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The Blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
February 17, 2014
Why We Can’t Run Alone
Running a race is one of our favorite analogies from Scripture for the Christian life. We love to paraphrase Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25:
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. 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.
But these verses have puzzled me for a number of years. Is Paul saying that a life of faith is like a race, where each runner competes against all the others, and there can only be one winner? Is ministry competitive, with the prize going to the one who works the hardest, and everyone else going home empty-handed? And if there can only be one winner, what happens to the rest of us? Are we going to spend eternity off the medal podium, giving Paul or Mother Teresa or St. Francis our best McKayla Maroney pouty face?
Then I studied the passage with some of my Native students. Running is highly valued in Navajo culture, much more than in my culture, so they know a lot more about races than I do. Their insights gave me a whole new perspective on what it means to be a disciple running for the prize.
Who’s Not Trying?
“First of all, isn’t everyone running a race trying to win it?” I asked my students. “Why would you be in a race if you’re not trying to win it?”
Turns out there are several reasons. Some people run races for their health. Others are fulfilled just by finishing a challenging race, even if they finish last. And many runners run to beat their own personal records, not necessarily the person running beside them.
In addition (and much to my surprise), some people just run for fun. (I had to just take my students at their word with this one, as it’s beyond my understanding. Though I know people who actually pay money to run races, my perspective is that if I’m going to run 10 kilometers, somebody had better be paying me.)
What’s the Difference?
That brought on my next question for the runners in our group: “What’s the difference between those who are running the race to win it and those who are just running for fun?”
One of my students, RaShawn, ran cross-country for several years, both in high school and in college. He said that the biggest difference between competitive running and hobby running isn’t what you do while you’re running, but what you do when you’re not. “If you’re not competing, you can pretty much do whatever you want to,” he told me. “But if you decide you’re going to try to win, that decision affects pretty much every other decision you make in your life—what you eat, when you sleep, how you play . . . Everything gets rearranged so that it will help you win that race.”
This must be why Paul says in verse 25, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.” The decisions you make before the race will determine your performance during the race.
Is There Really Just One Winner?
So now I understood the racing metaphor much better, but the original question remained:“Does this mean there’s only one winner in the race of life? Are we all competing against each other?”
Again, Rashawn set me straight. “When we run cross-country, our whole team wins or loses together,” he explained. “I might finish first, but if the rest of my team struggles, I lose. So sometimes I’ll slow down and run alongside a teammate to encourage them and help them go faster—or sometimes one of my teammates does that for me. You always run faster when you’re running alongside someone. They’re both challenging you and encouraging you. It picks me up and helps me to run the best race I can run. And if we all do that for each other, we have a better chance of winning the race than if each of us just tried to run as fast we can on our own.”
And then he went on to blow my mind.
“When I read this passage, I see Jesus standing at the finish line. And if I get there all by myself, he gives me my prize, but then he says to me, ‘Where is everyone else? I have all these prizes’—and I see a whole stack of crowns behind him—‘but nobody to give them to. I wish you had helped the other runners win the race with you!’”
Running to Win
I’m still chewing on his insight. Because whether I want to admit it or not, I do see my personal faith journey as just that—personal. Private. Individual. And whether I like it or not, I do get caught up in the competitiveness of ministry. And I don’t always run the race like I’m trying to win it. Sometimes, if I run at all, I run like it’s just for fun, or for my health, or to say that I did it.
Now, thanks to Rashawn, I see that if I’m going to run the race to win it, I have to run it with other people. That’s what competitive runners do. I’m going to challenge and encourage those around me to run the best race they can run, and I’m going to be thankful when they challenge and encourage me. I’ll run faster if I don’t run alone. And when we finish the race, we’ll either win or lose it as a team; my individual accomplishment will matter less than how we did together.
I want to hear Jesus say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”—and that means I can’t cross the finish line alone. He’s got lots of prizes to give out. We need to make sure that none of his crowns—bought at such a great price—are left sitting in a box.
So, as Paul said, we run.
We go into strict training.
We compete for the prize.
And we all get there together.
Willie Krischke works at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, with Native American students. He has worked for InterVarsity since 2006. His wife, Megan, is an area director, and they have two kids, Flannery and Soren.
Image credit: familymwr