My personal interest in the 2016 Olympic Games lay somewhere between ‘very low’ and ‘zero’, so the prospect of being out of touch with world news when I went to Skibbereen for meetings in August did not distress me. Whilst there, however, in the far south of the Republic of Ireland, the place was soon buzzing with the news that two local men, brothers Gary and Paul O’Donovan, had won silver medals in the men’s lightweight double sculls. Every interview and report was listened to eagerly by the local folk, and I could only guess at the kind of reception the heroes would receive on their return. As I spoke to one or two people who know the champions quite well, and read some of the newspaper reports, I began to feel increasingly challenged, because one theme was dominant, and one lesson became very obvious. Those two young men had been marked for years by a single-minded determination to gain their prize. Their family, their friends, their colleagues, all spoke of the burning, unshakeable ambition that had driven the rowers to international success.
The apostle Paul frequently turned to the life of the athlete in order to illustrate the need for dedication and commitment to the Christian life. As he wrote the exhortation that we find in 1 Corinthians 9.24-27, it is very likely that he had the Isthmian Games in mind, traditionally hosted by the Corinthians, rather than the Olympic Games that were held in Athens. It seems from history that these events were as prone to corruption and cheating as are the modern Games; an outcome of the fierce determination of men to win at all costs. Notwithstanding the oath that competitors took, to abide strictly by the rules of the Games, dishonesty and cheating were common. Hence Paul wrote to Timothy, “And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully” (2 Tim 2.5). Ignorance of the rules is as costly as disobedience to them: both result in disqualification.
In writing to the Corinthians, and warning them of the dangers of carnality, Paul used the athlete to illustrate the discipline necessary for success. World-class athletes study the performance of their opponents, and they have a tremendous knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of those who might prevent them from obtaining the prize. This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote:
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway (1 Cor 9.24-27).
The rival in these verses is not our fellow-believer, but our body, through which the desires of self are expressed. It is the worst of competitors, because it obeys no rules and shows no mercy to the believer who is striving to gain the prize. The goal is not the Christian’s salvation – that is eternally secure – but the believer’s reward for service. With the long-distance runner in mind, Paul spoke of the athlete’s total concentration on the prize: no distractions, no indulgences, no let-up in the discipline and training. Then he thought of the boxer who, in the ancient Games, might fight to the death in a bout lasting four or five hours. Paul’s opponent was his body, and he was determined to make every blow count, and always keep his mortal enemy on the back foot. One moment of inattention could give his rival the mastery, and Paul was aware that, right up until the end of the race, or the conclusion of the bout, disqualification was a real possibility.
“So run”, dear believer, with complete focus and determination. “So fight”, realising that our opponent, the flesh, must be given no quarter.