On Running the Race (Physically and Spiritually)

The 2008 Olympic Games are now history. The strongest, the fastest, and the most athletic were on display during the two weeks of competition. There were tears of success as well as tears of loss. There were moments of greatness and triumph, as well as moments of despair and failure.

Of the 204 nations that competed, only 87 received a medal. China had the most gold (51, out of 100 medals). The US had the most medals (110, of which 36 were gold). At the other end of the scale, countries like Afghanistan, Egypt, Togo and Venezuela had one bronze medal each.

Spiritual truths can readily be gleaned by focusing on these games. Indeed, it was common in antiquity to use sporting events such as the Olympics as pictures of striving for moral and spiritual excellence. The New Testament writers do this as well, especially Paul. He mentions running or competing in games in various places in his letters.

Consider one of his lengthier racing/athletics metaphors: 1 Cor. 9:24-27. In this passage Paul, in typical style, seeks to make a number of points, and mixes his metaphors along the way. He probably is referring to the Isthmian games held in Corinth. These games were second only to the Olympic Games, and Paul may well have been in Corinth when they were held, perhaps in 49 or 51AD.

In this metaphor he argues that believers must endure, and do the hard yards as any athlete must. It is not a perfect analogy of course. For example, he speaks here of only one person receiving the prize. In the spiritual realm, many of course will win and be rewarded. But his main point is to emphasise perseverance, discipline and self-control, to ensure that the race indeed is won, and that the rewards are in fact received.

As Gordon Fee remarks, this pericope acts as both an exhortation and a warning. Indeed, the next passage (1 Cor. 10:1-22) is an extended warning, using Israel as an example of turning away from God. We need to encourage each other to finish the race, but we are also to warn one another about the possibility of being disqualified and/or not finishing.

Of course it is not perfectly clear as to whether Paul is here referring to the Christian life in general. And the theological debate over whether a believer can lose his salvation – while vitally important – may not necessarily be the particular focus Paul has in mind here.

But certainly there is a strong warning of some sort here. Indeed, the New Testament is full of such warnings. They need to be taken seriously. As always, the many indicatives of Scripture (we have this and that benefit in Christ) are always coupled with imperatives (because of these truths, we must do such and such, or live in certain ways, etc).

And with news of two fallen pastors in two weeks, it seems the many warnings found in Scripture need to be reaffirmed and freshly heeded. Again, I am aware of the theological debate surrounding these issues, but my purpose here is much more practical: to encourage all believers on in the race, just as Paul does.

And to keep this discussion on a pragmatic level, let me conclude by reciting a moving story found in the helpful volume by Steve Farrar called Finishing Strong (Multnomah Books, 1995). Not surprisingly, the book is about the need for believers to finish strong. Many start well in their Christian journey, but not all stay on course. Here is how Farrar illustrates this vital truth:

In the Christian life, it’s not how you start that matters. It’s how you finish.

John Bisagno has been pastoring First Baptist of Houston for a number of years. When John was just about to finish college, he was having dinner over at his fiancee’s house one night. After supper, he was talking with his future father-in-law, Dr. Paul Beck, out on the porch. Dr. Beck had been in ministry for years and that was inevitably the subject toward which the conversation turned.

“John, as you get ready to enter the ministry, I want to give you some advice,” Dr. Beck told the younger man. “Stay true to Jesus! Make sure that you keep your heart close to Jesus every day. It’s a long way from here to where you’re going to go, and Satan’s in no hurry to get you.”

The older man continued. “It has been my observation that just one out of ten who start out in full time service for the Lord at twenty-one are still on track by the age of sixty-five. They’re shot down morally, they’re shot down with discouragement, they’re shot down with liberal theology, they get obsessed with making money…but for one reason or another nine out of ten fall out.”

The twenty-year-old Bisagno was shocked.

“I just can’t believe that!” he said. “That’s impossible! That just can’t be true.”

Bisagno told how he went home, took one of those blank pages in the back of his Scofield Reference Bible and wrote down the names of twenty-four young men who were his peers and contemporaries. These were young men in their twenties who were sold out for Jesus Christ. They were trained for ministry and burning in their desire to be used by the Lord. These were the committed young preachers who would make an impact for the Lord in their generation.

Bisagno relates the following with a sigh: “I am now fifty-three years old. From time to time as the years have gone by, I’ve had to turn back to that page in my Bible and cross out a name. I wrote down those twenty-four names when I was just twenty years of age. Thirty-three years later, there are only three names remaining of the original twenty-four.”

In the Christian life, it’s not how you start that matters. It’s how you finish.

Those are powerful and sobering words. Leave aside for a moment the question of whether a believer can lose his or her salvation. As this story illustrates, and as Scripture provides so many examples of, believers certainly can drop out of the race and disqualify themselves from effective service for Christ.

Whether we understand that as a loss of rewards, rather than a loss of salvation, it is still a very serious matter indeed. We should all want to finish strong. And with God’s grace, we can. So let me encourage everyone reading this article to reread the words of Paul in this passage, and reflect on how we are running the race.

Are we disciplining ourselves, seeking to master self, so that we can win the race and claim the prize? Or have we allowed things in life to get our focus off Christ, and to cause our hearts to grow cold? Too many believers are falling short, and too much damage is being done to the reputation of Christ by those who do not finish well.

So let us resolve with God’s help to be like those many athletes we saw recently, standing on the dais with the gold medals wrapped around their necks. But the reward is not because of our achievements or our greatness, but because of the one who makes it possible in the first place for us to even compete.

[1226 words]

4 Replies to “On Running the Race (Physically and Spiritually)”

  1. Like your articles addressing this important subject.

    Jesus is our greatest model in how to finish well. One example of how He did it was indicated in the PASSION in the Garden where he prayed three times despite everything in His body and soul working against this.
    His Father’s plan – to die the death of the cross – He needed strength to do it not just good intentions (not like His disciples who He was causing them to grasp hold of things that would hold them back from continuing to follow through and follow Jesus and finish their race well) He mentioned to His disciples to them “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. Not as a cop out but reflecting that their weakness was stopping them praying so that they would not be lead into temptation – they fell from following Christ shortly after. But Christ received powerful strengthening from heaven (Luke 22:43) and overcame the weakness of His flesh so He could complete the Work on Earth He was sent to do.

    Likewise as Christians we dont have to cop out and say the flesh is weak as an excuse so we drop out of our race or not finish well. Galations says we can crucify the flesh so as not to follow its lusts. Character, yes, is something we can all improve on – with God’s help available we can. There is a way to progress and finish well.

    Stephen Lewin

  2. Thanks Bill, true, all by the Grace of God.
    Life is meant to be long and rich. With triumphs and struggles. I agree Bill we do need to be encouraged in the race, “continuing” is paramount. Only in that will we know fully what our true purpose is. We all can thank God it is marathon we run, not a sprint. Just about anyone can burst into briliance but it takes true character to shine bright for the whole journey. But this type of Godly character is not present because one person is better than another, it is again by the grace of God. It is because of Jesus’s sacrifice we can stand tall and continue. The question in my mind is why does one stand and another fall. I suspect it comes from, in the business and pressure of life, loosing hold of Jesus as our sustainer and source. A really good reason to encourage each other, pray for each other, especially our leaders. Thanks Bill.
    Peter Baldry

  3. The Olympic games has surely become the ultimate arena for the elevation of man.

    But there is another arena, even that within the shadows of Beijing’s stadium, in which Chinese Christians are displayed and persecuted for their faith. It was seeing the spectacle of suffering Christians, in the Roman arena coupled with the word of God that had the power to bring about repentance in the eyes of the spectators. Isobel Kuhn in her book, By Searching, said: “The heathen around us have not much respect or interest in a smug, ordinary Christianity. If it costs you nothing, what proof have you that it has any value? is their indifferent, shrugging attitude. But when they see in any life, the print of the nail, they are challenged; and like Thomas of old, (‘Except I shall see in His hands the print of the nails and thrust of my hand into His side, I will not believe.’), if they can me made to see Him at that moment, they will fall down and cry, My Lord and my God.”

    Christ presented himself as an acceptable once and for all time living sacrifice. He went through that river of death and arrived safely the other side. He turns back to us and encourages us also to plunge in, in the knowledge that our living sacrifices will now be acceptable but also produce a harvest. We have been called, not to sit and wait on the bank but to get into the river.

    David Skinner, UK

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