The Apostle Paul sometimes used illustrations from the arena of athletics to make his point. One of his best known athletic illustrations is found in I Corinthians 9:24-27. There he wrote, “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. 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, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”(NASB)
In this illustration there are at three traits found in great athletes that can be transposed to the Christian life. First, a great athlete must have dedication. There has always been the argument over whether an athlete is born or made. There is some truth to both thoughts. Certainly, there needs to be some natural God-given talents for an athlete to excel. However, if the work ethic is not there, the athlete will never reach his/her full potential. Over the years there have been many athletes who were so naturally blessed that they could stand head and shoulders above most of their competition. However, their full potential may have never been realized because they were unwilling to give the dedication needed to fully develop all of their God-given talents. If you do the research, you will discover that the truly great ones spent long hours developing their tools.
Second, a great athlete must have determination. There is an old saying in football that says, “It is not how hard you get knocked down that counts; it is how fast you get up.” Every athlete knows that there are going to be days when things do not go well. There are going to be times when you are knocked down. The good ones absorb the blow and get up with a new determination to not let it happen again. Their focus is on the prize at the end. It is nice when the prize is a championship trophy. However, it is also gratifying to be able to look back and know that you have stayed the course and have been the best you can be.
Third, the great athlete understands discipline. The discipline of the body may be included in the dedication and determination of the athlete. However, there is another form of discipline. It is the discipline to play within the rules when they take the field, court or track. If they choose to ignore the rules and play by their own standards, they forfeit the opportunity to win the prize and receive the joys that come from victory.
It is not hard to see the need for these three qualities in the life of a Christian. This need is evidence by the numbers of Christians who are living defeated, unfulfilled lives. They have expected all the benefits without any of the toil. Christians of our day need to look at the saints of old and learn from how they weathered adversity. It has never been easy to be a Christian. The world has always been hostile to the message of Christ. The secret to overcoming is not found in some simple formula but it is found in personal dedication, determination and discipline. Just as these three qualities are the defining factor between the average athletes and the great ones, they are the defining factors in the life of the Christian living the victorious life and the Christian who is simply getting by.
One final comment, Paul stresses that the athlete does it to receive a perishable wreath or in our day, a trophy or some other kind of recognition, but the Christian does it to receive an imperishable reward. For the Christian a “well done My good and faithful servant” will suffice when we stand before our eternal coach.