If you were an athlete who aspired to win a medal in the Olympic Games, there’s only one thing you would need besides an extraordinary athletic gifting: a ruthless, life-consuming focus on getting the prize.
Have you ever looked at an Olympic athlete’s daily training regimen? Each sport is unique, but most athletes would keep a schedule something like this:
- Wake up early
- Eat a carefully planned breakfast of just the right amount of carbs, protein, and fat content calories as well as fluids
- Early morning training exercises focusing on particular muscle groups, vigilantly executing the proper warm-up, intensity, and cool-down procedures, mindful of hydration
- Eat a carefully planned snack to fuel the right amount of energy needed for the next phase
- Late morning training session focusing on other particular muscle groups, vigilantly
- Eat a carefully planned lunch
- Midday rest to prevent overly fatigued muscles, often reviewing training issues with coaches or viewing training or competition videos
- Eat a carefully planned snack
- Afternoon training session focusing on other particular muscle groups, vigilantly
- Eat a carefully planned dinner
- Evening purposeful relaxation, mindful to prepare for the next day’s training
- Sleep to ensure eight hours of restful recovery
The pursuit of an Olympic gold medal is all-consuming. Athletes must structure their entire life around the training required for that elite level of competition because this pursuit can only be achieved with a ruthlessly narrow focus and rigorous discipline.
This convicted me again after pondering this exhortation from Paul:
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)
Corinth was the host city to the Isthmian Games, where elite athletes from all over the ancient Greek-speaking world gathered to compete in years between the quadrennial Olympiad. So Paul’s analogy was particularly powerful for his Corinthian readers.
And what Paul was saying would have been just as convicting to the affluent, indulgent first-century Corinthians as it is to us affluent, indulgent twenty-first-century Christians in the West: The Christian life should be lived with the ruthless focus and discipline of an elite athlete.
But let’s not make the mistake of focusing primarily on the ruthless part — the running, the beating, the strict discipline. Very few athletes would subject themselves to the rigors and pain of training because they desire rigor and pain themselves. What do they desire? The prize!
Olympians “exercise self-control in all things,” deny themselves many worldly enjoyments and purge their lives of distractions, in order “to receive a perishable wreath.” In other words, they do it for the glory of the prize. They do it for the joy that the glory brings.
These athletes are hedonists, not legalists or stoics. They’re in love with glory, not asceticism. Their self-denial simply shows how glorious they consider the prize to be. They only give up indulgences that distract and detract from the prize. They refrain from indulging themselves lest they end up unable to compete — disqualified — and lose the prize they desire.
Run to Obtain the Prize
That’s why Paul chose Olympic-level athletes as an analogy. The analogy is meant to highlight the prize, not the price. The price, the life-consuming focus, discipline, and self-control, only shows the worth of the prize. Paul wants us to join him in running to obtain the prize.
So, like an athlete who aspires to win a gold medal, we must ask ourselves some hard questions:
- How much do I want the prize? This is the most important. We will not pursue a prize we don’t really desire.
- Am I willing to subject myself to strict measures to gain the prize? Is it worth denying myself things I enjoy?
- What am I currently consuming that would hinder me from winning the prize?
- What time commitments must be jettisoned to free up the time necessary to pursue the prize?
- What distractions are robbing my mental attention and emotional energy from focusing on pursuing the prize? What do I need to do to minimize them?
- What bodily and psychological cravings am I indulging that will undermine my obtaining the prize?
- What are areas of ignorance or chronic weakness that could threaten my ability to win the prize without some skilled coaching?
- Am I willing to begin this pursuit today?
- If so, what one thing will I do today to begin making the necessary changes to seriously pursue the prize?
We are in a race, though it is no game (Hebrews 12:1–2). And there is a prize (Philippians 3:8, 14). Olympic wreaths and medals are perishable, but the prize we pursue is imperishable (1 Corinthians 9:25). Olympic glory, among the most glorious moments the world has to offer, is fading. Among the medal winners in the last Olympics, how many names can you recall? I’m quite confident that you don’t know any wreath winners from Paul’s time. That glory has long since faded away. But the glory you will experience if you win this race is both unfading and incomparable (1 Peter 5:4; Romans 8:18).
But this race is hard. We must take Paul seriously here. Winning requires the hedonistically ruthless focus and discipline of an Olympic competitor. It calls for single-mindedness. It calls for laying aside every weight and entangling sin (Hebrews 12:1). But the point is not the painful price, but the surpassing pleasure of the prize. We run for the joy!
So let us run so as to obtain this prize and lay aside everything that might disqualify us.