1 Corinthians 9: 26 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Reading 1 Corinthians 9: 25-27, the theme of running races would not have been strange to the church in Corinth, who received this letter from Paul. In fact, every two years the Isthmian Games (similar to modern day Olympics) were held just outside Corinth. You can even find pictures of “track athlete starting gates” in Isthmia from the time of these games almost 2000 years ago. The victor’s prize was originally a crown of dried wild celery. When Paul says that “everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (vs. 25), to us this could include:
- Diet – our food is our fuel
- Group Training – often driving distances just to inflict pain on yourself
- Individual Training – missing out on other things, giving your all when no one else is motivating you
- Discipline of a training log – logging what you do so you and a coach can monitor progress
- Mental Control – learning to control your mind, dismissing negative thoughts for positive ones
- Discipline of Competition – body says this is too painful, but you learn to override natural instincts
To the Corinthians they would have known that Isthmian competitors actually had to take an oath that they had been training for ten months, and that they had given up certain “delightful foods” in their diet to enable them to endure the race. And Paul said they did all this “to receive a perishable wreath” (dried celery on your head).
What are you training for as an athlete? Some might be able to make a living from sports, but the vast majority of elite athletes are really competing for dried celery. Maybe it is a hunk of metal around their neck, another trophy for the mantle, perhaps prestige, or the feeling of accomplishment, but in all cases for something perishable.
Paul does not say there is anything wrong with these pursuits, but he does make it clear what pursuits are of far more value. He says that we go into strict training to “get a crown that will last forever”. And like an athlete we need to demonstrate discipline in our spiritual walk. If we re-look at the list of items of athletic self-control, here is how they can be applied to us spiritually.
- Diet – You are what you eat! What are you ingesting spiritually? What are you listening to and watching? Is it edifying to a believer? Ephesians 5:15-20
- Group Training – Are you a lone ranger when it comes to your faith or are you a part of a group of believers who can spur you on? Hebrews 10: 24-25
- Individual Training – Nothing replaces your alone time with God. Your quiet time with God and his Word are critical. Luke 5: 15-16
- Discipline of a training log – Many Christians use a journal, or even scribbles in their Bible to log what God has done and is doing. It is a great reminder of God’s faithfulness. Deuteronomy 6: 6-8
- Mental Control – We need to set our minds on what is noble, what is right, what is pure, what is lovely, what is admirable. Philippians 4:8-9
- Discipline of Competition – Each Monday when we start a new week we walk into the competition. When the going gets tough, do we shut down or do we take on the competition like a prepared athlete?
Never neglect the most important self-discipline you will ever need to demonstrate as an athlete – spiritual self-discipline – so that you may never be disqualified.
So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:27)