“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” 1 Corinthians 9:24–25

There is no better illustration to describe the whole of a Christian’s life than the running of a marathon. A real marathoner will soon find his wall festooned with medals and mementos. His mind will be in constant marathon mode, filtering every choice through the question, “Will this help me excel in my race?” One pastor I knew was a long distance runner. He once said that he was happy when anyone told him he looked terrible because of his hollow cheeks, his gaunt appearance, and his lean and wiry physique. He would always say, “Thank you!” A runner highly treasures being in good enough shape to run the next marathon at any moment!

As long as there has been civilization, there have been games of strength and endurance. In the Old Testament times we know the Egyptians engaged in wrestling, single-stick fighting, archery, and quite possibly rowing. The Israelite would have known of wrestling, swimming, running and playing ball. By the New Testament era the Olympian, Pythian, and Isthmian games were well known. The Hellenistic influences had permeated the known world to the point where sports had an influence on everyday figures of speech. This is especially seen in the Apostle Paul’s writings.

Paul refers to athletes and athletics using the Greek word athlesis. The root of the word refers to the contest and the struggle. Those who engage in the contest are the athletes. The verb form is used twice in 2 Timothy 2:5: “And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” The very idea of competition emphasizes the mindset of the athlete. Philippians 1:27 reads, “Only let your conduct be worthy of the Gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the Gospel.” The compound sunathleo is translated as striving together, emphasizing taking part in a contest. Behind both of these verses is the emphasis on the effort required to prepare, and then to compete in, the contest.

One more passage underscores the effort and the toll the contest takes on the athlete. Hebrews 10:32f reads, “But recall the former days in which after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated.” Here the word is translated as great struggle, emphasizing the world of the true athlete engaged in a rigorous contest.

I had a long distance track coach who had a strange way of encouraging us fledgling athletes. One day toward the end of a particularly grueling track practice I remember him running along beside us goading us along. We were tired, thirsty, our stomachs were churning and our leg muscles were aching, every step in keeping up with the cadence was beginning to feel rubbery and unsure. And there coach was, running right alongside of us, telling us to enjoy the feeling of the burn, of the sheer exhaustion and of the imminent danger of losing our lunch! We must have looked miserable, and that is the point of Hebrews 10:32 and the great struggle. The believers were not just athletes engaged in the contest but they were bordering on the miserable and wretched due to the fierceness of the struggle.

The spiritual marathon every believer enters at the point of salvation is worthy of thoughtful preparation—physical, mental, and spiritual preparation. Physical preparation for the run is obviously important. Being properly conditioned often requires a good coach who is available to you, knows what he is doing, and takes the initiative. His advice ranges from your workout, to your diet, to your equipment, and even to your recreational time. Similarly, the believer is given the greatest Coach for the race of your lifetime. The Holy Spirit’s ministry is to come alongside you while instructing, goading, encouraging, and strengthening you (1 Corinthians 6:19f; Romans 8:12ff). His instruction is wide-ranging, always on point, and intent on your success for the glory of God.

Mental preparation is equally as necessary as the physical. There is a voluntary embrace of discipline of mind that is required. Our text in 1 Corinthians 9:26f concentrates on this very thing: “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others I myself should become disqualified.” Discipline means literally “to beat under the eye,” basically, to knock out the impulses for which the body yearns. The body must be strongly managed by the spiritual mind if the race of life is to be run and won.

Spiritual preparation is crucial; even among earthly marathoners this is admitted. They speak of grounding, while the believer speaks of devotion (Hebrews 12:1–4).

Every marathoner knows that running a marathon is an amazing accomplishment. The Christian’s marathon of life is one for which he may be proud of for eternity (1 Corinthians 3:14). The secret is to learn to love the long run, and that takes discipline, backed up by grit and determination (Galatians 5:7). Trust and obey.