One of the features of the Apostle Paul is that he was characteristically a man of the city.1 Born in the university city of Tarsus, educated in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, and visiting many of the major cities of the Roman Empire during his missionary journeys, much (perhaps most) of his life was spent in an urban setting. This is reflected in the metaphors and analogies he uses, many of which have a city background. For example, one of the metaphors employed frequently is that of the athlete competing in the games. The need for disciplined training, the concentration of the runner, focussing on nothing other than getting to the tape ahead of all the others, the reward given to those who excel - all these earthly things are shown to have their equivalents in the spiritual realm. Let us look at some passages where these thoughts are brought before us.
1 Corinthians 9.24-27; Philippians 3.13-14
The need for dedication
It is a fundamental axiom that someone who wants to shine, be it in the sphere of athletics or in any other area of life, must dedicate themselves to their chosen subject. Think of the athlete rising early in the morning in order to use the time to train, the musician spending hours in practising his chosen instrument, the soldier enduring hardships in order to become a better warrior than his enemy. None of them can simply drift into expertise - it takes dedication, commitment, and often, sacrifice. This is true in Christian things as well, and in these two passages Paul draws our attention to the principles that govern the training of both the earthly athlete and the believer striving to win the heavenly reward: the need for temperance, the need to endure discomfort, and the need for concentration on the race in order to win.
The need for temperance
This very simply means that there are certain things that, while not overtly wrong in themselves, will not help the athlete reach his goal. A life of late nights, socialising and over-eating may be very enjoyable, but it will not improve the runner's performance. We can apply this to the believer's spiritual life as well. How much time in a day do I spend in things that are not spiritually profitable? We have already2 considered the importance of investing time wisely, and the same principle holds here. The more time I waste in things of no spiritual value, the weaker my spiritual life will be. Of course, there are earthly things that must legitimately occupy our time, but this is not what we are thinking of here. Rather, it is the hours that we could be spending in studying the Word, or in spreading the gospel, but which instead we spend in some profitless way - these are hours that we can never recall, that could have been used to make spiritual progress, but instead have been frittered away. What a tragedy! Let us each examine ourselves, and ensure that we are not wasting the time God has given to us.3
The enduring of discomfort
Anyone who has ever engaged in any form of athletic training will be well aware that it involves considerable amounts of discomfort! Indeed, a common expression among sportsmen is, "No pain, no gain" - comfort must be sacrificed to make progress. This applies spiritually as well - if I wish to develop in the things of God, a life of lazy relaxation is not for me. In our modern society, ease and comfort are things that are greatly prized, and the general guiding principle is often, "Take it easy". However, as Christians we must remember that, in the words of Jim Elliot, we have "bargained for a cross",4 and sometimes doing our duty as followers of the Lord Jesus will involve us in discomfort.5 It may be something as simple as going out to the meeting when we don't feel like it, or it may involve leaving home and family to serve the Lord abroad, or it may be anything in between. The point is that if we are to be true to the One who died for us, we will have to bring our bodies into subjection. Think of the example of the Lord Jesus, rising early to pray; staying up late to speak to an inquiring soul; fasting in the wilderness to glorify God in the hour of temptation; rising above the weariness of the journey so that He could speak to the woman of Samaria who needed salvation (Mk 1.35; Jn 3.2; Lk 4.2; Jn 4.6-7). Is this seen in my life? How much would I be prepared to undergo in order to progress to higher spiritual things? A W Tozer put it this way: "With the words 'that I may know him' Paul silenced the whining claims of the flesh, and raced on to perfection".6 When I stand (with Paul?) at the Judgment Seat of Christ, what value will I place on the easy life for which I have sacrificed the blessings of a walk in fellowship with God? May God give us the courage to "keep under" our bodies, so that we may live for His glory.
The focus of the race
In light of what we have said above, we need to remember the other side of the coin. Christianity is not just a life of asceticism and self-control; rather, it is a life in which my dedication to Christ shuts out the things that would draw me back. The athlete does not practise self-denial as an end in itself - he does it because he is so focussed on winning the race that anything that will not help in that endeavour is laid to one side. This is the Biblical truth of separation. The great danger is that we think of separation as a list of negatives: "I don't do this, I mustn't do that, I can't do the other". Nothing could be further from the truth. Separation is simply the idea that I focus entirely on what pleases the Lord, and dedicate myself to that end. The natural consequence of this is that these other things become less and less important.
2 Timothy 2.3-6
The promise of reward to come
It is fitting that we draw this series of articles to a close by looking at 2 Timothy 2, because there the apostle brings together three analogies that we have looked at already. As he looks back over his life of service, which shortly will be brought to its close, in three analogies he brings before us three lessons that ought to encourage and challenge us today. First, there is the service of the soldier, who endures hardness in order to please the man who has chosen him; then there is the achievement of the athlete, whose reward is his own, but only if he is approved by the judge of the race; and finally there is the fruit of the farmer, whose effort is rewarded with a harvest that is entirely his own. So it is with the life of the Christian - there is a sense in which my life should be all for the pleasure of the Man whom I serve; there is a sense in which I receive a reward only if I run the race in a way that pleases Him; and there is a sense in which every single thing I do for Him is guaranteed to bring me a reward in that day, a reward that will be for my own enjoyment alone. May God give us the grace to live our lives in such a way that when the day of reward comes, we will have no regrets, and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.
1 This is in contrast to our Lord Jesus, who was (if we may speak reverently) predominantly a Man of the countryside. His life was largely spent in small villages and towns, and most of His parables have a rural atmosphere.
2 See Article 2 ("Accountancy")
3 We must, of course, remember that not every believer will be called to use his or her time in the same way. It is our individual responsibility to ensure that we are spending our time as God would have us, in order to be fit for the specific work He intends us to do.
4 See Shadow of the Almighty, 1967 edn, p89. A similar sentiment is found on p94.
5 Note that we are dealing here only with the matter of spiritual development, not with the thought of overt suffering for Him, which is a far more serious thing!
6 Leaning into the wind, p31.