I’m running the race
I’m running the race to win
I’m running the race
I’m running the race to win
Sometimes I felt like giving up
And falling down within
But I’m still running the race
I’m running the race to win
(Dallas Holm/Signal 1983)
One of my favorite uncles sent me a birthday card years ago. On the front were cartoonish characters running in a race. Some were tall and thin, some more medium in stature, and some short and stocky. The caption on the front of the card read: “In the great race of life, there are long distance runners, middle distance runners and short distance runners.” Upon opening the card, you saw a picture of a rather nerdish bystander sitting on the curb by the roadside as all the runners ran by. The caption read: “And then there are those of us who sit along the sidelines and laugh at how funny the others look in those shorts!” It’s a somewhat funny, if not silly little card, and yet I believe it carries with it a truth that may apply to us all.
Recently, while watching the summer Olympics, I was struck with the level of training, discipline, and sacrifice it takes to perform at the top levels of track and field in particular. Two runners who especially caught my attention, not only for their strength, speed, and skill but for the beauty and grace by which they exhibited their athletic prowess, as well as their character, were sprinters Allyson Felix and Sydney McLaughlin. Allyson Felix is now the most decorated female sprinter in Olympic history at the age of 35, which in “sprinter years” is getting on up there. Sydney McLaughlin is a relative newcomer at the young age of 22 but recently set the new world record for the 400m hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics.
Allyson and Sydney have enough gold, silver, bronze medals, and records to make any world-class athlete envious. Yet in every interview I witnessed with them, they, first of all, gave “All glory to God.” I know nothing of their personal relationships to the Lord, nor of their doctrinal positions (if any) on issues in scripture. I just know that in an environment of ever-increasing “me first” mindset, it was refreshing if not inspiring to see these young ladies reference God before themselves.
I’m sure even for the nerdy bystander sitting on the sideline, observing “how funny others may look in those shorts,” it surely made an impression on even them.
The apostle Paul must have been somewhat of a sports fan himself, especially in running, for he visits and revisits this theme in his writings.
In Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth he uses this race imagery to emphasize the need for discipline, self control, and focus so that the believer may win the race and receive an imperishable reward. “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (I Corinthians 9:24-25)
Remember, Corinth in Paul’s day was a bustling hub of worldwide commerce, degraded culture, and idolatrous religion. The church that Paul founded in the midst of this pagan culture was uniquely stressed by its very environment and had grown into a very unbalanced spiritual community, especially regarding their understanding of spiritual gifts and the sacred nature of observing “The Lord’s Table”. Observance of this ordinance had degenerated into a self-indulgent love feast.
It is in the midst of this chaos that Paul steps forth to be the trainer of an undisciplined team who will surely lose if they are not properly instructed how to win. Through the years I’ve sometimes wondered at this portion of scripture because it seems to suggest that we’re all running in a race but only one can win. If that’s how it is, then there are surely going to be mostly disappointed Christian losers. Perhaps we’re not running against each other, and I think we’re not. Let’s look at another one of Paul’s sports analogies, change one word and I believe we will gain proper understanding. “For we wrestle (race) not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
Now we see the gravity of the situation; the intimidating power of our opponent and the absolute necessity to train, discipline, and sacrifice for this is surely not a race we can afford to lose!
“Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave (“Present your bodies a living sacrifice – Romans 12:1), lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (I Corinthians 9:26-27)
I have throughout the years heard this portion of scripture presented to suggest that even Paul was concerned after all he had done that he might not make it to the end, perhaps losing his very own salvation. This, of course, cannot possibly be the meaning of this verse. Do you think the greatest theologian who ever lived, who writes to us most prolifically in regard to God’s pre-ordained plans to save and keep His own, from before the foundations of the world, has any concern about faltering at the finish line? The issue here is not about the ultimate finish of the race but the disqualifications that can occur along the way.
Recently at the Tokyo Olympics, there was an American sprinter who eased up a little toward the finish of a qualifying heat, and for that one-millisecond miscalculation, he missed competing for a prize in the final. He’s still a sprinter and will probably race again, perhaps winning medals, but he was forever disqualified from arguably the biggest race of his life.
There are “prizes” to be won along the way of life’s race. For what purpose, you may ask? As we train, discipline, and sacrifice for Christ in life’s great race, we are awarded such “prizes” as sure faith, wisdom, peace, joy, love, and a list of the merciful gifts of His grace that stretch beyond the space herein to list.
We know that ultimately for those who finish the race for Him; “There is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day.” (2 Timothy 4:8)
I don’t think we’ll have individual trophy rooms in Heaven. I think there perhaps will be one great trophy room to the honor and glory of God that will display all that was accomplished by Him, through Him and for Him.
The book of Revelation seems to indicate there will be an occasion to honor and worship our Lord and Savior in a most unique and humble way as we are afforded the opportunity to lay our crowns, given by Him to us, back at His feet.
Perhaps the “prizes” won along life’s race will be as jewels in the crown of righteousness which we will delight to give Him.
One final thought…I have a good friend who used to run track at the University of Oregon. Their program is widely known, especially for success in distance running. My friend once told me that in a long distance race there are ultimately two races within the race. First, there are those who have run hard, jostled, and strategized to the front of the race with hopes of winning. There is a second group, perhaps ill-trained, tentative, and devoid of a sound race strategy, who find themselves lagging behind with no hope now of competing for the prize. They are not running to win; they are running not to lose.
There’s a term for this that dates back to the early 1600s: “Devil take the hindmost”. It is a phrase that best describes a situation in which someone thinks only of himself and his own interests, leaving others to deal with their own fates. Hindmost is an adjective that describes the person who is farthest from the front or who is in the back of the line. The idea behind the meaning of the saying, “devil take the hindmost,” is of a group being pursued by the devil. It begs the question, “Are you running to win or just trying not to lose? Is your eye still on the prize? Can you say with Paul: ‘I press on toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 3:14) Or are you just trying to keep pace ahead of the devil?”
Train harder, discipline yourself, and sacrifice all for Him so you might win the prizes of His grace and glory along the way and the crown of righteousness upon crossing the finish line.
Keep on Running the Race to Win!