“Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. 26 So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.” – 1 Corinthians 9: 24-27.
Michael Jordan is considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all time. His greatness, however, didn’t result from his elite, God-given athletic talent alone. He kept his body in peak condition through an extremely disciplined and rigorous workout and diet regimen. His self-discipline enabled him to work harder than everyone else.
The power of self-discipline is not a secret as 2 Corinthians 9:34-27 tells us. In a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize so you have to run if you want to receive the prize. Here’s the point: elite athletes don’t live disciplined lives because they think disciplined lives are virtuous. They live disciplined lives and endure all kinds of self-denial because they want the pleasures of the prize. They believe the pleasures of the “wreath” (or money, medals, trophies, rings, and records) are worth the effort.
Paul doesn’t call their pursuit of reward wrong. Far from it. Paul shamelessly states that the pursuit of a reward also fuels his self-discipline and should fuel ours. The only difference — and it’s a big one — is that the reward he pursued was an “imperishable” reward, which he describes here: “Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8) Gaining Christ through the gospel was the reward that gave Paul his laser-like focus and fueled his self-discipline.
We often chalk up our discipline failures to a lack of will power. We look at a Michael Jordan and think if we just had some of his iron will, we could stick with it. But will power is not our problem — at least not in the way we usually think. The problem is we lose sight of the reward. What typically happens is we imagine what experiencing the benefits of attaining some goal might feel like — perhaps a fit body, or reading the Bible in a year, or some kind of career advancement, or a financial savings goal. We want to think our inspiration stems from a new conviction that the reward we imagine will make us happy.
But once the initial enthusiasm wears off, we soon come to the conclusion that the goal no longer seems worth it, so we give it up. We failed because the reward itself wasn’t real enough to fuel our discipline. That’s why Paul said, “ I run with purpose in every step” (1 Corinthians 9:26). Like Michael Jordan or the ancient Olympians, Paul “ran” with his eyes on the prize he really wanted — the prize he believed would yield him the most happiness which is an eternity with his Lord and Savior.
That is the key to self-discipline: our real belief that the pleasures of a reward will be worth the effort to reach the reward. The more we set our eyes on the prize the more we’ll view self-discipline, not as a drudgery to be avoided, but as a means to the joy we really want.
- What is the definition of self-discipline?
- Why is self-discipline needed?
- In order to have discipline, what else must we have that goes hand-in-hand?