Christianity has never been a spectator sport. A spectator watches other athletes run, struggle, fall, triumph. Paul speaks of his own life in Christ as a “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). He is pressing, he is seeking and the prize for him will be the day of resurrection. He is not watching someone else run, jump or fall, but he disciplines his own body so that after preaching to others, he may not himself be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). Was Paul a spectator? Was he worried about someone else’s disqualification?
Sports stadiums have very different accommodations for players and for spectators. There may be lavish buffets and locker rooms fitted with everything a player needs, but the player still has to work and sweat. For the spectator no sacrifice is required. He can scream, but his voice does not change the outcome. He can stomp and cross his fingers and wear the team colors, but his efforts contribute nothing. The fan isn’t in the game. He could eat too much or drink too much or even fall asleep, and it wouldn’t matter. Discipline only matters if you’re in the game.
Scripture compares our life in Christ to running a race. Paul was running to obtain a prize (Phil. 3:14). He exhorted others to run the race so that they might gain the victory (1 Cor. 9:24; Gal. 5:7). The author of Hebrews describes our Lord as a runner, as running His course with joy like a strong athlete, and His example spurs us to endurance in running well (Heb. 12:1–2). Scripture does not put us in the stands, cheering on our favorite athlete. Scripture puts us in the race, all of us running to obtain the common prize of resurrection.
Baptized to run
Christianity would be a bad spectator sport; it is bad business to demand that the spectator’s life should change. Ticket takers at the stadium gates don’t care what you do with yourself, how you’re living, how you’re speaking, how you’re thinking, whom you’re loving, or anything about you as long as you pay them. Some see Christianity the same way: Pay your dues, and the rest is covered. A spectator with enough money can get anything he wants without changing anything about himself: more food, more drink, better seats, exclusive access to players and coaches, anything for money.
But you weren’t baptized to be a spectator. You were baptized for life in Christ. You were baptized to run the race. So what you do with yourself — how you’re living, how you’re speaking, how you’re thinking, whom you’re loving, and everything else about you — matters because you’re running. It also matters to the church; they’re running with you. That’s why you find the Bible speaking to what kind of people Christians are (Eph. 4:17), how they live (1 Tim. 3:15), how they speak (1 Peter 3:10), what they think (2 Cor. 10:5), whom they love (Lev. 18:22, Matt. 19:3–9) and how the churches deal with problems (Titus 1:11). We all run together, or we trip and fall over each other, causing one another to stumble.
How can we run together? First, we accept that running is hard. Being a Christian in America won’t become any easier, simpler or more socially acceptable anytime soon. It doesn’t have to. God never promised it would be easy to be a Christian. He promised never to leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5). He promised that if we would be faithful unto death, He would give us the crown of life (Rev. 2:10), a promise given many of us heard at our confirmation. Running is hard, it’s always been hard, and it won’t get any easier, but hard is good for us. Our Father’s discipline shows we belong to Him and that He loves us (Heb. 12:5–11).
Second, we run together. We aren’t adapting the Bible or the church’s life to our individual cultural or political predilections. We aren’t trimming down God’s Word or packing more into Scripture according to our personal preferences. We accept His commands and promises, and set out together. When Paul speaks about doing hard things that go against the grain of the culture, he encourages us like a coach encourages his team, challenges and asks us for something hard to gain something wonderful: “we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12).
As we run together, we can correct and encourage one another. We learn to respect one another, accepting correction because we share one another’s burdens and know that we have each other’s best interest at heart. We gladly listen to and receive admonition because we are running the same course together.
At the starting line
If the stresses and the discipline of COVID-19 and the current political upheaval in our country are indicators, nothing will get easier. So where can we start in running together? Let’s start with repentance. We’ll start with our own foibles, weaknesses, afflictions and crosses. We’ll repent of what we’ve done and left undone, said what we shouldn’t and unsaid what we should have. When we look at our own logs, our brothers’ specks appear as the small things they are. We can bear one another’s burdens best when we already know how heavy our own burdens are.
Then, as the church made anew in Christ, renewal happens as we struggle within ourselves and for one another. At times, a member of the Body stumbles and falls. The man who slept with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5:1 was not at first ready to admit his fault, so Paul commanded the Corinthian church to put him out of the church until he learned the error of his ways (1 Cor. 5:2). If the man repented, the Corinthian church should restore him as they would restore any who repented (2 Cor. 2:5–8). Discipline is harsh because it is love, and love does not coddle. Sometimes love corrects. Love without correction is hatred and indifference.
Because Christ loves His church and because the church loves her members, Christ and His church must sometimes discipline the members of the Body. The discipline cannot be arbitrary as if a coach disciplined his team for not working out but didn’t care what they ate. The church should not be capricious with her Lord’s Word, sometimes using it and sometimes not, depending on her comfort. All discipline, all admonition, all encouragement in running the race well come solely from God’s Word. It is not easy, but it is wholesome.
All discipline, every push to change one’s ways for the better, is painful for a time, both for the one disciplined and often for the one who disciplines (Hebrews 12). No father enjoys disciplining his erring son, but how much joy the father has in the wise, disciplined son when he is fully grown (Prov. 23:24). And how much joy this discipline brings. Your burdens, afflictions, troubles and crosses added onto your brother’s burdens, afflictions, troubles and crosses are light things to your Lord. And when you have run the race, strenuous as it was in the narrow way, you will find laid up for you the Savior’s crown at the last.