I have never been good at running.
The main problem is that my body doesn’t appreciate pain.
Typically, I begin my run, and boy, am I a good runner for the first block! I start up a nice jog, knees high, running shorts bright. I wave at children I pass, laughing “Hahaha, someday you, too, could be a goddess of the pavement. Stay in school, kids.”
Then, after about twenty-five seconds of glorious athleticism, I begin to drown in my own lungs. My brain begins saying,
“Hmmm… actually, um. Ouch. Yes. This hurts a little bit. Actually, I really do not like it.”
I tell myself that all good runners must push through the pain. I run ten more feet. My brain pushes back.
“Ummm, yes excuse me. Actually, I really do not like this.”
Then, just to be dramatic, my brain begins screaming. Very loudly.
And my brain continues to scream as if someone just pushed it off a cliff until I give in, say “Good point, brain,” and go inside to fry an Oreo.
In 1st Corinthians 9:24, 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.”
I have never identified very well with Bible verses about racing, because the only race I ever win is “Who Can Read This Book the Fastest?” and actually I just made that up, because no one actually cares how fast I am at reading.
But the church at Corinth was very familiar with races, and competition in fact. Ancient Greece was full of all sorts of games. The Corinthian people ran their own city-wide competition called the Isthmian games, which involved competitions like chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, and a game called pankration. Pankration was a fighting game without weapons, in which the only rule was that you couldn’t gouge out somebody’s eyes. THAT WAS THE ONLY RULE.
“Hey, guys, as long as nobody needs an eye patch when this thing is done, we can all go home happy, alright?? I’m talking to you, Eurysthecles.”
Winners of the Isthmian games would either leave with a celery wreath or a poem composed about their epic deeds. One year, Kleitomachos of Thebes won the wrestling, boxing, and pankration games. I like to imagine his poem went…
“The other guy’s dead.
Kleitomachos is huge.
Everyone’s scared of him.
So, Paul knows that this church is familiar with competition. The kind of competition where people go ALL OUT. The kind of competition I’ve never done in my entire life.
My brother had gym class with a really excellent runner. The guy would beat everyone else by three or five or seventeen laps. One day, he finished the race, still in first, but just ahead of the people who were right behind him. He kinda collapsed at the end, and they took him to the ER. Turns out, he had run the entire mile with a burst lung. And he still beat all thirty-seven other people.
Paul calls the Corinthians, God calls us, to run to win. Our faith journey should be so committed that we’re willing to do it with half a lung and still come out on top.
The next verse says: “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.”
The tricky thing about running a faith race is that it is sort of opposite from every other form of competition. You’re not racing to win. You’re racing to lose. The amount of time, energy, and effort that you shove into pushing yourself forward on the court, field, track, class, or stage should be pushed toward everyone around you instead.
God’s love for us demonstrated itself to be pretty extreme. Our love for one another should be the same. Whatever it is in your life that really gets your blood pumping—turn that fire toward grace, kindness, peace, patience, and goodness. Run to win. Run so that others can win.
If there are times in your life that you realize you’re running for yourself, know that pretty much everyone fails. That’s where the strict training comes in. We’ve got to hold ourselves to the highest standard we can. And we aren’t alone.
God sent his church, and the greatest gift, his Holy Spirit, to support us in the effort. And unlike those celery crowns from the Isthmian games, God’s crown lasts forever.