Preparing to compete in the Olympic Games takes a great deal of training and self-discipline. The Isthmian Games that took place near the city of Corinth were very similar and were well known to Paul’s readers. Therefore Paul knew that they would understand the symbolism he used to make his point in I Corinthians 9:24-27.
There was no legal requirement, then or now, that anyone should have to run a race or compete in any other athletic competition. Why then did people do it? Why did people put so much time and effort into training for the events? Once an athlete committed to competing in the Isthmian Games, they were required to go through a ten-month training program. Olympic athletes generally invest much more time than that. Obviously they see some value in exercising that much self-control. Living the Christian life is like running a race, or preparing for an athletic event. We don’t need to do it; we can choose not to, but if we want to and if we see value in doing so, some self-control will be needed. The good news is that in the Christian race there is more than one winner.
Paul saw the value of exercising self control in his Christian life; he had a more important goal in mind than that of his own comfort. He knew that by living in a way that was pleasing to God he would be qualified to tell people about the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Because of that grace, we have freedom, but we should not use our freedom to live selfishly. Living to satisfy our own desires can send the wrong message to those who don’t know Christ and cause them to be confused or to reject belief in God. This is what Paul meant by subduing his body so that he would not be disqualified. If we have accepted Christ’s sacrifice and His gift of salvation, we no longer live under religious laws, but under grace. This of course does not mean that we should give in to sin. (Romans 6:15) By having self-control, we can focus on more important, more eternal matters and be an example to others of the qualities that are found in Christ.
Like all other elements of the fruit of the Spirit that we have discussed in this series, the way to have more self-control is to have more of the Holy Spirit. But to have more of the Holy Spirit we need to spend more time with God, in Bible study and prayer. For most of us, that takes some self-control.