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I can’t imagine an Olympic sport more boring to watch than the marathon, which takes place this weekend.* For more than two hours, runners slog through 26.2 miles—only to have an anti-climactic ending. (They’re not usually neck and neck, like in swimming or sprinting.)
Watching distance running on TV is so boring that someone argued, “Even Forrest Gump required a montage of the infamous running scene because seeing Tom Hanks travel on foot across the country in real time is not something people would pay to see.”
But TV doesn’t do justice to the physical intensity and endurance required to finish—let alone win—a marathon.
Two weeks ago I ran one of the most difficult marathons in the world, the San Francisco Marathon—a fact that I didn’t discover until after I finished. Apparently it’s America’s toughest big city run, and The Wall Street Journal dubs it “the race even marathoners fear.” The course was breathtaking, but the hills were steep, and my quads were burning.
During training, especially on long runs, I had lots of time to think about life, faith, and running, and I came to realize that while the marathon may be the most boring sport to watch, it’s likely the most spiritually enlightening to do. Even Paul says that we—whether or not we’re runners—can learn a lot about the Christian life by looking at running (1 Cor. 9:23–26).
Run to Win
The apostle says we should have the motivation of a runner: to win. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24).
The problem, of course, is that very few runners run to win. Most of us are so far behind the elites that we don’t even see the awards ceremony. Far from hoping to be the “only one” to receive the prize, we’re just happy to get a finisher’s medal.
So what is our motivation?
While training for San Francisco, I had one goal—to train such that the race itself would be fun. If I wanted to enjoy it, I knew I needed to build endurance for the race and strength for the hills. My motivation wasn’t to beat the other runners but to beat the course.
My motivation wasn’t to beat the other runners but to beat the course.
This sense of winning is what Paul means. He wants us to win against the course and to finish well so that “race day” is enjoyable, not painful. He wants us to train with Olympic spirituality, as John Piper puts it.
Plus, we know Paul doesn’t care about beating other runners since we know he wants them to win, too. As he tells the Philippians, he’d personally rather finish the race, but he’ll stay on the course to encourage and run with them (Phil. 1:23–25). In the same way, we run to win—even as we bring others along with us.
Exercise Self-Control in All Things
Paul also says we need a runner’s self-discipline: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things” (1 Cor. 9:25).
Training for a marathon is holistic. All sorts of non-running activities affect running. If your primary diet is junk food or you don’t drink enough water, you’re going to have a bad run. If you have a long run in the morning, you’re wise to go to bed early the night before. Marathon training changes your life for four months.
Our faith, too, affects every aspect of our lives, not just our “spiritual” activities. In every sphere—from our motivations to our relationships to our work—we’re called to deny sinful impulses and cultivate godly ones so that our zeal for God endures.
“The serious athlete doesn’t ask about how to just get by in his training,” Piper says. “He asks about what will bring about maximum performance. So the mature Christian asks, What will stir up my zeal for God most? And this requires holistic discipline.
Discipline Your Body
Another aspect of running to emulate is its focus on the body. Paul says, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27).
Get together with a group of runners, and the conversation quickly sounds like an orthopedic convention. Injuries are badges of honor, with each runner bearing his or her particular weaknesses. I have two chronic problems—pain in my right proximal hamstring and losing my toenails. Both gave me problems while training.
But I didn’t stop. I pushed through them—even when there was so much pain I wanted to scream. Instead, my doctor gave me exercises and medications. I didn’t surrender to my body; I made it surrender to me.
In the same way, the body is our “base of operations” for life. We aren’t dualists who bifurcate mind and body. We know our body can be used for both godly and sinful purposes. We expect pain to come when we’re obedient and, therefore, we discipline it.
So how do we get this motivation, self-control, and discipline?
We focus on the imperishable wreath. Paul says there’s one important distinction between the Christian life and running—athletes compete “to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:25). Our finisher’s medal is eternal life, which Christ has already secured for us (Phil. 3:12).
When our eyes are fixed on Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross (Heb. 12:1–2), we can run with endurance. He becomes our joy when we see that we became his. Then it will be said of us as it was said of Jacob: “So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (Gen. 29:20).
Christ becomes our joy when we see that we became his.
Marathon watching may be the most boring sport to watch on TV, but there’s hardly a sport more akin to the Christian life. May our hearts be so enthralled by Christ’s beauty that we run through the pain with endurance and joy, so that we may obtain the imperishable wreath of endless life.
Editors’ note: Be sure to check out 6 Christian Athletes to Watch in Rio.
*The men’s marathon final is tomorrow. The women’s was last Sunday.