Can you imagine a football player that was playing, but didn't know the point?
The quarterback catches the ball in shotgun formation and fakes the hand-off to the running back. A defensive lineman bites on the fake and crashes into the decoy, a split second before another D-linemen comes off the edge, and a linebacker defeats a block up the middle. The quarterback recognizes the linemen’s angle and spins up-field to evade the sack, but the linebacker anticipates the spin move and adjusts to hit him as he turns downfield to run. At the last second quarterback sees the linebacker out of the corner of his face mask, plants, and cuts between the two defenders! He escapes the collapsing pocket and then stands there. He doesn’t look for open receivers. He doesn’t throw the ball away. He doesn’t sprint for a first down. He just stands there. The fun was in starting the play, and getting away from the defenders. He’s playing the game, but not trying to win it. So, if it’s absurd in the context of a game, why do most Christians compete and live this way?
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Paul has transitioned from defending his apostleship and what he has sacrificed in service of the Lord, to displaying the clarity of Christian calling through competition. To win souls to Christ, Paul has willingly given up professional privileges and personal freedoms. Chapter 9 concludes with a call to action that can only be answered by those that set their sights squarely on the Savior:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” -1 Corinthians 9:24-27
. . . if it’s absurd in the context of a game, why do most Christians compete and live this way?
Paul pulls from the Isthmian Games of the time, second only to the Olympics. Utilizing their familiarity with the games he places them at the starting line, giving them the only pep talk any true competitor needs: “Run to win.” Paul highlights the sacrifice and self control that denotes all elite and serious athletes. There is a level of discipline that defines all athletes that should be commonplace for believers. When we say no to something, we are saying yes to something else. No to that drink or blunt, is yes to being aware and alert the next day for the competition, but that can’t be it. If the only reason you discipline yourself is for competition then you fall into the same category as the other competitors that Paul references.
Notice what Paul says. Athletes exercise self-control in all things, and discipline their body for a perishable crown. Crowns that will one day rust, be stolen, or at best just forgotten. All the drive is in pursuit of winning and the benefits that come with it, but what about after? The athlete that wakes up everyday visualizing his goal of starting, being the best, or winning it all is shortsighted, if not blind. Look at the comparison we see in Paul. He too disciplines himself and exercises self-control, but he is in pursuit of an im-perishable crown. A reward that does not fade. The prize given to those that have surrendered their life to Christ after accepting the blood spilled on the cross for their sins. Once that reality has been takes root, they see with a new vision for life that bleeds over into their athletics as well. After beholding the grace of Christ, Paul has now correctly aimed his life at glorifying God in all he does. Have you seen correctly?
Your life is about the glory of God, through the gifts and opportunities He has provided you, while calling others to the same. This produces a new mission in your athletics; to no longer compete or live aimlessly. Our aim of God's glory and showcasing the Gospel, take the various areas of our lives and fold them into a fist of focus for impact. Every activity that you take part of now has meaning beyond just the scoreboard and starting positions. The reward that God provides in Christ is the only reward that never perishes, and lasts for all eternity. Not only does it last, but it’s already been bought. Christ’s death in our place for all the times our aim has been on something besides God, and resurrection from the grave, has already guaranteed victory. All we need do is repent and believe, and we will be able to fix our aim on the glory of God as we use our lives to compete for a crown that Christ has already won.