our eyes set on an eternal prize, we accept the grace of salvation and train to be closer to the Father, to be more Christ-like ourselves, and to be better able to share the gospel with others.
In reference to 1 Corinthians 9:26-27, Eugene Peterson said, “I’m giving it everything I got. No sloppy living for me!” Paul is warning us as Christians to stop running aimlessly and to start making intentional decisions. Just as there was a high cost to the athletes training for the Isthmian games, following Jesus will cost us something too.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- What is the cost? Is there anything I need to let go of to grow closer to Jesus?
- When am I most prone to sloppy living?
- What is one way I can cultivate intentional spiritual growth this week? (Reading my Bible tonight? Setting aside a designated time for prayer each day? Joining a group of believers who can help hold me accountable to growth and change?)
Pray for Bereket and Becca, global workers in our church family. They are navigating a season of deep loss, while they work cross-culturally locally. Soon they will move overseas to bring the gospel to the unreached. Pray for healing, wisdom, next steps, and a deep sense of God’s presence.