Paul uses runners in the Greek games as examples of how we are to live as Christians. The first thing to notice is the utmost tension, energy, and strenuous effort pictured by athletes straining for the finish line in hope of the glory of winning. "This is the way to run," says Paul, "if we want to attain our potential."
This requires steady, intense concentration or focus of the runners. They cannot afford to become distracted by things off to the side of their course. If they do, their effectiveness in running will surely diminish. Keeping focused requires control—not allowing distractions to interfere with the responsibility at hand. "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness," says Jesus (Matthew 6:33). Here, the issue is single-mindedness. James writes, "[H]e who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. . . . [H]e is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways" (James 1:6, 8). Controlling our focus can go a long way toward making the run successful.
Paul then says the victorious runner sets Christians an example of rigid self-control: "Everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things." It is not only a matter of concentrating while he is racing, but in all areas of life because his whole life impacts on the race. The runner religiously follows a rigorous program within a rigid schedule each day: He rises at a certain hour, eats a breakfast of certain foods, fills his morning with exercises, and works on his technique. After a planned lunch, he continues training, eats a third planned meal, and goes to bed at a specified hour. Throughout, he not only avoids sensuous indulgences, he must also abstain from many perfectly legitimate things that simply do not fit into his program. An athlete who is serious about excelling in his chosen sport must live this way, or he will not succeed except against inferior competitors. He will suffer defeat by those who do follow them.
We can learn a great deal here about self-indulgence and self-control. It is not enough for us to say, "I draw the line there, at this or that vice, and I will have nothing to do with these." We will have a very difficult time growing under such an approach, as Paul shows in Hebrews 12:1:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Many unsinful things are "weights" simply because they are so time- and mind-consuming. Because we do not want to fail in accomplishing the highest purposes for which we were called, we must run light to endure the length of our course successfully.
On the surface, being a Christian appears easy to do, in as much as a Christian is basically a man that trusts in Jesus Christ. No one is more worthy of our trust, and He is fully able to bring us into the Kingdom of God. But this is a mere surface observation. The truth is that being a Christian can be very difficult because the real Christian is one who, because he trusts Christ, must set his heel upon human nature within him and subordinate the appetites of his flesh and the desires of his mind to the aim of pleasing Him. No wishy-washy, irresolute, vacillating, lukewarm, disorderly, and unrestrained Christian will please his Master and glorify our Father.
Jesus says, "[N]arrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:14). Paul writes, "You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier" (II Timothy 2:3-4). The Christian is exhorted to control himself and run to win.
In I Corinthians 9, Paul illustrates self-control in its positive aspects by showing what it produces along the way and—most importantly—in the end. Jesus makes it clear in Revelation 2 and 3 that the overcomers (conquerors, victors) will go into the Kingdom of God. Self-control plays a major role in bringing victory through our trusting relationship with Jesus Christ. Andrew MacLaren, a Protestant commentator, states, "There are few things more lacking in the average Christian life of today than resolute, conscious concentration upon an aim which is clearly and always before us." Self-control is not the only factor we need to do this, but it is a very necessary one. Its fruit, good beyond measure, is worth every effort and sacrifice we must make.