Sunday, March 22, 2009

Running to Win the Prize

If you’ve trained for an athletic competition, then you know the commitment and dedication necessary to qualify, compete, and win the competition. And even if you’re not competing for a prize, but rather for a personal best, the regime is still demanding — requiring over and above what you normally give to the sport.

In fact, is you Google Olympic training, you’ll find that six training sessions of four to eight hours a week is a minimum for a person training for a triathlon. And for gold medalists, training is year-round and often 10-12 hours a day. For Michael Phelps, peak training involves swimming 80,000 meters—nearly 50 miles—every week during two-a-day practices, and sometimes three times a day, every day including Sundays.*

Winning an Incorruptible Crown

The Olympic games must have been familiar to the Apostle Paul, a Roman citizen living and traveling during the height of the ancient games in 55 AD. During the time of Paul, the games were held every four years. (Note: the games ran from 776 BC to 393 AD when they were banned by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I.) The victors were crowned with wreaths made from a sacred olive tree that grew behind the temple of Zeus. Legend had it that Hercules, the founder of the games, planted the olive tree. Victors paraded around a grove to the music of a flute while fans chanted songs written by prominent poets.

In fact, Paul uses the games when he writes to the church at Corinth. As a thriving city of trade, Corinth was home to at least 12 temples, including a temple in the center of the city dedicated to Apollo, the son of Zeus and a pagan Olympian deity. And Corinth held foot races in their own Isthmian games every other year. These games were second only to the Olympics.

So when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he used an analogy that most Corinthians would identify with immediately—a regimen of athletic training. But Paul wasn’t talking about training for athletic competition. Rather he referred to the race we as Christians run in following Christ.

In I Corinthians 9:24-27 (NIV), Paul says, “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. 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.”

Keeping an Eye on Training

I can’t help but read Paul’s words and know that Christian discipleship requires far more training and has far more at stake than any Olympic race. Paul continues, “Therefore, I do not run as a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Clearly, Paul refers to the need to train himself to resist temptation and sin even as he preaches the Gospel. And like Paul, we must be vigilant and un
yielding in resisting temptations of our sinful nature. Our goal, like Paul’s, is to glorify the Lord Jesus in all that we do. Ours is not an aimless race toward a finish line that is arbitrarily set for the duration of a competition. Our finish line is winning the incorruptible crown of life.

The Lord calls us to run like winners. As I considered Paul’s words, the Lord reminded me that winning requires all that we are and all that have. It’s easy to compete for personal glory and for the accolades of bystanders. But He reminds us not to listen to the world. Rather we are to listen only to the Lord, and He will guide us over the finish line.

* From USA Today