1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Think like an Athlete
When have you put discipline and effort into achieving a goal?
Training for a marathon. Prepping for a 100-mile Century bike ride. Swimming, cycling, and running on the way to the completion of a Sprint triathlon. Since I turned age 40, I’ve done them all as part of a mid-life focus on endurance athletic events.
As a result, I know what the apostle Paul is talking about when he says, “Everyone who competes practices self-discipline in everything” (1 Corinthians 9:25). Achieving my athletic goals requires discipline and effort, and I always “run to win” (verse 24), even though I usually end up in the middle (or back) of the pack.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that faithful Christians are supposed to act like athletes. Athleticism was highly valued in the Greco-Roman world — athletes were esteemed, and there were arenas in most major cities. But sports were not just a pleasant pastime. The games were warlike, and competitors did battle with each other — just as the Golden State Warriors battle the Cleveland Cavaliers today. Paul wants us to be fit and ready Christian athletes, determined to run the race to win it.
In order to be victorious in competition, followers of Christ must exercise self-control in all things, so that they will be able to “receive a crown that never dies” (verse 25). Good Christians are not softies, according to Paul — they are highly disciplined individuals.
Wanting to avoid the accusation that he is merely an armchair athlete, Paul assures the Corinthians that he practices what he preaches: “I’m landing punches on my own body and subduing it like a slave. I do this to be sure that I myself won’t be disqualified after preaching to others” (verse 27).
Paul is committed to a life of focused, goal-oriented, rigorous self-discipline — one that is devoted to the success of his mission of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. The greatest tragedy, according to Paul, would be for him to proclaim the gospel to others, and then end up being disqualified in the final judgment.
What we have here is the metaphor of an athlete, one that challenges us to exercise self-control, run with purpose, and not only punish our bodies but actually enslave them. Paul is not saying that we save ourselves through self-discipline — no, only God can offer us the gift of salvation. But Paul is saying that our lives are shaped each day by the choices we make.
And so we have to ask ourselves the questions: Will I make something of the life I have been given, or will I waste it? Will I run aimlessly and without direction, or toward the goal of eternal life with God? Will I behave like a disciplined athlete, or like an undisciplined couch potato?
It is much easier to make the right choices if you think like an athlete.
Lord, inspire me to run the Christian race with discipline. Amen.