Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain [it]. And everyone who competes [for the prize] is temperate in all things. Now they [do it] to obtain a perishable crown, but we [for] an imperishable [crown]. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as [one who] beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring [it] into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 NKJV
The past few weeks we have been talking about the struggles we face as believers, and how God wants us to deal with them. Although I have examined these verses before, there are just some parts of scripture we need to revisit once in awhile because of the importance of the wisdom they contain. This message from Paul has always been one of my favorites because running played a significant part in my life for many years. I started running track when I was 13 years old, and continued to run competitively until I graduated from college some 10 or 11 years later. I learned many lessons from my participation which I have carried with me ever since, and which have applied to many facets of my life. This passage of scripture has always been one of my favorites, not just because it refers to our lives as believers as a race to be run, but because it teaches some of the very same principles I was taught during my years as an runner. I want to share those with you this morning and hopefully, without boring you, use a few memorable moments from my experiences to illustrate them. I will call these the four "be" rules of running.
1. Run To Be Victorious. In verse 24 Paul says we should run to win! We should not just be satisfied to be in the race, but rather run in order to win the prize. What we are being told here is that we are required as believers to run for first place, and give our maximum effort for God. I recall the first time I was selected to participate in an invitational only competition while in college. This of course was the sort of recognition most of us lived for then. Yet imagine my feelings when I arrived at the competition and found I was the last one selected for my event, and my qualifying time was the slowest in the field. Of course I could have given my very best effort in front of a stadium full of people, but in reality I was so affected by the knowledge I was outclassed I not only came in last, I actually ran slower than my qualifying time. By not running to win, I not only lost, but looked pretty bad doing it. My coach later made sure I understood the lesson with a little pointed critique in language no one could misunderstand. It must have worked, for I never forgot it, and later had an opportunity to redeem myself against some of the very same competition. Our attitude plays a very important part in the effort we put forth, and the bottom line is we must run with the attitude we can win.
For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith. 1 John 5:4 NKJV
Run to win, for the victory is already ours!
2. Run With Discipline. Verse 25 tells us that if we want to compete, we need to be "temperate" in everything. Temperate here is another word for self-control, or to be steadfast and unmovable. Have you ever looked closely at what athletes, especially runners, eat and don't eat? As someone who has always thought of pizza being at the very top of the food pyramid, imagine how hard it was for me to control what I ate while competing. Eat this, don't eat that, and don't even think of drinking cola. Of course there was also the obligatory carb chowdown the night before the competition where spaghetti was king. (I am amazed I still like it!) Then there was the eight hours (minimum) sleep every night, and no staying out late on weekends etc. and especially avoid any "high risk" activities with friends that might result in an accidental injury. Boy, what fun. Yet I forced myself to do these things with the knowledge it would pay off in the end. The rules God has put down for us can often seem to be taking some of the fun out of life, yet we need to understand everything He asks us to do, and the things He tells us to avoid are there for only one reason; to help us win.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 15:58 NKJV
The do's and don'ts of the Christian life may at times seem to be a burden, yet we are told without question that our efforts to live life as God wants is not in vain.
3. Run Efficiently. Paul uses a great illustration of running in verse 26 that I have always liked. He actually paints a picture that most of us could recognize, and that is of someone trying to run while beating at the air with their hands. I had the opportunity to observe many other competitors running styles over the years, and always wondered about my own. While in college I took a class called The Biomechanics of Human Movement where I learned the principles that govern our ability to walk and to run. One of the most important rules of running is to be sure all of your movements are focused in the direction you want to go. In other words, don't flap your arms like you want to fly when you are trying to run. In order to perform a self-critique, I had my coach film me running in a straight line, and wouldn't you know it, I had some very "inefficient" habits to break. After only a couple of weeks my times improved dramatically solely because I was obeying the number one rule of running. If we find ourselves struggling in life the first thing we should do as believers is take an honest look at ourselves to see if we are doing everything we need to do in order to move in the direction God wants us to go. Are we being distracted by something Satan uses to move us in a different direction? We must continually examine our lives to be sure we are on God's path, and not another.
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. Romans 6:12 NKJV
If Satan can get us to form habits not "in line" with Gods' will for us, we become inefficient runners.
4. Run With Focus. We are told in verse 27 that Paul had to mentally bring his body into subjection in order to run the race without being disqualified. His point here is to say that there are rules to follow, and by breaking the rules he stood the chance of being disqualified. Pauls' "race" was as an apostle spreading the message of Jesus to an unbelieving world. If he violated the rules he preached to others, his ministry would then become ineffective. So Paul "focused" on the rules in order not to fail. When I first started running I developed a bad habit that cost me quite a few races, and that was looking around to see where everyone else was in order to know how I was doing. By not looking ahead, and focusing on the finish line, I actually got disqualified from a couple of races for running out of my lane. In order not to be disqualified, we as believers need to focus our eyes on the finish line and not be distracted by the things going on around us. Remember what happened to Peter when he lost focus?
But when he saw that the wind [was] boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, "Lord, save me!" Matthew 14:30 NKJV
We know what awaits us at the finish line at the end of our race. Our focus should be on that, the finish, and nothing else.
Why follow all these rules? Paul simply tells us that if we don't, we face the possibility of disqualification. Now at first glance many wonder if this is talking about losing our salvation, but let me assure you this is not what Paul is saying. Rather, what he is referring to is losing his right to teach others because he fails to practice what he teaches. I'm sure most of us can think of a situation where we had those thoughts about someone else who was trying to tell us how or what to do. No one wants to take advice from someone who doesn't take his or hers own advice and here Paul tells us God will not allow us to teach others if we ourselves do not live as He says we should.
Is it a struggle to live this way? Certainly, however God understands this which is why He decided to give us the help we need in order to live in a way that glorifies Him. Next we will look closer at the power given to us in the person of the Holy Spirit.