Run the Race

As the calendar turns to September, American tennis player Serena Williams is trying to win her twenty-fourth major championship as she competes in the U.S. Open in New York City. Serena is trying to win her first major tennis championship since giving birth to her daughter last September. The U.S. Open is a grueling two-week event in which the top men and women tennis players in the world compete. The headline of the first week of the event was the high temperatures, with on-court temperatures reaching as high as 107 degrees. Winning in the hot conditions has required hydration, stamina, and good old-fashioned grit.  

Every man who qualifies for the tournament believes he will raise the first place trophy on the last day. Likewise, every woman who plays in the U.S. Open believes she will be the women’s champion. Every player intends to make it to the finish line and win the prize. Each player has a single goal: finish first.

Whether it’s playing tennis or running a race, the goal is the same. The purpose of competing in a competition is lifting the victor’s trophy in triumph. Athletics serves as a wonderful illustration for the Christian life. In 1 Corinthians 9:25 Paul writes, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” In 1 Corinthians 9:27 Paul adds, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

I find two words in verse 27 particularly interesting. The first is “discipline,” which is translated from the Greek word hupopiazo meaning “to beat black and blue like a boxer who beats his body.” The second word is “under control” from the Greek word doulagogeo meaning “to lead away into slavery” or “to subject to stern and rigid discipline.” The point of these two words is that the life of a faithful Christian requires self-control, personal sacrifice, and a heavy dose of discipline.

In this section of scripture, Paul compares the Christian life to a race. Running a race requires hard work, personal sacrifice, and discipline. While there is great joy in winning a race, a runner will not put in the necessary work if he or she forgets why the race is important. To keep running, the runner must remember his or her reason for being in the race. In verse 24 Paul reminds us that we run with discipline so that we may obtain an imperishable prize.

The writer of Hebrews put it this way, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Here is the parallel for the Christian: since Jesus is the Author and Finisher of our faith, pleasing Him is our primary motivation. If we successfully keep our hearts and minds focused on Christ, we will “win” the race set before us. Pursuing the prize is not a matter of selfish ambition; it’s a matter of pleasing our Savior and receiving the imperishable prize He has reserved for his children in heaven.

In order to finish or race and please Christ, we must practice self-control, self-denial, and discipline. Every athlete that runs a race or plays a sport must practice discipline in every aspect of his of her life to win. The amount of discipline required to put in the hours of training, eating the right foods, and getting the proper amount of sleep requires commitment and personal sacrifice. Runners and athletes must lay aside every distraction if they want to achieve their goals. Committed runners and athletes don’t allow the rain, heat, cold, or wind to stop them. Successful athletes persevere, regardless of the conditions.  

In Hebrews 12:1, the writer of Hebrews says we must run with “endurance” (ESV) or “patience” (KJV). “Endurance” comes from the Greek word hupomone meaning “steadfastness.” The word was used in the New Testament to refer to the characteristic of a man or woman who has not swerved from his or her deliberate purpose. Such commitment requires a patient and sustaining perseverance. The Christian life is not a one-hundred-yard dash; it’s a very long marathon that requires self-control, personal sacrifice, discipline, and even some good old-fashioned grit. You cannot finish a marathon with little or no training and preparation. You will not “win” in your Christian life apart from applying the Holy Spirit empowered self-control to our lives. We must have spiritual endurance to complete the race that is set before us as Christ-followers.

Paul rightfully notes that the prize for finishing first in secular race or athletic competition is “corruptible.” For the competitors in Isthmian games held in Corinth, the award was a temporal wreath made of pine or celery. Today’s Olympians win a medal they can hang on the wall, but eventually the medallion will rust and decay. Unlike the temporal awards won in this world, our heavenly reward is eternal and it will never fade, decay, or be destroyed.

The Apostle Paul reinforces the danger of not maintaining our spiritual discipline. If we do not practice Holy Spirit empowered self-control, we can face disqualification. Athletes who cheat are disqualified from the competition. Believers who fail to run the race according to God’s guidelines are in danger of being removed from their place of ministry. Paul did not want to forfeit his opportunity to effectively serve in gospel ministry; therefore, he was determined to faithfully run his race.

The self-indulgence that develops from a lack of self-control can destroy your testimony and opportunity for service. Paul’s time in ministry could be cut short with even one instance of self-indulgence. At the end of his race Paul wanted to be able to declare, “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” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Staying in the ministry is not dependent on the “results” of your ministry; it’s dependent on your personal walk with Lord. Perhaps it’s time for you to recommit to the race that is set before you. To run with endurance you must keep your eyes on the Savior and your focus on the eternal prize awaiting you in glory.

Being an athlete requires hours of rigorous training. If you want to be an Olympian you must practice self-discipline, follow a strict diet, train vigorously, and stay committed to the goal. In other words, you must count the cost and pay the price necessary to win the prize. Likewise, you must count the cost of following Jesus. When many people figured out what following Jesus would cost them, they just went home. They were unwilling to make the investment necessary to be a faithful disciple of Jesus.

Are you willing to practice the discipline necessary to be a faithful disciple of Jesus? Yes, it’s easier to go home. But, there is a prize awaiting those who are willing to deny themselves and pursue Christ. Run your race. Run it well. And run it for the glory of God.

Jay Knolls