Can Sport Make Better Christians?

“Of course competition can make you a better Christian … the Apostle Paul loved sports!”

[This post is the second in a series exploring a theology of competition. If you haven’t yet, it may be helpful to first read the introductory post that sets the stage for the rest of the discussion.]

The Context

First Corinthians is a letter from Paul covering a variety of issues regarding proper conduct within the body of Christ. At one point in the letter, the Apostle exhorts his readers to, following his example, persevere with self-discipline.

The Text

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24–27).

The Isthmian Games were a 1st-century multi-sport event held less than nine miles from Corinth (Broneer, “The Apostle Paul and the Isthmian Games,” Biblical Arch 25: 2–31, 1962). Paul, having spent much time in the city, would have certainly been familiar with the spectacle. 

Regarding the Games, Paul observes that all competitors run, but only one receives the honour of winning (9:24). In athletic competition, only the fastest running, highest jumping, or physically strongest win the gold medal. It’s an exclusive reward

Obviously, this is not the case in the Christian life as there is not merely a single prize to be won. The gift of forgiveness for sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is for “… all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39).

Therefore, it isn’t the competitiveness of an athlete Paul is encouraging believers to mirror, but the preparation to compete.

An athlete must wisely abstain from the distracting pleasures of life, training and disciplining their body for the purpose of competing to the best of their abilities if they have any chance at winning the prize. 

Instead of focusing on the competitive nature of the Games, Paul’s point is that believers are to run the race of the Christian life with the focus, determination, and self-control an athlete may exhibit.

An important distinction between athletes and believers is that the former train and compete for a temporary prize while the latter for one that is eternal (v. 25b). The implied question is, if an athlete exercises self-control for a temporary reward, how much more should a believer? If an athlete is willing to deprive themselves of certain luxuries, how much more willing should Christians be to surrender liberties, lifestyles, and habits of self-indulgence (Johnson, 1 Corinthians in IVPNTC, 150)?

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to imitate him (v. 26). Paul “competed” not with uncertainty, but with focus. He “ran the race” not like one pointlessly punching the air, but with purpose. Because the prize is so valuable and because the race is inevitable, Paul uses his Christian freedom to live a disciplined and intentional life (v. 27), void of things that may detract from his ability to compete well. The purpose of such training is that he may not be disqualified from passing the final test of complete faithfulness to Christ (Johnson, 151).

The Principle

Christians are to live a life of focus, intentionality, and self-control, sacrificially abstaining from what may hinder them, in order to “run” to the best of their abilities.

The Application

A serious athlete must honestly examine their lifestyle in search of elements that may be dampening their ability to train and compete properly. Many athletes will admit, “I would be angry if lost and was able to point back to something in my life and wonder ‘What if I had taken care of that? That could have made the difference!’” 

As Christians, we want to avoid that same scenario. We must examine our lives and identify elements that are hampering our ability to live a life pleasing to God in the present.