Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
– 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
“Within the past few years, for instance, Christ has been popularized by some so-called evangelicals as one who, if a proper amount of prayer were made, would help the pious prize fighter to knock another fighter unconscious in the ring. Christ is also said to help the big league pitcher to get the proper hook on his curve. In another instance He assists an athletically-minded parson to win the high jump, and still another not only to come in first in a track meet but to set a new record in the bargain. He is said also to have helped a praying businessman to beat out a competitor in a deal, to underbid a rival and to secure a coveted contract to the discomfiture of someone else who was trying to get it. He is even thought to lend succor to a praying movie actress while she plays a role so lewd as to bring the blood to the face of a professional prostitute.
“Thus our Lord becomes the Christ of utility, a kind of Aladdin’s lamp to do minor miracles in behalf of anyone who summons Him to do his bidding.”
– Rev. A. W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous
To help the curious sports fans, The Root of the Righteous was published in 1955. At this time, Rocky Marciano was the heavyweight champion in boxing, but he may have been referring to Joe Louis, who in 1937 defeated Max Schmelling, with the hype for the fight – the pride of Nazi Germany facing a non-Aryan. I don’t know who the major leaguer with a wicked curveball was in the early 1950s.
The Apostle Paul compares living the Christian Life to a race. We should run the race as if we had to win the race. He talks of the strict training regimen required to be the best. Showing up and running never gets you close to winning. You must be prepared.
Yet, his final verse is a warning in not taking the analogy too literally. In a race there is only one winner. In the Greek games of that time, when other runners saw that they were not going to be crowned the winner, they gave less effort. You see that at the Olympics today. The first four or five may cross the finish line in a full sprint. Maybe, number ten crosses the line with a rush to ensure their country’s best finish in the race. But, others are just glad to finish.
Then there was cross country skier, Pita Taufatolua, from Tonga at the 2018 Winter Games. He was racing for the young people of his country, to give them hope and desire for self-improvement. His goals for the race were two-fold. 1) Don’t hit a tree. 2) Don’t finish last. Actually, he waited after crossing the finish line for the Mexican competitor who finished last. The two men had travelled the world together in a rush to qualify for the Olympics and the two embraced at the finish line. They had done their best, and they finished the race.
In the Apostle Paul’s last sentence, he is saying that he will run the race to his utmost right up to the finish line, regardless of what position he is placing at the end.
Then we come to Tozer. I do not mind when an American football player crosses the goal line and drops to one knee in prayer or raises a finger toward heaven. We praise God in many different ways when we win. But what happens when we lose?
Tozer is echoing C. S. Lewis’ lament on how people treat God like He is a senile grandparent that wants the children to have a bit of fun. May our prayers or our attitude toward the sovereign ruler of the universe never get to be that lame.
The thought of the prize fighter knocking the other prize fighter unconscious is an odd thing to pray for. “Please, Lord, let me scramble this guy’s brain, so that he’ll have medical problems later in life and that I can make a lot of money.” Really? Okay, Louis beating Schmelling, which he did in 1937, was historically significant. There were the ideologies of the countries at stake.
Actually, my first thought when I read about the prize fighter was a George Carlin quip during one of his comedy routines. He mentioned that Mohammed Ali, whose job it was to beat people up, was going to jail because he refused to kill people in Vietnam. Carlin’s quip about the United States’ reply to Ali was, “If you won’t kill ‘em, we won’t let you beat ‘em up!” Either activity seems an odd topic for prayer.
Without winners, why compete? Too many golfers add, without money on the line, why play golf? I have been added to a threesome of strangers as a single golfer on the first tee and refused to enter their betting game. They are usually fine with it, but usually with an initial bit of ridicule.
But with winners, there are losers. There has been a bit of madness in community leagues over the past thirty years or so in handing out participation trophies to everyone. I blame Bozo the Clown. Bozo would divide the children in the audience into two teams for his television show. They’d play a silly party game, like run to a chair and sit on a balloon until it pops then run back to tag the next person. Bozo always had the winners and the almost-winners. Everyone got to hear that they were a winner, just some had the ‘almost’ tag. But when you have two teams of twelve children and there is one team that wins and over half of the other team is standing there with un-popped balloons, everyone knows who the losers are. It insults the word ‘almost’ to make them ‘almost winners.’ But that was Paul’s point, late in the race, when you see you are hopelessly behind, you must keep going for your own self – to not be disqualified at the end of the race.
My earliest introduction to competition was a number of things: playing cards and board games at home, party games at Vacation Bible School, and the Easter Egg hunt at public school (yes, a different age) when I was in first or second grade, looking for the golden egg that had a significant money prize attached (real hard-boiled eggs, not the plastic kind with candy inside). There were about fifty losers that day, even more when the unfound eggs in the playground started to rot a few days later.
Yes, we learn about winners and losers from an early age.
In my young days, the idea of shaking hands after a contest was common. Today there is trash talking and further ridicule. There is more evidence that the winner bested the loser, and the loser was a loser with a capital “L.”
I guess by now, you might get the idea that I have lost my fair share. You might be right, but am I really a loser? The cross-country skiers from Tonga and Mexico were not losers. They just didn’t bring a medal home.
Soon after I was married, a few friends invited me to play golf for the first time. I had hit some golf balls ten years before, so I went to my parents’ house, a day’s drive away, to get the golf clubs that my brother had abandoned after taking golf in college for his physical education credit. Golf became that perfect sport for me. I wasn’t any good at first, but I didn’t play against the others. I might tee off last at each hole – at first, but I was playing against the course, not the other guys. As I got better, I played against my best score, or the best score on that hole for a course that I played often.
One day, I was playing golf by myself at a Canadian Air Base golf course in Germany. I had played the front nine holes with the local test pilot, the guy that flies each plane after maintenance has fixed something to make sure it really is fixed. In two hours of talking, I didn’t find out if he was the bravest guy I had met there or the craziest, but he did give me a lesson on changing my grip of the clubs. That’s all it took for me to suddenly be really good. The following week, I forgot what he’d taught me. Anyway, on a long par-5 on the back nine after he left to fly more ‘repaired’ aircraft, I hit the ball so well that I outdrove the dogleg and nearly lost my ball in the heavy rough, my only bogey of the back nine. (never again came close to that score.) I thought, “That was my best drive in my life. To heck with this game!” It was like the clouds formed immediately. I had wanted to spend eternity playing golf, where there are no losers. Upon thinking about my frustration, I was thinking that I had brought condemnation on the game that I loved.
No, I don’t think there is competition in heaven. There is no pain there. So, how could there ever be losers. The winners would never think of trash talking, if there were winners. Without winners and losers, why compete?
But we’ll be with Jesus. Is that not a win for each of us? We will have conquered death. Is that not being a winner?
And with that in mind, are we going to limp across the finish line, happy to have completed the race, or are we going to end the race in a full sprint? My father’s father was dying of cancer. He opened his eyes. He seemed to glow. He smiled and started to cry out with great Joy. And then he was gone. I don’t like the idea of the suffering he endured for years up to that point, but I want to have my eyes on the prize. Regardless of my physical ability at that point, I want to have my face toward the pearly gates.
Soli Deo Gloria. Glory to God Alone.