It would be hard to completely miss the ongoing coverage of the Olympics. I don’t watch a lot of sports, but I confess to being drawn into the Olympics. It takes a great deal of dedication and hard work to simply compete there, so it is not surprising that we find many life lessons from sports. Most of the athletic imagery in the New Testament is found in the writings of Paul. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul mentions two sports: running in a race and boxing.
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. (1 Corinthians 9:24, ESV)
What is Paul’s point of comparison? It is not that only one receives the prize. The marathon race that is Christian living is one in which all who are in Christ receive the prize. Paul’s point is found in the phrases: “all the runners run” and “run that you may obtain it.”
Paul is emphasizing that Christian living needs determined effort. Someone might question, “Aren’t we saved by faith?” The answer is, of course, “Yes!” We are saved by trusting in God and what has been done for us in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. I come with no merit of my own. But it is misleading to think of faith as some “easy-believism.” The race imagery reminds us that we need an active faith, a working faith. The Christian is a part of a great spiritual contest. It is no good to simply begin the race. We must run the entire race.
This determined effort means that our lives are not aimless but have a goal and objective. Note Paul’s sports analogies for this idea: “I do not run aimlessly” and “I do not box as one beating the air.” Runners do not zigzag down the track. It would waste steps and energy. They have a goal to cross the finish line. Boxers don’t waste energy boxing the air. They want to land blows on the opponent to win the contest. Paul is encouraging us to live the Christian life with the same sense of purpose.
Determined effort and purpose naturally involves sacrifice. If I have a purpose in life, and I’m determined to go a certain direction, then not everything fits with that purpose and determination. I must exercise self-discipline to coincide with my determination and purpose. Again, the self-control of an athlete is an admirable model.
This discipline is so important that even Paul could consider the possibility of his being disqualified from the prize despite his preaching to others if he lacked it (1 Corinthians 9:27). We cannot toy with worldliness and sin as if they are harmless.
As we watch the games, we can see the importance of determination, purpose, and discipline. May we be reminded of their importance to Christian living, because we are engaged in a struggle greater than the Olympics.