Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.
– 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 (ESV)
The way a runner runs depends on the kind of race he’s in. When the distance is small, an all-out sprint to the finish line is probably best. But when the distance is great, more self-control must be exercised.
For the best possible chance of making it to the finish line first, a runner must control his expenditure of energy such that he has just enough strength to make it across the finish line. If he runs the course with some energy left over, he hasn’t run as fast as he could have, and someone else might win. If he seeks to be the fastest at all points in the course, he exhausts himself before he gets to the finish line… and again, someone else might win. The goal is not being the fastest on the course or not being out of breath at the end. Getting to the finish line first is the goal, and sometimes that is only possible by treading the fine line between running too fast and too slow.
Paul compares our lives with running a race, but how does this control-of-energy idea play out in the spiritual realm? We don’t know how far away our finish line is (i.e. how long we are going to live), so how can we know if we should be trying for speed or endurance? What if I try to pace myself spiritually for a long life, but I die early? Or what if I go all out for Jesus, and burn out decades before I die?
Most of us don’t know how long our race is. But the writer of Hebrews tells us to assume we are in it for the long haul:
…let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith …
– Hebrews 12:1-2 (ESV)
We are in a spiritual endurance race, and so we must seek to make the most of the strength we do have. We must avoid stumbling blocks, making level paths for our feet. And we must seek out and remove whatever will slow us down unnecessarily.
Many of today’s athletes wear high-tech outfits designed to minimize wind resistance (or water resistance for swimmers). The tiniest detail of these clothes may make the difference between first and second or third place. In ancient Greece, runners would run naked for even greater speed advantage. They were not concerned with appearances. Their eyes were fixed only on the goal: a temporary crown of leaves.
In our race, our eyes are to be fixed on Jesus Christ. Like those ancient runners, we are also commanded to lay aside everything that hinders. The most obvious candidate for what hinders us is sin, but we must be aware that our fleshly nature will also slow us down tremendously. It’s those little details we tend to overlook that can take our prize away from us – details like false humility, love of money, apathy, jealously, and the like. We usually overlook these things because we think if we haven’t outright sinned, we aren’t hurting ourselves …but we are. These internal attitudes of the flesh will drag us down unless we deal with them as seriously as sin.
The finish line is the goal, but notice Paul does not tell us to merely make it to the finish line. He tells us to run as if there is only one prize, and you intend to be the one to obtain that prize, whatever it takes. Not knowing if our race is long or short, I believe the only right way to run this race is to rely on the strength that God supplies (1 Peter 4:11, Ephesians 3:20-21). When we learn to rely on God’s power, we will be able to run the spiritual endurance race as if it is a sprint. We will be able to go all out, exhaust ourselves, and yet continue running on God’s power.
May you finish your race and receive your prize! (2 Timothy 4:7)