“Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
In 2001 a movie came out called Rat Race. It was an ensemble film featuring a host of famous comedians and was essentially a retitled remake of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World from 1963. The movie is about a group of greedy gamblers who get suckered into a casino owner’s personal game of getting them to hilariously race across the country to see which of them can make it to a locker filled with money first. The plot is basically one slapstick moment after another, but there is a basic life lesson to it. It hyperbolically reminds us how foolish it is to make the acquiring of wealth our sole pursuit. How often, though, do we find life imitating art?
There are many times that life just feels like one giant game show, doesn’t it? But, it’s not one of those game shows where you answer tough questions and win money. It’s more like one of those shows where the contestants participate in increasingly insane challenges that leave them covered in one disgusting mess or another until somebody makes it to the final challenge which they usually lose in some embarrassing fashion that leaves viewers entirely confident they could have done better if given the chance.
Or maybe it’s that life feels like a game of American Ninja Warrior. It’s a game where only the strongest have a chance and most of them fail along the way. But the one thing all the contestants—even the ones who don’t stand a chance—have in common is that they are all playing to win.
Everyone plays to win. What exactly winning looks like varies a bit from person to person, but everyone is reaching for that same basic goal: to win.
But is this how things should be? I mean, wouldn’t life be better if it wasn’t so focused on competition? Even if we aren’t exactly competing against other people, but only ourselves, wouldn’t we have a more peaceful journey if we were just content rather than always trying to win something? Life is more about the journey than the destination, right?
Those kinds of platitudes are more popular today than perhaps they have ever been. They sound really wise too. When Paul starts out in v. 24 here, we would almost expect him to go in this direction. “Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize?” It shouldn’t be like that with you. You should be more focused on the journey and being at peace with God, yourself, and other people.
That’s not what he says, though, is it? Not at all in fact. He leans right into that spirit of competition that seems to mark everything we do and basically encourages it. “Run in such a way to win the prize.” If you’re going to compete in everything you do, you might as well try to win.
But wait! What happened to not competing and the importance of the journey and all that? Those things sound nice, but they aren’t how people actually live. No one does. There is something in us that inherently seeks to win no matter what it is we are doing. Well, that’s not totally fair. We don’t compete in everything. Some things we learn to let go over the years. But in things that matter most to us, we want to be the best we can be. That’s what Paul is saying here. He’s simply taking human nature as it is and says, “Look, if you’re going to compete, you might as well play to win.”
If you’re going to play a game, you might as well play to win. Why bother otherwise? And saying you love the game isn’t enough. Professional baseball players love the game more than anyone else and they are also more committed to winning than anyone else.
But Paul doesn’t stop here and what comes next is really important. Well, he says two things in the next verse. One is a description, one an explanation. The description is really important, but I want to focus in on the explanation.
The description simply furthers the point that when people are in a competition they play to win. Think about this why, though. Why do people compete? Why do they work and strive and limit themselves and make sacrifices? Because they want to win, yes, but win what? The prize.
Okay, but what is the prize? Well, that depends. It depends on exactly what the competition is. Hockey players compete for the Stanly Cup. Football players want the Vince Lombardi trophy and a Super Bowl ring. In baseball it’s the World Series title. Olympic athletes compete for a gold medal (which are, ironically, 92.5% silver by rule). Let’s leave the world of sports. Actors compete with one another for the title of best actor. Whether that comes from the form of an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a SAG award, an Emmy, an Obie, or Tony, or something else. Writers all want a Pulitzer Prize. Scientists of all stripes secretly hope their work earns them a Nobel Prize. Whatever it is, though, competitions always have a prize.
Think with me now. When it comes to the competition that is life, what prize might we be seeking? Fame? Fortune? Influence? Friendship? Love? Here’s an idea: How about eternal life. If you’re playing the game of life, losing is most poignantly represented by death. Then you’re out of the game permanently. The real prize, then, seems like it would be not ever having to experience that, or at least, not having it be a permanent condition.
The thing about all those other trophies and prizes and awards we mentioned a second ago is that they will all eventually be forgotten. They will fade away. It will be as though they never were. But my how we work so hard to achieve them. Wouldn’t it be better to commit such effort toward a prize that won’t eventually be gone and forgotten? Paul thinks so.
“Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown.” For followers of Jesus, our goal is eternal life. Nothing short of that will do. And that prize, kind of by definition, won’t eventually be gone. It will last forever. It is eternal.
If we are going to go for a prize, why not vie for one that won’t eventually be gone and worthless? Life is a grand competition. We are all racing for a goal. That’s simply the reality of things. But the hope of the Gospel—and it is unique in this compared to most other worldviews—is that everyone can win. God’s grace is for all who are willing to receive it. The prize of life is a crown that can be enjoyed by everyone willing to do what it takes to gain it; who is willing to commit themselves to living the life that is truly life. It won’t always be easy—no competition worth having ever is—but it will be worth it.