Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 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. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Corinthians 9:24 – 27
This week the words “hope and glory” flashed across my television screen. I was not watching a religious show, but a broadcast of the 2012 Olympics. Above the words was the face of a man in rapturous ecstasy. He had just won a gold medal.
I know the feeling. I experienced it for the first time after having won a yo-yo competition in the mid seventies. I was a mere kid, and that night I went to bed feeling intoxicated. The feeling could best be described as a mixture of bliss and immortality.
But it did not last. And so I had to follow it up with other victories. When victory evaded me I learned to resurrect the feeling by siding with others who were winning, such as a boxer or rugby team. The stadium atmosphere in the face of victory was equally glorious – an experience of joyful communion and collective invincibility.
It took me years to realize that these feelings were religious ones. Like a prophetic dream, they revealed a deep longing within to fight and conquer the enemy, to finish a race, to receive a “crown” (literally a “prize of honour in the public games”).
At the end of his life, Paul used these words again, this time with hindsight: “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” (2 Timothy 4:7).
In the final analysis, the Olympic Games presents us with a parable that can only be decoded in Jesus Christ, and with a startling contrast between the shadow and the real. As Paul said above: “They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
The verses above are important as they present one of the clearest contrasts in Scripture between true and false glory (See related posts here and here). Also, they explain why human beings are so obsessed with winning. In the absence of God we try and satisfy the demands of our spiritual instincts by fabricating lookalikes of the divine.
The greatest of human instincts, such as desire and love and fear, are manifestations of our yearning for God. Idolatry is not nearly as crude a thing as we have been led to believe. No, human beings are usually most idolatrous when most sophisticated. The act of substituting God with self is what human history is all about, and we have become extremely good at it.
It is this single-minded focus that Paul addresses in the passage above. If we miss this, we miss Paul’s central point. Whilst the passage in 1 Corinthians 9 presents a striking contrast between two types of running and fighting, and also between two “crowns”, the most important contrast drawn by Paul is between two types of preparation: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training… They do it to… but we do it to.”
It is not only the nature of the competition or the ceremony afterwards that is different in Paul’s analogy. It is the life before. The Christian fights a different enemy, runs a different race, has a different goal, experiences a different hope and anticipates a different glory. As a result, the Christian has a different training program. This is Paul’s point.
What does this program look like? “I beat my body and make it my slave”, Paul says. I subject my human appetites, desires and needs to the heavenly calling.
There is much to be said about this, and I do not wish to do so with this post. The best commentary on these verses, in my view, comes from Watchman Nee. If you are not familiar with his book The Character of God’s Workman, and especially with the section that deals with this issue (chapter 3), I would advice you strongly to read it. Simply click here for chapter 3.
Blessings to all fellow runners and fighters.
(This post appeared in abbreviated form in Bloemnews.)