"So run that ye may obtain."—I Corinthians ix. 24.
The apostle has just been saying that his earnest desire for the salvation of all induced him to accommodate himself and make himself as like as he could to all sorts and conditions of men, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether under or without the Law. Now, this very illustration of the runners in the games is a striking instance of his adherence to that principle, for Paul would not have ventured to draw an illustration from the race-course if he had been speaking in a synagogue, but to the Corinthians, outside the walls of whose city the Isthmian games were held, he has no scruple in pointing to the competitors there as patterns.
The way in which he lays an evangelical hand, as it were, on the runner and makes him stand still for the Church to look at is a remarkable instance of the way in which in the New Testament, without the smallest hesitation, things that are foul are taken as being in some sense symbols for the things that are fairest. Is there anything on the face of the earth more diabolical than slavery? Is there anything of which the Christian teachers in the New Testament are prouder than of calling themselves "the slaves of Jesus Christ"? Does not war run slavery a neck-and-neck race for devilishness? And is it not unhesitatingly laid hold of by these teachers as being a thing of evil, and yet having a soul of goodness in it, which may yield lessons and examples for us? So Paul points to the stadium, which was just outside the walls of Corinth, down upon the Isthmus; and he says, " Look at that man, straining every muscle while he runs this race, to win a chaplet that fades in a week. So run that ye may obtain."
"So run," says Paul, and most of his readers suppose him to be saying: Run in such a manner that you may obtain; but what he really means is: In such a fashion as that competitor in the foot-race runs, do you also in your higher course.
Then the first thing suggested is the necessity for effort in the Christian life. We have the same picture in greater detail in Paul's autobiographical reference, in the Epistle to the Philippians, where he speaks of " forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forth to the things that are before." The word translated in our Bible " reaching forth" is a remarkably pregnant compound; "stretching out towards" is the exact meaning of it. We see the eager athlete on the race-course, with his body swaying forward, with his arm flung out in front of his body, with his eye travelling beyond the grasp of his hand, and himself oblivious of everything except the winning-post towards which he strains forward.
The runners in the Isthmian games had to put all their force into the fierce, short spurt of the race. They could afford to fling all their nervous energy into it, and to make their muscles like whipcord, for the few moments during which their race lasted. Our race is lifelong; so that a brief burst of vehement effort is of little use. "Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us," and not start at such a pace that we are "winded" before we have gone half round the course. There are some novices in the Christian life who, in their first enthusiasm, set out at a rate which it is hard to keep up, and to whom the question has soon to be put: "Ye did run well; what did hinder you?" The fact that the effort is continuous limits the degree of effort that is wisely put forth, but it must never degenerate into leisurely dawdling. In a long cycle-race, lasting twelve hours, it is good strategy to ride slowly for eleven and a half, and then to put all one's power forth. But if Christian racers go on that plan, and expect to overtake lost ground by a few months or years at the end, they will not attain, whoever may do so.
In the context Paul specifies one point to be imitated when he says: "I so run, not as uncertainly." Indefiniteness of aim is fatal, and it affects many Christians. They do not distinctly discern the goal. The will of God is that we should become Christ-like, and should attain to that holiness which is not merely emotional consecration and surrender, but practical daily righteousness. Unless we have clear before us the mark which is holiness, and the prize which is heaven, we shall not run as our model ran. If he had stopped to gather flowers by the side of the track, or to heed the crowds beyond the barriers, he would have been far behind at last. If we run "uncertainly," like a ship with a weak hand on the wheel, that heads now this way and now that, we shall not attain. There must be effort inspired by clear perception and guided by fixed purpose.
Such effort requires discipline. The athlete had a ten months' training, during which he abstained from flesh, wine, and other delights, and without which he could not have put forth ten minutes' effort. Self-denial is as needful for the Christian race. It has no value in itself, as the ascetic view teaches, but as a means to an end—namely, to fit us to run. It gets rid of superfluous flesh, braces the muscles, and so prepares for the struggle. Without it, we shall be short-winded and feeble-kneed. We have to lay aside every weight, as well as every sin. The blind man that rushed to Christ's feet to get his eyesight restored prepared for hurrying to his Healer by casting away his garment. Laying aside "every weight "—iveight, as well as sin—" let us run with patience." The loose robe may catch in the briars; it may trip up our steps; it will add weight. Whatever makes my feet heavy, when they should be "like hinds' feet," must be shaken off. What is a clog to me may not be so to another, and his hindrance may not be mine. We are not to judge each other, but to be rigid with ourselves, and to denude ourselves of much, that we may run the lighter.
Our effort is to be animated by hope. A twist of pine-branches was the reward at Corinth. The runners there had their hopes stirred by the consciousness that but "one obtaineth the prize." Our effort is not sharpened by competition, but it should be stimulated by hope. One main reason for the languid promenading in silken slippers, which so many substitute for the effortful race, is the dimness that has come over the vision of the future for much of the Church of today. Of late years there have been many sneers cast at Christian people by ignorant enemies for what they choose to call "other-worldliness." It has become almost unusual to hear from Christian pulpits much said about heaven and its blessedness. That is one reason, and a very important one, why the average of Christian life among us is not higher than it is. If we saw as we ought to see, and looked as we ought to look at, the "crown incorruptible," it would put vigour into our feet, to which we are strangers. "We are saved by hope," and the more that the Future bulks in our eyes, the better shall we be prepared to do our work in the Present. "So run "—neither "uncertainly" with regard to the aim, nor doubtfully with regard to the prize.
But there are two halves to a sphere, and the effort, which is animated by hope, is solemnised by the correlative of hope, which is fear. Paul was, as he goes on to say, stirred to effort by the dread lest, when he had acted as the crier who summoned the competitors to the starting-point, he should himself be adjudged to have failed in the race. A solemn thought—too solemn to enlarge upon, and too solemn for us to dismiss it—is, that after the race we have to submit ourselves to the Judge of the games, and receive our destiny, and we may humbly hope our reward, from His sovereign arbitrament. "The pure eyes and perfect judgment" of the great Umpire, who Himself has been a runner, will determine whether we have run so as the Isthmian lacer ran, and whether we have attained.