I was the captain of my Baltimore area high school track team in the late 1970s. I ran hurdles and participated in the mile relay. I always hated it when our coach told us on the first day of outdoor practice in February that we had to run to the mall and back. It was usually below freezing, and that three or four miles after a long lazy winter was brutal, especially for those of us who were not distance runners. Other despised routines included interval training, where we had to sprint short distances, walk a few seconds, and then do it again, for 30 minutes or more.
There are many types of runners and many kinds of races. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24, “run in such a way as to get the prize (NIV).” He does not specify what that race is; it could be a marathon, it could be a 100-meter dash, it could involve hurdles or other obstacles, or it could involve other runners on your team to whom you must pass a baton. What race do you find yourself in currently?
Perhaps we are running a series of races. There are times when we feel like we are slogging along on a cold wet path, with twenty miles to go. There are other times when we are feeling strong and fit and ready to dash down that 100-meter track. We may be at a moment in life when we are patiently waiting for someone to take the baton we are passing to them. But we all must run in such a way as to win!
This is a call for whole-hearted devotion and commitment to the calling of being a Christ-follower. Paul also speaks of “training” and motivation. He compares the athlete who beats his body into submission for a prize that will eventually tarnish, with us who are competing for an eternal prize. The picture is clear: there is discipline and hard work involved in winning.
We know that our hard work is not what gets us into heaven. But Paul is admonishing us to train and take control over our human urges so that we can win. Making Christ-likeness our highest aim is the goal. There is no room for mediocrity. I did not join the track team to be a mediocre runner. I never considered for a moment to not give it my all. I did not just slowly jog down that track. Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:7-8,
“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
I cannot afford to miss a practice, skip an exercise, not stretch cold muscles. And I certainly can’t cheat or lie to my coach about what I did or didn’t do.
I was 10 years old when someone shared the gospel with me and I believed it. Although I have stumbled along the way, I have walked with Jesus now for over fifty years. I am astonished when I hear of those I knew over the years who have abandoned the faith, who have quit the race! And I get so excited when I reconnect with an old friend who is still running their race with Jesus. Hebrews 12:1-3 tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us and finished the race. We are to throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles us. We are to persevere as they did, as Christ did. We are encouraged to not grow weary and lose heart, to keep our eye on the prize to be with our Jesus.
This is all about the training. So many times I wanted to quit my track training. It was hard. I sometimes vomited. My legs and feet hurt. It took up a lot of my free time. My coaches were tough on me. I endured injuries. The meets were time-consuming and full of stress.
But I have several medals and chenille letters from those glory days. My old track spikes are even framed in a shadow box for my children and grandchildren to see. I trained hard and I sometimes won. I always finished the race. I want to run this race to completion and excellence all the way to heaven. I’m still in it to win it!