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… (1 Cor. 9:24).
This is one of the metaphors Paul used to describe the Christian life. He likened it to an athletic context – specifically a race. Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth, and his readers would likely have had a pretty vivid picture of athletic contests.
Of course, the most famous games in ancient times were the Olympics, but between the Olympics there was another set of games held right there in Corinth. These contests were called the Isthmian Games, and Paul may have even seen them. So when he wrote to the Corinthians that the Christian life was like a race in which you compete, they would certainly have been familiar with the metaphor.
So if that’s true – that the Christian life is like a race – what are the implications for us today? There are at least three of them:
1. The Christian life is a journey.
A race is, fundamentally, a journey; it is forward motion from one point to the next. So the first and most basic implication of the metaphor for us is that the Christian life is also a journey. And though that journey will be filled with ups and downs, joys and pains, it is a journey with purpose and meaning.
Just like a race isn’t an aimless kind of walk, so also is our journey with Jesus. From the moment we believe in Jesus, God puts us on a journey of transformation. We are, day by day, moment by moment, being formed in the likeness of Christ. We are becoming like Him. And while that progress is painfully slow sometimes, we can look back over the course of our lives in Christ and say along with John Newton:
“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
We – all of us – are still in process. Still growing. Still changing. Still becoming holy. Because God has already made us His children and given us the righteousness of His Son, we are becoming what we have already become. This is our journey.
2. The Christian life is disciplined.
If the Christian life is like a race, then the second implication for us is that it is disciplined.
Despite what the training montages in the Rocky movies might lead you to believe, it’s hard work to be an athlete. It’s waking up at 4 am every morning and going to bed early every night. It’s having a plan for what you eat and how you spend your time. It’s about making sure that all the small choices in life all point to the one goal. That’s the metaphor Paul chose for growing in Christ – it’s an athletic contest, not a magic show where doves come flying out of a hat.
Paul continues to explain this in 1 Corinthians 9:
Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor. 9:26-27).
3. The Christian life has a goal.
If the Christian life is like a race, then a third implication for us is that there is a goal. Here’s how he put it in 1 Corinthians 9 again:
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 (1 Cor. 9:25).
Back to the Isthmian Games, the prize for the winner was a wreath that was worn like a crown. But what is that goal?
In a world that is fixated on achievement and personal validation, the Christian doesn’t seek after a temporary acknowledgment of their greatness, but instead has the goal of a crown that will last forever. What we are after in this disciplined journey of life is to life faithfully to Jesus, doing what He has called us to do and being who He has called us to be. It is our goal to life in such a way that, having been changed by His grace, we are faithful stewards of what God has given to us and birthed in us. Our goal is to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” just as the man did in Jesus’ story (Matt. 25:23).
Yes, life is a race. May we run it with all our might.