Meditations: Ambition and Discipline

"Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."

1 Corinthians 9:25

It's very hard to discuss self-discipline and ambition with peers who are attempting to recover genuine spirituality from legalistic tradition. Defenses raise up the minute you toss phrases like "spiritual discipline" or "goals." Having been raised in the church and discovering as a teen that there's power to be had in religious performance,I get this. It took me into my college years to realize that God wasn't moved by all with my grocery list of spiritual accomplishments. Grace is tautological:He loved me because he loved me. I'm happy to be caught up in God's circular reasoning. So why would I ruin a good thing with more unnecessary expectations?

But that's exactly the discussion that Paul was attempting in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul spent much of his career sparring with believers who considered obedience to Jewish religious customs to a requisite for Salvation. According to these thinkers, you need to follow Jesus and maintain a long list of spiritual disciplines.

So isn't it strange for Paul to mock legalistic only to turn around use the language of Olympic athletes... running long miles, boxing, beating your body? At first glance it feels like Paul is just swapping a tradition form of legalism for one of his own liking.

I've mentioned in another post that I'm working on my second black belt. My first black belt is in tae kwon do and I'm working on a second in a mixed martial arts system. I'm at a place in the training that I despise. I'm just past the halfway mark, and I have about eighteen more months of training to go. I remember the feeling from the last belt, the thought that I'll never get there.

I'm not enjoying the training right now. Last Saturday I took a shot to the mouth. I still can't bite into an apple. My incisors are chipped and I lost a filling. Not looking forward to explaining this to my dentist on Monday. I felt a pit in my stomach when I read text telling me to bring my gloves to the workout this AM. Fear never goes away. I'm hobbling around a bit today because my sparring partner missed the focus mitt and kicked my thigh (David, I'm close to being sorry for the names I called you this morning). I'm tired of the morning heavy bag workouts.

I've thought of quitting. The truth is, I'm never going to be a cage fighter. I'm forty-years-old and frankly, I'm just not strong enough excel in the sport.I've never aspired to having the pooh beaten out of me. So why put myself through this?

I love the game. I used to think MMA was this barbaric game for thugs. But it really is a thinking man's game-- it's speed chess with gloves. The only way I get to play the game, even at a low level I do, is to make lifestyle changes. I can't eat what I'd prefer to eat. I need to add muscle, loose fat, and work on my flexibility. Self denial increases my freedom.

So what is Paul doing?

He's inviting people into an elite contest. Paul is suggesting that building the kingdom of heaven is as demanding as being an Olympic athlete. Kingdom building requires discipline and focused training.

Paul uses ominous language. It's possible to disqualify yourself. Paul approaches spiritual disciplines with the same intensive of a runner who knows there's only one medal waiting at finish line. Paul is being smug or self-righteous. He just know the truth; only a handful of people end their lives satisfied with the impact they've left on those around them. Only a few people die knowing that they've loved, created, or influenced enough.

So Paul takes the risk of being mistaken for being legalistic and tells the church to get control of how they spend their time, how they use their bodies, and what directions they point their lives.God has invited us to participate in the games.

We've been given God-shaped dreams. Yours might be to fight an injustice, or to create art. Yours might be to be an excellent parent, to reclaim a blighted neighborhood, or to write poetry that awakens people.

Paul reminds us that dreams mature into intentions and goals; goals must manifest themselves as objectives; and objectives must be achieved with energy and endurance.


  1. this is something I've been struggling with lately. I've always been someone who has focused on rules and religious practices instead of God's love for me, and I recently began realizing that for so long I was acting like a Pharisee. But the problem I face now is the question of how to remain disciplined and still "bare good fruit," and yet not get caught up in the legalism of it all, because obviously that's what Jesus came to destroy. maybe this is God's way of showing me. so thank you

  2. "Self denial increases my freedom." Great line.

  3. Kelley,

    It's a life long struggle for me. Maybe tension is as good as it gets.

  4. My friend, Brian, just summed it up in a sentence. "Discipline won't cause you love. Love will cause you to be disciplined."