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. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor 9:24-27, New international Version).
This has long been one of my favorite passages in the Bible because it inspires me to live purposefully. Also, since taking up running, I have come to appreciate it even more because it employs one of my favorite metaphors—running a race. It is very easy for me to make the connection between life and running a race (see My Running Story).
Following are some of my thoughts on what Paul has to say about running (living) to win.
“Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
The New Living Translation states this a little differently: “Run to win!” Clearly, this is not suggesting that we be competitive with one another, because that would be in violation of other directives (see Another Life Lesson From Running for more on this subject of competitiveness). Instead, “ running to win” is about being the best me that I can be. I am running to win my race. And winning my race is about finishing strong.
“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training…”
“The games” spoken of here are, no doubt, in reference to the ancient Olympics. “Strict training” is a mere hint of the effort and commitment required of elite athletes—then and now. Those who make it to the Olympics have spent years—most of their lives, in many cases—training hours a day in their sports. They get up early, train all morning, eat a very deliberate lunch, take a necessary “recovery nap,” then cross-train, stretch, and do focused exercises most of the afternoon. Somewhere in their schedules, they train mentally, as well, usually with a sports psychologist who helps them develop the skill of overcoming nerves, building confidence and mastering distractions and fears. They eat a deliberate dinner, and they hit the sack early so they can do it all over again the next day. And they maintain this type of schedule for years!
“They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever…”
Wuest’s translations reads: “Everyone who participates in the athletic games exercises constant self-control in all things, those, to be sure, in order that they may receive a perishable victor’s garland of wild olive leaves to be worn as a crown of victory, but as for us [we engage in Christian service, exercising constant self-control to obtain] a victor’s garland which is imperishable.”
I have always been struck by the mental picture painted in the Wuest’s translation of the futility of working so hard for something that fades so quickly. I mean, how long does it take for the olive leaves to wither? True, the “crowns” of today are not quite as perishable (the gold, silver and bronze medals), but in the end, it still remains that “you can’t take it with you.”
Thankfully, the prize that Christ’s followers run for does not perish! Still, to win our race and receive that prize, “strict training” is required. This speaks to me of sacrifice, of priorities, of excellence, of commitment, of a cause. It reminds me of Philippians 3:13-14 where Paul used phrases like “pressing on” and “straining toward.” It definitely bespeaks of engaging resistance. It denotes the opposite of passivity, the necessity for work and a stretching beyond our comfort zones (Getting Comfortable Outside the “Comfort Zone”).
“Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.”
The word, “therefore” references the previous statements. We do not work/run/fight for a crown that fades. No; we are in this for the REAL DEAL! We will live with our prize (or lack of it) for all eternity! THEREFORE, our utmost commitment is required. Our utmost focus. Our utmost “strict training.” We mustn’t go through the motions (running with no destination in mind). We mustn’t play games (shadow boxing, boxing the air).
“No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave…”
Paul belonged to no one (1 Corinthians 9:19), but he made his body his slave—that is, a slave to his spirit-man. His body did not call the shots. Nor did his feelings, his emotions, his moods. Paul’s spirit was dominant.
The phrase “strike a blow” is further defined in Strong’s Greek concordance as “to tease or annoy (into compliance), subdue (one’s passions).” Usually when I think of this verse and of “striking a blow” to my body, I most often default to the “subduing” definition. I certainly have plenty of opportunities to tell my body who’s the boss.
But the other definition—“to tease or annoy into compliance”—brings to light another means of empowering my spirit to dominate over my body and my emotions. For me, the word “tease” sparks the idea of building habits that get the body (and mind and emotions) to do what is right, what is best. I’m sure there were times that Paul subdued his body to get it to do the right thing rather than to take the path of least resistance, but just as surely, Paul also deliberately built habits which “teased forth” correct actions.
I used to think of habits only in a negative context—that is, habits to break, such as overeating or smoking or hitting the snooze button. However, after some enlightenment on the subject, I have come to see habits in a more friendly light.
For instance, I don’t think twice before brushing my teeth first thing after waking in the morning. I don’t have to “subdue” my body and remind it who’s boss and tell it to submit, that whether it likes it or not, I will brush my teeth because it’s the right thing to do. My body doesn’t even argue the subject; it actually cooperates!
Maybe you and your body have reached a truce on the subject of teeth-brushing, too. If so, then you have incorporated a good habit into your life that makes doing the right thing a “given,” a near-mindless act. Any of you who have children know this was not always the case. We aren’t born with that bent to brush our teeth; it is a habit that is developed.
Along those same lines, wouldn’t it be nice if we could build other good, meaningful habits that are not only good for our physical well-being, but habits that are good for us spiritually and relationally, as well? Guess, what? We can!
I think that’s one of the shades of meaning behind Paul’s words: “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave…” He could just as easily have said, “I train my body to do the right thing by teasing out the actions that are necessary to win the prize.”
As an example, not only do I not think twice about brushing my teeth in the morning, but I also don’t have to negotiate and cajole my body to start the day reading the word of God. Over the years, I have trained my body that after getting up, brushing my teeth, starting the coffee, etc., it is time to sit down and spend some quality time with my Father. This activity, this habit, sets the course for my day, and it attunes my spirit to better hear His voice when He speaks to me.
The same goes for exercise. Though I may feel pulled in several directions early in my day, I subdued my body a few years back into prioritizing exercise, knowing that the time and effort invested would return to me many times over in energy and feel-good endorphins. After a few weeks of subduing (also known as “striking a blow”), my body wasn’t putting up as much of a fight. In fact, without thinking about it, I would get dressed for running as soon as I got out of bed. It’s as if my body had been trained to prepare for exercise as soon as awake. Getting out of bed was a “trigger” that teased out a string of actions that eventually resulted in me being outside running.
“…so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
This is very sobering. It appears that it is entirely possible to do the right things and then not win your prize. “The prize” demands consistency, perseverance, and FINISHING! There can’t be starts and stops. You can’t start strong, then like the lazy hare take a break from the race. This is the context for the opening verses of chapter 10 (which indicate that you can be in the right place, with the right people, doing the right things, but somewhere along the way, still miss the prize).
Food for Thought
- Do you live purposefully? Or are you shadow-boxing, playing games?
- Are you in “strict training”? Are you running for the prize?
- Have you weighed life’s “temporary crowns” against the prize that will last?
- Is your spirit dominant? Or do your body and emotions determine your actions?
- Have you deliberately built habits in your life that facilitate (tease out) your most meaningful goals?
- Are you pressing on in your race? Will you finish strong?
I would love to read your thoughts on any of these questions in the comments below.
Also, for more insight on the subject of habits and triggers and strategies for both, check out these links:
Transform Your Habits (give your email address for a free download of this 45-page ebook)
The 5 Triggers That Make New Habits Stick
Ditch Your Bad Habits In 5 Simple Steps
And just so you know, I post these kinds of links and my brief thoughts about them on MyPleasantPlaces Facebook page on a regular basis. If you do not follow my Facebook page, consider doing so and joining my Facebook “community.” Click this link and then click the “Like” button (the “thumbs up” symbol).