One of the interesting things about distance running races is that you’ll have people of all levels of running and experience competing in the same race—from the elite attempting to qualify for the Boston Marathon to those who are running the race as a family event with their children in strollers. Typically, because of the sheer volume of runners registered for the event who show up on race day, the officials ask you to line yourself up on the start line based on your level of desired competitiveness. In other words, those who are aiming to place in the top twenty or so get to start off in the front of the pack, while those who aren’t aiming to place are asked to stay in the back.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that when you look at the crowd of racers at the start of the race, you can’t help but notice a direct correlation between their starting position in the pack and the amount of clothing they wear. The closer an athlete is to the starting line (i.e. the closer he is to the “elite” level), the less amount of clothes he’s wearing. Technically, you are within the rules if you choose to run the race wearing a ski jacket, boots, and a helmet. But anyone who’s serious about winning or competing wouldn’t even wear basketball shorts, because even those add unnecessary weight.
Athletes who compete in sports where speed and endurance are premium assets understand this concept: what is allowed in the rule book isn’t always what’s beneficial and should at times be avoided. There’s nothing in the rule book that bans eating cheesecake and donuts after every meal during competition season. In fact, most competitive athletes who are “out of shape” are in five-times better shape than your average Joe. But in high-level competitive sports where victories are won by split-second margins, five pounds can make the difference. This is particularly true in running events. Because extra bulk isn’t beneficial for distance running, I find myself losing several pounds of both fat and muscle combined during those seasons when I’m seriously training for a race. And those pounds aren’t lost overnight: they’re shed by habitually saying “no” to the cheesecakes and the donuts.
I remember reading about the fitness regime of a competitive speed skater who would refrain from adding any kind of cream sauce to his pasta during peak training season. In order to get in the best physical condition possible to gain that extra competitive edge, every athlete who is serious about winning knows to exercise self-control in all things (1 Cor 9:25) in order to lay aside any excess weight. Small details, apparently, can make the significant differences.
But when Paul reminded the Corinthian church that “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things,” he wasn’t giving the Corinthian Christians instructions for the sports field: he was giving them instructions for exercising Christian liberties. Christians who are lacking maturity tend to camp on the question, “Is it wrong to —?” Whether the question concerns alcohol, tattoos, Halloween, technology, vacations, expensive purchases, interactions with non-Christians, or romantic endeavors, when it comes to gray issues, Christians like to ask which things are permissible.
But those who walk in maturity understand that while “All things are lawful, not all things are profitable” (1 Cor 6:12, 10:23; emphasis added). For while all things (that is, those in the realm of gray areas) are permissible, not all liberties strengthen a Christian to self-mastery (1 Cor 6:12) or serve to edify one’s neighbor (1 Cor 10:23). If a Christian is ambitious about honoring Christ with his body and edifying his neighbor, he will realize that while all things are permissible, there are many permissible hindrances. Therefore, he won’t be looking for what liberties he can add to his plate; he will be asking for what liberties he can remove from his plate! In the same way that a competitive runner must lay aside every excess weight to increase his chances of winning, so Christians must “lay aside every encumbrance” in order to run the race of faith with endurance (Heb 12:1). So, if you want to live your Christian life and engage in God’s work to the fullest capacity, be continually in the process of identifying and removing permissible hindrances from your life for the glory of God and the salvation of people.