As I think I’ve said before, it’s funny the things that stick in your head. I remember a Sunday school class sometime during junior high school, taught by the father of a friend of mine, in which he was telling us about Paul describing the life of faith as a race; and then he declared, “And Paul says, don’t run in order to win.” I argued with him, because that’s simply not true; Paul says quite emphatically, “Run in such a way that you may win.” If you want to look it up for yourself, it’s 1 Corinthians 9:24. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t listen to me, and he wouldn’t look it up—he told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, changed the subject, and went on with the class, and I perforce shut up; but I didn’t pay much attention after that. Instead, I was off in my own little world; and if Mr. Mouw noticed, he didn’t feel the need to say anything about it.
Partly, I’m sure, my ego was hurt; but more than that, I was taken aback, and I needed to take time to think about it. For one thing, I was surprised that my teacher had gotten that wrong, and even more surprised that he hadn’t even checked, when I challenged him, to see if he’d made a mistake. More importantly, though, the mistake made no sense to me. I’m sure differences in temperament played in to this, since I can be a pretty competitive sort, but why would you want the Scripture to say, “Run, but don’t try to win?” If you aren’t trying as hard as you can to win, why are you bothering to run? Especially when you consider that in the life of faith, if we win, that doesn’t mean that everyone else loses—we can all win together, and in fact, the better each of us runs our own race, the more help we are to all those around us as they run theirs.
Now, as you may have noticed, Paul likes athletic metaphors. I suspect, from this and other aspects of his writings, that he probably had a pretty strong competitive streak; sure, he was a saint, and a brilliant man, and God used him powerfully to do amazing things in and for the body of Christ, but he can’t have been easy to live with. Besides that, though, I think when he looked at the athletes of his day, he had considerable respect for how hard they worked and how completely they focused themselves in order to give themselves the best chance possible to win the prize at the Games—and as he notes in 1 Corinthians, that prize was nothing more than a laurel wreath! Given a week or two, their prize would be no more. If they could work as hard as they did, if they could dedicate themselves as completely as they did, to win a prize they wouldn’t even be able to keep, shouldn’t we as Christians be at least as focused on the prize of eternal life which God has set before us? Shouldn’t we be running to win, rather than dawdling along by the side of the road, wandering off to explore the thistles?
Certainly Paul thinks so, and so he encourages Timothy here. That’s not clear in the NIV, which reads “fight the good fight” in verse 12—but while that is what Paul said back in chapter 1, where he was encouraging Timothy to go head-to-head with the false teachers in Ephesus and not back down, that’s not actually what he says here. Rather than the military metaphor he used earlier, this is the language of athletic competition which he uses in so many other places. Run the good race, Paul tells Timothy; run well, run hard, run with all you have—run to win. Run to win, and stay focused on the prize before you; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, which is already yours but which you need to grab hold of and live into. Don’t let anything else sidetrack you or slow you down, but let everything you do be focused on running as well as you possibly can, to the glory of God and the accomplishment of his purposes.
What that looks like, Paul lays out in verse 11. First he tells Timothy, “Flee from all this”; reject not only the false teaching going around Ephesus, but reject the motives driving the false teachers. Reject their desire for gain, reject their desire to serve themselves and feed their own desires, and pursue a different way. It’s interesting how Paul lays that way out. First, he says, pursue righteousness and godliness. These represent the two dimensions of the Christian life, the vertical and the horizontal—our relationship with God and our relationships with those around us. This is the global statement: rather than living for yourself, focus on being right with God and being right with others. Live your life in such a way as to please God—make that your top priority; and part of the way you do that is to do right by the people you meet in this world. This, of course, looks back in part to some of the things we’ve talked about in the past few weeks, such as taking care of the powerless and the needy, and keeping our relationships pure.
Next, Paul tells Timothy to pursue faith and love. These aren’t virtues exactly, but something deeper—they’re the foundations of the Christian life. This is a strong contrast with the false teachers. Clearly, they weren’t living by faith in God, they were putting their trust in money, and in all the other things in which the world puts its trust. That’s easy to do, since we can see these things and know exactly what we have; we can see our money, we can look at our bank account and know precisely what’s in it, and we can figure out just what we can afford to do. We can’t see God, nor do we have any way to know for sure how or when he will provide for us—or even, some might say, if he will provide for us. To live by faith in God isn’t easy for us, because it seems much riskier than putting our faith in things we can see and touch and hold and count. And yet, this is what Paul says Timothy needs to do, and what we need to do—to set aside the worldly-mindedness of the false teachers and put faith in God. Otherwise, whatever our other virtues, we aren’t living a Christian life in any meaningful sense.
Along with that, Paul tells Timothy to pursue love. Now, the world would agree with that one, but it would mean something very different by it; there are a lot of folks out there who will tell you they’re living their lives for love, when what they’re really pursuing is romance, or lust, or someone to make them feel better about themselves. What Paul’s talking about is something very different—it’s the self-giving love of God, the love which gives of itself for the good of others. The love of God isn’t about getting for ourselves, unlike so many of our human imitations, it’s about giving ourselves away; and so, where the false teachers were all about the profit they could make off the church, Timothy’s call is to give himself away, to lay down his life, for his brothers and sisters in Christ, for the people of God—for the church. To which we may imagine Timothy protesting, “But Paul, look how badly they’ve treated me—they don’t deserve it!”; and in return, we might well imagine Paul saying, “Look how badly they treated Jesus—at least they haven’t crucified you yet. He loves us anyway; you love them anyway.”
In line with this, Paul says, “pursue gentleness.” It can be easy to justify being hard on people by calling it “tough love”; certainly there are times when there’s a need for firmness, and certainly that will usually provoke squawks of opposition. But even when the time comes to lay down the law, as it certainly had for Timothy, it must be done with gentleness, taking care to give no unnecessary hurt. There was no doubt a part of him that would have liked to punish the false teachers who had made his life so difficult—to make them pay for the trouble they had caused. As Paul reminded him, however, there was no place for that in his call to ministry. Whatever he did, he must do with gentleness, seeking only to restore those who had wandered away from Jesus, not to claim even the smallest measure of vengeance for himself.
The other item on Paul’s list is endurance. This is a mixed metaphor, since I’m not sure how you can pursue endurance, but the point is clear: Timothy is not to be one of those who goes a little way and then gives up. This is a critical part of running to win, because it’s not enough to set the pace—you have to be able to keep it up. The best illustration of this I can think of comes from the life of the great Oregon long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Growing up in the Northwest, I heard a lot about Pre; and part of his story was the Munich Summer Olympics. He was always an aggressive runner, and running the 5000 meters at the ’72 games, he shot out of the gate, setting a pace that would have won him not only the gold, but a world record, if he could have sustained it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t, and in the last 150 meters, having led the whole race to that point, he was passed first by Lasse Viren . . . then by Mohamed Gamoudi . . . and then, 15 meters from the finish line, by Ian Stewart. He led most of the way, but he finished fourth. Winning the race isn’t just about doing well for a while, it’s about sustaining the effort, doing well all the way to the end.
This is the key, because it’s not enough to pursue righteousness and godliness for a while, then take a break and chase your own desires for a bit; it’s not good enough to pursue faith and love for a while, then slide back into the materialism and self-absorption of the world for a spell. It’s not good enough to be gentle until things get hard, then give it up. If we’re going to run the good race of faith, if we’re going to run in such a way as to win the prize, we need to be like the Energizer bunny—we need to keep going, and going, and going. What’s more, we need to realize that God doesn’t just call us to run when it’s easy, he calls us to keep running even, and especially, when it’s hardest.
Of course, we can’t do this alone; that’s why athletes always train with partners, and why they have trainers. To grow in endurance, we have to push ourselves beyond our own idea of how far we can go—and we can’t do that alone; we need people to urge and encourage us to keep going, to keep pushing, to go further. I learned this during my last year in Colorado, taking a couple classes from a veteran personal trainer who had semi-retired to Grand Lake and opened a little fitness business to keep herself busy. There were a couple times I keeled over right there in class, but by the time I had to stop I had a much, much better sense of what I could actually do than I had ever had before. Without her example and direction, and without the desire to keep up with her and the others in the class—there’s that competition thing again; running to win is a very different thing when you’re doing it in a group—I never would have done that. I never would have pushed myself, again and again, beyond what I thought my limits were, and so I never would have discovered that I was wrong.
We see the reason this is so important in verse 20, where Paul writes, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you.” What has been entrusted to him? The gospel, and the responsibility to lead the church to live it out. Remember what I’ve said all the way through this series—the heartbeat of this letter, which we hear over and over again, is that we have been given the mission to bring the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ to all people in all the world, and everything we do must be to that purpose. The race we run isn’t something we run by ourselves, and it’s not just about us as individuals winning our own prizes; it’s about all of us running together, encouraging each other on, helping each other out, and it’s about the people we attract to run with us. If we stop running for a while, we aren’t the only ones affected—everyone around us is, too. Run to win, not just for your own sake, but for everyone else’s.