Don’t you know that all the runners in the stadium run, but only one gets the prize? So run to win. Everyone who competes practices self-discipline in everything. The runners do this to get a crown of leaves that shrivel up and die, but we do it to receive a crown that never dies. So now this is how I run—not without a clear goal in sight. – I Corinthians 9:24-26a
I was out in the city park recently, where I saw the high school cross country teams getting ready for practice. They stretched as they listened to their coach give instructions for the day’s practice. After a few more minutes, they began to run.
At that time, all over town, student athletes were stretching, lifting weights, running drills, practicing lifts and kicks, and listening to their coaches. Each in their own way was working toward something: making the varsity team, or working on a difficult play, or breaking the record, or improving their personal best, or getting the team ready for the tournament, or learning a new cheer, or …
Athletes work hard, practicing endlessly, often for just a few minutes at the game or the tournament. Think of swimmers- they put in hours of practice, and when they get to their meets, they might only swim for ten minutes of competition. It’s the same for any sport: the hours of hard work and preparation all build up to a relatively short performance. But any coach will tell us that those hours of preparation and practice are necessary. No one is born ready for the big game.
In some ways, following Jesus is like being an athlete. As Christians, there are a lot of seemingly mundane, everyday things we need to do over and over to build strength to face those big challenges. When we put in the practice, it makes us better prepared for life’s struggles.
Take prayer, for instance. It’s a simple thing, really, talking with God. About ⅔ of American Christians say regular prayer is essential. Taking a few minutes daily for praying builds the muscle memory of prayer. It can be as simple as a “Thank you God for… Please help with… Amen.” Then, when a loved one is sick or a job is lost or a risk is taken, prayer comes naturally. To be sure, God loves to hear prayers whether we’re praying for the thousandth time or the first time. Like anything, it’s easier for us when we’ve practiced.
Or think of muscle memory. Once a basketball player has practiced shooting free throws enough, they hardly even have to think about their stance and aim. The muscles themselves remember how to stand, how to aim, and how to shoot. Similarly, some Christians make a point of memorizing Bible passages so that when they need encouragement, hope, or guidance, it comes to them like muscle memory. Someone who easily remembers “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” is less inclined to listen to gossip or repeat rumors. Someone who easily remembers “it is by grace you have been saved, not by your own doing; it is the gift of God” can take comfort in God’s faithfulness when they mess up.
The life of a Christian also includes worship, service, self-reflection, and love. All of these things take work. They take practice. Often, they require someone else pointing out flaws. There’s always room for improvement. This is discipleship. We run the race as athletes seeking the prize.
The twist is that the greatest prize of our faith is a participation trophy that blows all the other prizes out of the water. We receive God’s grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness not because we are so good, but because God loves us. We don’t pray, worship, serve our neighbors, and seek to live holy lives for God’s sake. We do it for our sake and for the sake of the people around us. The people of God are our team. We rely on one another. It’s more like a relay than a sprint, really. The fans cheering in the stadium are as much a part of the victory as the players in the field. In Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, our victory is assured.
God, help me see where I need to grow as your disciple. Give me the discipline, support, and encouragement I need to be stronger in my Christian life and witness. Let me run my race as well as I can, trusting that my victory is secure in you. Amen.