Playing To Win

The Apostle Paul was concerned about people who have not heard the gospel.  He told the Corinthians that he was so concerned that he was determined to build bridges rather than walls, to give up personal rights rather than be a stumbling block to another, and he would even suffer personally if that is what was necessary to bring the message of hope to people.

In our politically correct age we still must declare the Biblical message that there is “one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 2:5). We must let people know that “There is “no other name under Heaven by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)  And we must make people aware that Jesus is the “way the truth, and the life and no one can come to the Father except through Him.” (John 14:6).  The Bible teaches that people who do not turn to Christ for salvation and new life will spend eternity apart from God’s love.

This is what the Bible teaches.  We have a responsibility to share this good news of forgiveness and new life with as many people as possible.  We know this in our heads.  We say this with our mouths.  However, the way we live our lives seems to say we don’t really believe it at all.  Our commitment is sadly lacking.

At the end of 1 Corinthians 9 the Apostle Paul challenges the people in Corinth (and us), to stop playing around in the area of our discipleship.  He calls us to play to win.

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. 25 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. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat 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]

During the time that Paul was writing, the Olympic Games were already very popular.  The second most popular games were the Isthmian games.  These games were held in Corinth every two or three years.  It was a big deal.  To win these games was the pinnacle of athletic achievement.  Today such a win would get you on a box of Wheaties® and get you all kinds of commercial endorsements.  To win these games would have been the equivalent today of being elected into the Hall of Fame. It was the closest thing to becoming immortalized.

To qualify for the games you had to undergo a 10 month training regimen. The last month of this training had to take place in Corinth under the watchful eye of officials.  It was to these athletic events that Paul turned for his analogy of the Christian life. 


Paul observed that though many people enter a race only one stands on the winners’ platform.  Every Olympic athlete trains with the idea of one day standing on the winners’ rostrum to receive a gold medal and to hear his/her National Anthem played.  These athletes train diligently and constantly for years before they ever even qualify for the games.  Paul says the Christian life is like this.

It is the pursuit of a prize.  As the athlete pursues a prize, so does the believer.  Paul says there are two differences.  First, (v. 25) the crown of the athlete is perishable.  It will fade or wilt.  The crown we seek is imperishable.  Second, Paul implies that unlike the athletic games, there is not just one “winner”.  We can all gain the prize if we are faithful.  We do not compete against each other, we compete against the world.

What is this crown we seek?  In the Bible we are told that there will rewards given to those who are faithful. I don’t know what these rewards will be, but one of those rewards will surely be the reward of knowing that you were used by God to bring someone else to faith in Christ.  Imagine how wonderful it would be to walk around Heaven and see those who are in Heaven because you were faithful in sharing the truth with them.  Personally, I can’t imagine a greater reward.

A teacher certainly feels great joy when they watch one of their students excel.  A coach draws great joy and satisfaction when his/her athlete grabs hold of an athletic scholarship. A physician or a surgeon is encouraged from seeing people who are well today because they identified a problem.  A farmer draws satisfaction from harvesting a good crop. Take these temporal joys and multiply them by many powers of 10 and perhaps you will have some idea of what a rich and eternal reward it would be to see someone in Heaven through your faithfulness.  

Our ultimate blessing and reward would be to hear the Lord say to us, “Well done!” A child playing ball will often search the stands to see his/her parents.  Why? They desire the approval of the people who are most significant to them.  When someone we love says, “Good job!” or “I’m proud of you” it is a very significant moment.  How much more significant it will be to stand before our precious Redeemer and Lord and hear Him say, “You served me well”?  That will be a reward surpassing any trinket the world could afford.

It requires training. The second way in which life is like a race is that just as the true athlete goes into strict training, the disciple must train as well. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to win the gold medal in swimming.  You train for it.  In like manner, those who seek to serve the Lord in a way that brings honor to God must get serious about the pursuit.  The faithful disciple must be diligent. 


Let’s assume (for argument’s sake) that you want to be a winner as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Let’s say that you do want the imperishable crown and you do want to know that you have been responsible for others spending eternity in Heaven.  What kind of training is needed?

Focus. Paul says the true athlete goes into strict training.  The athlete does not run “aimlessly”.  He is constantly working on something.  He is working on his start, his finish, his stride, or his endurance.  He works purposefully.  The athlete keeps working toward the prize of being a champion. He never loses sight of the goal.

As believers we must keep before us the prize that we are seeking.  It is easy to get distracted in this world.  There are titles, awards, and milestones that can distract us.  There are sports, politics, and profit margin that can occupy our attention.  There is pleasure, the achievement of our children, and an abundance of stuff that can cause us to lose our focus.  We must constantly, daily, perhaps even hourly, remind ourselves of the goal: the reward of Heaven and the souls of men.

Discipline.  The second thing that’s needed is discipline.  Paul says, “I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave.” Paul says he isn’t just playing games; he is serious.  We are told that he “beats his body to make it his slave.”  The phrase “beat my body” means to hit below the eye or to get a black eye.  The word for athlete in the Greek is the word “agonizomenous” from which we get our word “agony”.  The person who plays to win agonizes to grow in their walk with God.

We live in a lazy society.  We want to lose weight by taking a pill rather than developing self-control.  We want the government to give us handouts rather than to work for things.  We want people to tell us what to think rather than think for ourselves. We want people to read our minds rather than have to work at communication. In the same way we want our discipleship to be something that comes without any effort or sacrifice.

Even as a novice writer I have people ask me, “What does it take to get a book published?”  I always answer the same thing: “First you have to write and re-write and re-write the manuscript!”  A famous author once said, “Most people don’t want to write, they want to ‘be published’”.  They want the satisfaction of having published a book but don’t really want to put in the difficult labor of writing one.

Paul had learned that discipline is necessary to grow in our faith, just as discipline is necessary in every other area of life.  We must discipline ourselves to study, to pray, to serve, and to look for opportunities to share our faith.  We must discipline our bodies, our minds, our attitudes, and our desires.

Discipline and sacrifice are necessary ingredients to true discipleship.  You cannot excel in business without putting in the hours.  You cannot be successful in marriage without working hard.  You cannot master any skill or truly learn any material without disciplined effort.  The same is true in our discipleship.  We will not be able to serve the Lord in a victorious manner without putting in the time and discipline.


As we hear these words from Paul I suspect you may find yourself, as I do, with three different responses.

Conviction.  As we read these words of Paul it is hard to believe that anyone doesn’t feel a sense of conviction.  Is anyone able to say they are serving the Lord as they should?  As we compare ourselves to the apostles, the leaders of the early church, the saints who gave their life for Christ, the monks who lived in poverty so they could study and translate the Scriptures day and night, and the believers who were/are imprisoned for their faith . . . we realize that our commitment is very shallow, at best.

Think about it,

  • We teach our kids to be dedicated athletes and diligent students but we hardly ever take time to teach them the things of God.
  • We talk about Jesus being first in our lives but then we have any number of things that we allow to be more important in our calendar than our time with Him
  • We are more influenced (and energized) by television and talk radio than we are by the Scriptures and quiet prayer.
  • We profess to be grateful for the grace by which we stand but we find ourselves trying to figure out how to give as little to God in our time, energy and finances as we possibly can.
  • We have friends we profess to love whom we have known all our lives but we have never shared with them the message of how to live beyond the grave.
  • We watch our diet and work at exercise so that we will be physically fit but we do little to attend to our soul so that we will be spiritually fit.
  • We read the paper every day but have no time for God’s Word
  • We want God’s blessing but don’t want to follow God’s commands

These words should convict us. Like a Doctor who looks a patient in the eye and says, “Stop smoking or die”, we should hear these words from God and be motivated to change.

Apprehension.  The whole idea of being “disqualified for the prize” is more than a little discomforting.  Is Paul meaning to say we might lose our salvation?  No, I think if we compare this passage with others in the Bible we see that is not what he is saying.  When we have put our trust in Christ we are given His Spirit as a deposit which guarantees our inheritance.  We are saved because of what Christ has done not because of what we have done.

The prize that we will be disqualified from is the joy of having a vibrant relationship with the Lord.  We will miss out on that “Well Done!” We will miss the reward that is given to all who have followed faithfully.

Becoming a follower of Christ is similar to marriage.  You may be “married” following a ceremony but to have a full, meaningful, enjoyable and satisfying marriage requires a love that includes commitment, hard work, and seemingly daily adjustments.

In like manner, being a follower of Christ is not simply saying a prayer at a meeting.  The person who is a true follower of Christ turns to Christ for forgiveness and new life AND also submits to Him as Lord.  This is true “saving faith” and it requires a commitment that will constantly bring change in the way we live.

Though Paul is not saying we can lose our salvation, I think His words should make us examine the validity of our belief that we are saved. We should take a hard look at the nature of our relationship with Christ.  Is it superficial or is it genuine? Have we merely gone through the motions or have we truly entrusted our lives to Him?  Are we a fan of Christ or are we one of His followers?

Despair.  This leaves us feeling a sense of despair. If you are like me, you already feel a little overwhelmed by life. Everything seems to need attention and needs it now. We feel inadequate in so many areas of our live that the idea of one more area that needs to be addressed is too much to bear.  There are so many things to do, so much information to master, so many demands.  We listen to Paul’s words and feel ill-equipped to follow the Lord as he commands.

Let’s stay with Paul’s illustration of self-discipline.  Suppose you had a friend who called you up tomorrow and said, “Hey, let’s run a 26 mile marathon on Saturday.”  I would laugh.  I am pretty sure by the time I reached the end of one block I would be ready to quit. If you are going to run a marathon you start by running a little each day.  Over the course of time you increase your distance.  After many months of diligent preparation you might be ready to run a short race.

I don’t know how much Jerry Lewis raised in his first MDA telethon but I’m sure it wasn’t 65 million dollars.  He started small and made it a goal to get one dollar more every year.  That’s the way it is in everything.  It takes time to become a craftsman.  It takes time to be a math whiz.  It takes time to learn how to play a musical instrument. It takes time to learn to be a good parent or a good spouse.  Rather than become overwhelmed, we must give ourselves time.

This is what Paul wants us to do.  He wants us to BEGIN the process of disciplined growth.  So the thing we need to do is simple:  We need to START the process.  How do we do so?  We start small and build from there. Let me give you some simple ideas of where you might start.  Pick just one or two of these things and start training for discipleship.  After you have worked on a couple of these for awhile, add something else.  Start small and keep building.  Don’t worry about winning championships right now . . . just look for progress.  Here are some suggestions to choose from.

  • Say grace at your meals.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  Thank God for providing for your needs.  Make it a point to acknowledge Him at meal times.
  • Set aside time before you have breakfast or read the paper or watch the news to spend some time with the Father.  Use a daily devotional book and read the Scripture passage, the comments and apply the lessons before the Lord in prayer. Start by giving God 5 minutes a day.  Expand that time and your study as you develop discipline.
  • Give God first place on Sunday morning.  Make a commitment to worship regularly.  Let your children know that God comes FIRST on Sunday morning.  Use this as a way of declaring to your entire family that God comes first.
  • Keep a prayer list in your Bible and as you refer to it throughout the week, lift up the names and situations that are there.
  • Figure out what percentage of your income you actually give to the Lord’s work.  Then try to increase that percentage even 1%.
  • Work on reading ONE good Christian book this year.  Maybe you only read a page or two a day . . . just keep going.  When you finish, celebrate!
  • Make it a goal to say something to friends at work about your faith.  Plant seeds.  Drop a comment about something you learned in worship or Sunday School. Share a verse you read in the Bible.  Recommend a Christian book or radio station. Dare to open a door for further discussion.
  • Find at least one way to serve others in Jesus’ name this year. Look for a way to help someone carry their heavy load.  Be willing to give some time just to help someone else.

Paul challenged the Corinthians to take their discipleship seriously. There are many demands on our lives.  There are a bunch of “important” and even “urgent” things to do.  However, our discipleship is the one area of life that will continue to be important even after we die.  It will not only impact OUR eternal destiny and heavenly rewards, It is also the one area of our lives that will most impact our family and our friends.  That impact will not just be for a few years, but could impact their lives FOREVER.  So, it’s time to stop making excuses and start training.

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