A marathon? A 10k? A mile for gym class? Out of the back door away from your mother?
My dad tells a story about doing something wrong as a kid – he can’t even remember what it is anymore – and his mother chased him around the house. Finally, he made a break for the front door and crashed through. He stumbled down the stairs and fell down, laughing so hard at his mother chasing him. She finally caught up to him and began to swat him over and over again with a plastic spatula, which she proceeded to break she was smacking him so hard. And my dad just kept laughing.
You can run but you can’t hide, right?
Paul says to us in I Corinthians 9:24-27 that if we’re going to follow Christ, we need to be ready to race. We need to be prepared to do what it takes to follow through. We need to be ready to run.
Now think about this for a minute: We don’t think of the people of the early church being really competitive. They were trying to stay alive and spread the kingdom of Jesus Christ! They didn’t have time for pop culture and such trappings, right?
But they would’ve known about the Olympics.
Think about what you know about the Olympics. An athlete shows up, maybe every four years after training and struggle, sacrifice and more. They arrive on the scene, whether it’s our Winter or Summer Olympics, and for about two weeks, if they’re lucky, they gain everyone’s attention – worldwide. For two weeks of glory, they’re willing to do… anything.
That glory, those two weeks, is nothing compared to the way that the Olympians of Paul’s times would’ve been received. They would’ve been lifelong heroes upon winning. They would’ve received financial support, special housing, and significant privilege within their city. They would’ve been elevated to the role of the superhero, the supreme. And Paul knows his audience would get the comparisons to the race of faith. He lays out seven points they need to know for running the race.
#1: Paul reminds his listeners that everyone in the race runs but not everyone wins.
Remember, he’s using racing as an allegory here. He’s not saying that everyone can’t win in the Christian faith, because God’s grace is available to all. But the focus here is on the effort, the striving. Think about the Boston Marathon.
When the first race was run in Boston in 1897, eighteen people entered. In 1996, thirty-five thousand people entered. Each year, approximately thirty thousand people run.
That means that approximately 29,998 people lose… every time. They don’t come in first in either the male or female category.
But they still run.
We’re going to lose, maybe even more often than we win. Our lives are littered with war stories, and missed opportunities, failures and mishaps. But we get back up. We keep running.
In 1992, Derek Redmond tore his hamstring in the finals of semi-finals. In great pain, he finished supported by his father who ran with him.
#2: Everyone prepares.
Have you ever heard of “slacktivism”? There’s research out of the University of British Columbia that shows that people who click on “Like” to something like “Help the Poor Children [Here]” are actually less likely to actually give than the people who just see the post and give! But I imagine that both of the groups of people think they’re doing good. Even if they don’t see actual difference in it. In their own minds, they are preparing.
The truth is, just like a group of students studying for a test, there’s studying and then there’s studying. Too often, we do things that don’t really matter and assume that it’s enough to be ready.
Ultimately, preparing for the race of faith means that we have to be truthful with ourselves. Are we really following what God is calling us to? Are we invested and involved in our own relationship with Jesus and growing in community with others in the body of faith?
#3: In a regular race, the crown is temporary. (Pain is temporary, pride is forever!) In the race Paul is promoting, the crown is forever.
When we run a race with a crown that lasts forever, our perspective on the way the race is run changes. I recently read the story of a doctor named Jerry who worked for CURE International in Kabul where he was shot and killed by a rogue Afghan police officer. The man telling the story admitted to absolute sadness at the thought of this good doctor and a friend of his being killed, meaninglessly.
But Jerry’s wife, Jan, forgave the killer the day that the murder happened. “We don’t know the backstory,” Jan said. “Jerry was there serving those people because Jesus loves the people of Afghanistan.” [as told by Brant Hansen]
Life and death and everything in between, it changes when we recognize that our relationships and choices here reverberate in heaven.
#4: Paul runs with purpose. He says, run to get the prize.
Brant Hansen tells about a time when he received an email from the wife of a man imprisoned in an Afghan prison. He was serving time in a country where Christianity had no apparent power because it was beaten down and abused by those in power. But someone had smuggled the man a phone, and the man and his wife were on the phone secretly. And the wife was playing Hansen’s radio show, a Christian one, to lift the man’s spirits.
So, here’s Hansen, on the radio, playing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God.” He can’t tell anyone why he’s playing it, because that would put the man in the prison in more danger and it would put the man who gave him the phone in danger. But he’s playing this song in several different languages, knowing that the prisoner and the jailer can hear it, and that God is using that song, in that moment, for good.
No one else knew, outside of Hansen, the man, and the man’s wife, why Hansen was doing that, and talking about the power of the song to change our lives. It had purpose – even if no one else knew why.
#5: Paul controls his flesh so that he can be spiritually on task.
There are plenty of times that we want to be better than we are, but we don’t actually do the things we can do to change.
We say we want to lose weight but we ate a fourth meal after 10 p.m.
We say we want to save money but we buy Frappucinos like Starbucks is going to run out.
We say we’ll make more time for our families but we never say no at work and we spend too much time checking Facebook.
We say we want to understand God better but we don’t read the Bible on our own and we don’t actually make time to pray.
Paul’s “race analogy” includes self-discipline, the stuff we can do to be better. Yes, we’re saved by grace, and yes, it’s through faith in Jesus that we receive that salvation. But don’t you think we have to commit to racing to be part of the process?
#6: Paul wants his “race” to match what he calls others to do.
There are stories that pop up from time to time about pastors who don’t quite live up to being who they’re supposed to be. Of course, none of us is perfect, but when you preach one thing and practice another, and you get caught… Well, it’s a long fall.
The latest story I’ve heard was about a male pastor who enjoyed a certain kind of magazine in secret. He knew he shouldn’t but when his wife went away, he brought them out of hiding. He became frustrated with his practice, and threw them all out in the dumpster behind their building. But hours later, he regretted his own repentance, and went to fish them out.
Realizing that they were still there, he decided to try and get them out of the dumpster. But on the way in, he slipped, fell, and broke his arm. Wounded inside and out, he was trapped inside the dumpster.
You know who had to help him get out, right?
If we are serious about our own lives, we’ll realize that we tend to struggle with practicing what we preach. Kindness. Self-control. Faithfulness. Generosity.
Rather than faking it, what would it look like if we fessed up to what we weren’t good at and pursued God’s grace? What if we admitted the parts of the race that we couldn’t stand or that we were terrible at? What if we admitted that we couldn’t run the race, without each other?
#7: We’re racing together. Next week, we’ll get to heaven and the kingdom of God. But we have to acknowledge that the race we run is a team sport. I spent a long time training in swimming, understanding that I was responsible for myself. Swimmers swim in lanes, focus on their own part, kick, reach, and pull on their own.
But the thing is, often swim meets come down to the relays. They come down to four teammates working together, leaning on each other. They come down to the surge of adrenaline from teammates cheering each other on, spurring each other on to victory.
It’s the point of the first few verses of Hebrews 12.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. — Hebrews 12:1-2
We aren’t in the race on our own. We have each other. We should pray for each other, and call each other out, and cheer each other on.
We need to run the race toward the victory of the kingdom of God, recognizing that we are kingdom brothers and sisters together.
And the best news is that God has already secured the victory:
Keep running, friends, the race is already won!