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Two Differences

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Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.—I Corinthians 9:24

I am not much of a sports person. I am not coordinated, I generally don’t know the rules, and I don’t have a favorite team. When I watch a football game, most of my energy goes to trying to figure out which team is which. I couldn’t catch a fly ball to save my life and my running is about as natural looking as a penguin’s. Yet you don’t have to be an athlete or a sports fanatic to get the point that Paul is making in this verse. It isn’t even necessary to suppose that Paul closely followed the thoroughly pagan athletic culture that he is here referencing. Though the use Paul makes of it is thoroughly unique, the imagery of the dedicated athlete preparing for a race was part of the stock in trade of moral exhortation throughout the ancient world.
Paul is simply drawing attention to the rather obvious fact that no one, in any credible athletic event, wins an award simply for showing up. If you want to win the prize, as temporary as that prize may be, you must give it all you have—and then some. Those that would win the mastery must strive with all their might, giving themselves over to training that is often painful and always difficult. They must deny themselves many things that they would otherwise gladly enjoy. Distractedly jogging from ice-cream stand to ice-cream stand will never make you a competitive runner. Effort and self-denial are not optional. Winning takes work.
This was something that Paul understood. He knew that faithfulness in the Christian life doesn’t happen by accident—even for him. What he was trying to get the Corinthians to see is that their carelessness wasn’t going to cut it. Just like winning a race, finishing the Christian life well takes maximum effort. They couldn’t simply do whatever they wanted, deny themselves only what they felt like giving up, and hope that everything would turn out well in the end. Such a course would call into question whether or not their profession of Christ, their claim to be in the race of faith, was even a reality to begin with. Long term flippancy towards the effort and denial demanded by the race of faith is only an option for those whose presence in the race is apparent rather than real.
Yet though the Christian life has many points in common with the running of a race, it also has some very important points of difference. There is only one gold medal in each Olympic race. You get nothing for doing your best—only for being the best. The race of faith isn’t like that. Paul didn’t tell the Corinthians to run, so that one of them might have a chance at winning the prize. In Greek, the command to run and the verb translated, ye may attain are both in the plural. The race of faith is demanding—but it is not a competition. In fact, as other Scriptures make clear, this race is impossible to run all on your own. Community is not optional.
The second difference is even more vital than the first. When you run in a physical race, whether or not you win the prize is completely dependent on your own ability. All must strive in doubt, wondering whether or not their effort is going to pay off in the end, wondering if they will have anything to show for all of their training and self denial. Yet as Paul told the Corinthians just a few chapters later, those who run the race that is set before the believer never have to wonder whether or not their labor will be in vain. Faithful striving and self denial will be worth it when we reach the judgement seat of the One who has run before us. His blood alone enables us to enter the race. His power alone is sufficient to sustain our striving in it. His resurrection guarantees that our labor will not be in vain.
So run. Run with all your might. Run as if everything depended on your effort. Run as if there was only one prize to be had. Yet as you are giving it everything that you have, never forget that this race isn’t about you. It is about Jesus. If you are truly a believer, truly in the race you profess to be in, He is the One who got you in. He is keeping you in. His power will bring you to the finish line. His resurrection guarantees that it will all be worth it in the end. Your labor, no matter how painful now, will not be in vain.

Soli Deo Gloria!