"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. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."
1 Corinthians 9.24-27
Like anyone who has grown up in the Church, I've probably heard this passage more than a dozen times. From when I was a child up until now. But it seems to me as if the entire focus is usually on the "running the race" part. I.e., how it's presented is: "Train yourself to run the race. And, oh yeah, that may be some sacrifices. But we won't go into specifics on that." I don't think I've ever heard or seen anyone focus on that last verse. And I wonder why.
Maybe because it's too "mortification-of-the-flesh-Catholicky"? I mean, "I make my body a slave." That's not just working out. In fact, it may even be the opposite of working out, because working out is still kinda caring for the body. As I recall, slavery of that time was quite common for prisoners of war. So this is full-on war imagery. Go to war against your body. The Desert Fathers and Mothers understood this verse as a war. That is why they fled from the corruption of the cities to the desert. Why they took upon themselves monumental acts of fasting and penitence.
And one should be careful when one looks to such examples. They are the bright sun and we are mere weak candles. Which is to say, we must be careful in following their practices of war against the body. There are even stories of novices trying to do too much, too quickly. This, too is a sign of pride. This is why such examples looked to a spiritual guide and mentor, which is still the best way to begin.
But I have to wonder if we don’t find ourselves in a very similar situation as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Our urban areas all over the world are growing exponentially, while rural areas decline. We are all rushing into the cities. I look around my life, and I have to admit that I see a lot of comfort. Comfortable furniture, apartment, garden, music, books, movies, television, internet, heating, plumbing, alcohol, junk food, and on, and on… In comparison to many, I might as well be living in the lap of luxury. But what would it cost me to, for example, take shorter showers? And use slightly cooler water? To eat simpler? To turn the heat down a little bit in the winter? To just start taking small steps in order to strike blows to my body and make it my slave, rather than the other way around? If we have the money and the means, we can live in comparative luxury. And many of us do.
C.S. Lewis once said about giving (money), that it was a good idea to give at least slightly more than you feel comfortable giving. It should “hurt.” At least a little bit. But so much of our culture is based on insulating us from all hurt. But maybe there are also worse things than pain. It’s out of season for Lent, but maybe it’s a good idea to engage in a little mortification all year round. Maybe we need to recover the idea of being at war with our bodies.
And then Paul adds the kicker that makes this all especially dangerous for pastors/preachers: "So that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."
Lord, have mercy.
Matt grew up in Utah, but now lives in Europe. He continues the theological wanderings of a spiritual mutt, who is continually confronted with the vastness of his own ignorance.