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Run To Win

 (In response to Abbess Jane’s Lectionary Musings on the phrase in the NRSV from 1 Corinthians 9,

“I punish my body and enslave it.”)

Here is the same passage from The Complete Jewish Bible:

22 With the “weak” I became “weak,” in order to win the “weak.” With all kinds of people I have become all kinds of things, so that in all kinds of circumstances I might save at least some of them.

23 But I do it all because of the rewards promised by the Good News, so that I may share in them along with the others who come to trust. 24 Don’t you know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one wins the prize? So then, run to win! 25 Now every athlete in training submits himself to strict discipline, and he does it just to win a laurel wreath that will soon wither away. But we do it to win a crown that will last forever. 26 Accordingly, I don’t run aimlessly but straight for the finish line; I don’t shadow-box but try to make every punch count. 27 I treat my body hard and make it my slave so that, after proclaiming the Good News to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

Literal translation (Mounce)

I became to the weak, weak, in order that the weak I might gain; to all men I have become all things in order that in any case some I might save. But all things I do because of the good tidings, in order that a joint partaker of it I may become. Know ye not that the (ones) in a racecourse running all indeed run, but one receives the prize? So run in order that you may obtain. And everyone struggling in all things exercises self-control, those indeed therefore in order that a corruptible crown they may receive, but we an incorruptible. I accordingly so run as not unclearly, so I box as not air beating; but I treat severely of me the body and lead (it) as a slave, lest to others having proclaimed (my)self disapproved I may become.

(I can’t help it, reading the above, I keep hearing Yoda’s voice.)

My sort-of-literal paraphrase:

To the weak, I’m weak in order to win them over. I’ll be everything to everybody as long as there’s a chance I might bring some of them home safe. I do everything on account of the good news, so that I will be allowed to share in it. Don’t you know that in a race all the racers run hard, but only one comes in first? Athletes who sincerely train need to eat right, sweat hard, and give up things that they like. So, if those guys do it just to win an ordinary prize, then we can certainly do it to win an immortal one! That means that when I run I’m not uncertain about it, when I box I don’t just wave my fists around; no, I work out hard enough to get sore muscles, and I insist that my body does what I want it to. That’s so that other people won’t ignore me when I tell them that’s what they ought to do.

Some useful translations of the Greek (from Mounce):

Servant, slave, enslave’: douloō, doulagōgeō. “met. to render subservient, 1 Cor. 9:19;”

Run’: trechō. “to run a race, 1 Cor. 9:24; met. 1 Cor. 9:24, 26; Heb. 12:1; in NT to run a certain course of conduct,”

Win’: kerdainō. “to win over to embrace the Gospel, 1 Cor. 9:19, 20, 21, 22

Aimlessly’: adēlōs. “not manifestly, uncertainly, dubiously, 1 Cor. 9:26

Self-control’: enkrateuomai. “to practise abstinence, 1 Cor. 9:25

Discipline’: hypōpiazō .“pr. to strike one upon the parts beneath the eye; to beat black and blue; hence, to discipline by hardship, coerce, 1 Cor. 9:27

Disqualified’: adokimos. “unable to stand test, rejected, refuse, worthless”

Competes: agōnizomai. “to be a combatant in the public games; to contend, fight, strive earnestly” (italics mine)

I suppose that I might be turning into a broken record about reading Scripture with an eye to context, meaning, and sentence structure, but I really do think it’s important to do so, especially these days, with all the social media hysteria, fake news, spin doctors, cherry picking, buzz words, and political propaganda. I don’t know how many times, while practicing lectio divina, I’ve said to myself, “Wait…. what??” and gone on to carefully review and unravel the meaning of some text that didn’t make sense to me.

This practice has led me to some pretty profound shifts in my understanding. I recommend it highly.

I really think it’s important, especially in reading Paul, to go after his meaning; to ask myself, “What’s his intention?” I always have to remember that Paul was trained in rhetoric. Paul’s arguments always lead to a conclusion, and are carefully constructed with a view to persuasion.

So, in the case of someone taking exception to the phrasing in the NRSV, 27 but I punish my body and enslave it,” I would like to mention some considerations. First of all, that Paul was using an extended metaphor to explain why he felt the need to defend himself from the accusation that he was exploiting the church in Corinth and living high off of church resources. That’s one. Secondly, that Paul was almost certainly not speaking literally about physical bodies. Thirdly, I believe it’s important to remember to follow his logic chain. The first time he uses the word “win” he’s using it about the people he wants to “win over” to the gospel. I think it’s reasonable to assume that he keeps the same meaning throughout the passage. Second, he’s talking to the faithful, so I imagine that the prize he’s encouraging them to discipline themselves to gain is the same as his…. that of winning over those outside the church; those that he wants “by all means to save.” What he’s saying is simply that he is serious about what he’s doing; just as serious as an athlete training to win a race. He points out that he’s given up privileges that he has a right to enjoy because he is just that serious. He’s suggesting that the Corinthians follow his example, instead of arguing about who has rights to what.

Early in chapter 9 he says this: 18 So then, what is my reward? Just this: that in proclaiming the Good News I can make it available free of charge, without making use of the rights to which it entitles me.” Even though the word he uses means “wages,” not “prize,” I think it’s fair to guess that he continues on in the same vein. Paul is essentially talking about gains, rewards, benefits, that sort of thing. He gives us a pretty elegant analogy, that if athletes can subject themselves to such fierce discipline to win nothing more than a wreath that will soon wilt, and a day of celebrity and acclaim, then followers of Christ have so much more reason to push themselves hard, give up personal gain, and suffer hardship, because their prize is an eternal one. He’s saying that the people they bring to faith and trust in God and Christ are themselves the prize, and that it’s the kind of prize that will never decay or wilt, but will last forever.

The last sentence pushes home the point that I think is Paul’s primary point. He’s saying “put your money where your mouth is.”

He’s also quite bluntly pointing out the fact that he has never said, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

I certainly don’t think that Paul ever literally ran in foot-races, or boxed competitively, so I’m pretty sure that he’s not talking in literal terms, but even if he was, I have personally experienced the benefits of hard physical training and strenuous exercise as both a dancer and a martial artist. Determined discipline, relentless effort, and a strict refusal to act on impulse (i.e. ‘self-denial’) have all proven themselves to be beneficial, both spiritually, physically, and mentally.

That said, I do agree that this passage has historically been misconstrued in a way that can encourage self-abuse, but almost every passage in the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments both, has been misconstrued one way or another.

A last note on translations: I’ve never been fond of the NRSV, and am currently reading it with considerable skepticism, and checking it rigorously against other translations. My current favorite translation is called ‘The Complete Jewish Bible’. I have also started using Mounce’s Greek Reverse-Interlinear to find out what the Greek actually says. It’s been very educational, and quite surprising, to find that some of the Greek words are translated in wildly different ways, even to the point of an obvious distortion of the meaning.

Run to win!

In case you hadn’t noticed,

there are hardcore runners all around you.

None of them are here to tap-dance,

that’s for sure, so buckle down and get to it!

Might as well, you know,

since you’re already on the track.

Oh, and while you’re at it,

remember, no dithering!

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