“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?
Run in such a way that you may win it.” (1 Corinthians 9:24, NRSV)
The 1904 Olympic games in St. Louis is the first Olympics of the modern era where a first, second, and third-place finisher received a gold, silver, or bronze medal, respectively. Previous to that, only the person in first place received recognition with the presentation of an olive wreath and a silver medal. In the First Century, first place was also the only place that mattered in a race. The winner's reward was also a wreath made of some perishable plant (see 1 Corinthians 9:25) but no medal. Although winning was a big deal, with a perishable prize awarded to the winner, perhaps it was broadcasting a subtle message of the brevity of victory.
Paul spoke of an imperishable prize to which we all should aspire. He described it this way:
"I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings."
(1 Corinthians 9:23, NRSV)
Yet for Paul, it's not the prize that seems to be his primary concern. After all, only one person wins the perishable award. Salvation doesn't only go to the winner. Salvation goes to all those who "run in such a way that we may win the race." For Paul, persevering in the race that leads to salvation is the goal, and all who strive to receive the imperishable prize of salvation are winners. But to receive that prize involves perseverance, and perseverance requires training. If we merely "try" to run the race without "training" for the race, we will not persevere.
Training is hard work. It requires setting priorities that also need us to set aside time to work on the things that matter. We can't just hope to get stronger; we have to do the exercises that build strength physically. This fact is also relevant to our relationship with God. We can't just hope to grow in a deeper relationship with God without actually setting priorities and a plan for developing that relationship. The spiritual practices and disciplines are the tools Christians have used for centuries to train for a life of following Jesus. The prize to which we aspire is an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, and it's a prize that is worthy of our best effort.
This Sunday, I'll be using the 2nd Law of Behavior Change from James Clear's book, Atomic Habits, to help us make the training we do for more faithfully following Jesus Christ even more attractive and increasing our ability to persevere. I hope you'll join us on the live stream or catch one of our videos on our website.