Dan Jansen was always close with his sister – in fact it was she who suggested he become a speed skater. In 1988 his dream came true when he made it to the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. With just hours to go to his first race, however, he was informed that his sister had died.
Of course, the news of his sister's death stunned and devastated Jansen, but he decided to compete anyways. His sister had encouraged him to be a speed skater and supported him along the way to his Olympic dreams. It is what she would have wanted.
As he raced across the ice that day, grief proved to be too much. He fell in both races, dashing his hopes of winning the gold.
Although he was grieved and defeated, Jansen decided he couldn't quit. He continued to chase the gold. In 1992, he came back to the Winter Olympics hoping to win, but the gold eluded him once again. Still undeterred he set to train for the next Olympic games. Finally, in 1994, all his effort paid off. He not only won the gold in the 1,000 meter but he also set a new world record.
Jansen succeeded because he didn't give up. Despite all the setbacks he kept pressing forward toward the prize.
Likewise, as Christians we must not give up. We must keep pressing forward. Despite setbacks, road blocks, and distractions, we must, as Paul tells us, run the race of the Christian life to win the prize.
Run the Race of the Christian Life to Win the Prize
Paul, using an image from the Isthmian Games held in Corinth, says in 1 Corinthians 9:24
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one received the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Cor. 9:24)
Now, when Paul says this, he doesn’t mean to imply only one of us will win the prize. That is pressing Paul’s image too far. Instead, what Paul wants us to do is run the race of the Christian life in such a way that we will win the prize.
When I was in elementary school, I was one of the fastest kids in the school — it was a small school. I remember one year I was cocky. I knew I was faster than everyone else, so on the first heat of the race I held back; I didn’t give it my all. I still came in first, but when I went to brag to my teacher about how I had just won he said, “You didn’t win by much. You better step it up, or you won’t make it to the finals.” My teacher taught me something in that moment. He taught me that I didn't have it in the bag and that I had to give it my all, I had to run so as to obtain the prize.
Christians must do the same. We have to run so as to win the prize. We can’t give a half effort. We can’t be lackadaisical about our Christian walk. If we are, we may not cross the finish line and win the prize.
Not Works Based
In saying we have to run in such a way so as to obtain the prize, Paul is not advocating a works based salvation. Paul is holding a tension between Christ's work and our work. Yes, those who are Christ's will finish the race, but that doesn't mean we don't have to work to finish it.
The encouraging part of running the Christian race is that we don't have to run it in our own power. At salvation, not only is our heart created anew, which causes us to desire to run for Christ, but we are also empowered by God to run. In Philippians 2:12b-13, Paul tells us to:
"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." (Phil. 2:12b-13)
Do you see what Paul is saying? We are to work out our own salvation – run with all our might, striving for the finish line – but we don't run in our own power or alone. God runs with us, empowering us by changing our will, causing us to want to work to please Him, and giving us the strength to press on. What a glorious truth!
What is the Prize?
“Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Cor 9:25)
Once again using an image from the Isthmian Games, Paul tells us our prize is greater than any earthly prize because: It is not perishable, but imperishable. It’s not temporary, but eternal. It’s not a laurel wreath, but a crown. Our prize, the prize we run the race to receive, is eternal life.
Since our prize is so great, we should give it our all. We shouldn’t run the race at half-speed, but "full steam ahead" until we cross the finish line.
How Do We Run Race to Win the Prize?
(1) Winning the prize takes assurance and motivation that comes through continued self-control
In an effort to lose some weight and fit into my clothes better, I have been working out, eating healthy, and cutting the sweets out. The first two aren't hard for me. I like working out and we generally eat healthy at my house. But I have a pretty big sweet tooth.
Cutting sweets out of my diet is a battle for me. One sweet that is particularly tough for me to give up is ice cream. If there is ice cream in the freezer, every time I walk by it I want to open it up and indulge. The urge becomes especially strong at night when I am relaxing on the couch watching TV.
Lately, I have been winning the battle, but there are times I lose. There are times when I lack self-control, which is ok every now and again. But if I want to win the diet battle, I have to exercise self-control, self-discipline more often than not. As I continue to exercise self-control and self-discipline, my assurance that I will win the diet battle grows, which motivates me to keep pressing on.
Paul tells us something similar. He tells us that if we want to finish the race of the Christian life and win the prize, we have to exercise self-control and self discipline, as we do our assurance that we will finish the race grows, which provides us with motivation to keep running (1 Cor. 9:25a; 27).
One way we can exercise self-control is by having a greater desire to please God than ourselves. I don't know about you but my desire for God grows when I remember what Jesus has done for me in the gospel.
The gospel message tells us that Jesus saves us from the wrath of God by absorbing our sins on Himself and dying the death we deserve. Jesus defeated sin's reign over our lives, allowing us to resist its temptation and exercise self-control.
As we remind ourselves of the gospel, preaching it to ourselves, a sense of gratitude towards God and a desire to please Him should grow in our hearts. Our affections should be for God and not sin. When our affections, our desires, are more for God than sin, we will exercise self-control, resisting the desires of the flesh, which should give us assurance and motivation to keep running the race.
(2) Winning the prize takes focus
Muhammad Ali was famous for his saying, "I float like a butterfly. I sting like a bee." Those two qualities allowed him not only to make quick work of his opponents with his pounding punches, but it also allowed him to make his opponents look foolish for striking the air instead of him.
Paul tells us if we want to finish the race and win the prize, we can't be like Muhammad Ali's opponents. We can't flail around the ring, "beating the air" or running aimlessly (1 Cor. 9:26). Instead we have to box as one determined to knock their opponent out, and we have to run as one determined to win the race. In order to do that, we must be focused.
What we need to be focused on is Christ and the eternal heavenly reward awaiting us, so that we will keep our eye on the prize and stay on the track.
(3) Winning the prize also takes us heeding the warning of the past
Israel had a troubled history. One littered with fall after fall. What was at the heart of Israel's sin was their pride. They thought they didn't need the Lord, that they knew better, that they had it all figured out. They, however, were wrong, and their many falls prove it.
In fact, all of us are wrong if we believe we have it all figured out. Proverbs 11:2 tells us that,
"When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” (Pr 11:2)
And Proverbs 16:18 says,
"Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Pr 16:18)
Those who think they know better than the Lord, that they don't need Him, that they have it all figured out will not succeed. They will fall. You see, if we are going to finish this race, if we are going to win the prize, we can't go at alone. We must depend on God. We must look to Him for how we are to live. We must humble ourselves before Him and allow Him to lead us.
(4) Winning the prize takes resisting temptation
In 1 Corinthians 10:13 Paul says,
"No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."
Paul delivers to us a wonderful promise from God. A promise that tells us we don't have to sin; we can resist temptation.
We can resist temptation because God makes a way of escape. In other words, He doesn't allow us to get in a situation where we are forced to sin. We always have a choice.
John Piper commenting on this verse says,
“You can endure any temptation if you are relying upon and delighting in God more than what you are being tempted towards. A sufficient reason of obedience will always be given in the time of temptation.”
Then he goes on to say,
“Some kind of evidence that God is preferable to the sin we are tempted with will be given…that evidence might be:
(1) Remembering a threat, command, or promise God has made in His Word.
(2) Recalling an experience we have had of God’s kindness.
(3) Receiving a word of encouragement about God’s glory and beauty from a friend.”
God will always provide us a way of escape. If that is true, the real question is: Do we want to escape the temptation and please God, or do we want to succumb to the temptation so we can please ourselves?
That is what it comes down to — who do we desire to please – God or self?
If we desire to please God, if we delight in God, then we will be able to resist temptation because God always provides a way of escape for us.
(5) Winning the prize takes us fleeing idols
We can't be united to Christ and an idol. We can only worship one thing. If we choose an idol over God, we are in jeopardy of running of the track and not finishing the race.
What is an idol?
An idol is anything we allow to take the place of God in our lives. It’s those things we give the most weight to, or think are necessary for life and happiness. Ultimately, an idol is anything that stands between us and God, hindering our relationship with Him because we are giving it our love, affections, and worship instead of God.
How do you know what your idol is?
Think about what you give your:
What you sacrifice for
What you can’t live without
That which fits those categories could be an idol in your life. It could be the thing that is stealing your affections, love, and worship away from God.
Paul tells us if we want to finish the race, we have to flee idols. We have to run from them toward God, allowing Him alone to satisfy us (1 Cor. 10:14).
 John Piper, The Sovereignty of God and the Sin of the Believer, found at: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-sovereignty-of-god-and-the-sin-of-the-believer