1 Cor. 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, gives an illustration that all his readers can not only understand, but could immediately relate to. They lived in a culture and time when games like the Olympics would have been on the front of everyone's mind. They understood sports, they participated in sports and many lived and died for sport. Thankfully in this illustration it breaks down because in our spiritual race we can each one win the prize, rather than only one winning a prize.
In order to win the prize there are certain rules and requirements that go along with participating; all of our rules, for our spiritual race, are found in God's Instruction Book- the Bible. No one wins when they don't follow the rules.
There is also no prize for practicing well. We must actually join the race, compete and finish. The practicing and discipline of preparation is going through the same exercise day in and day out and is what gets us ready to compete. There is little joy in practice except for the thought that "practice makes permanent" and if we practice well then when we are called upon to compete for the prize we are able prepared.
Our practice is the spiritual discipline listed in Scripture and we need to make it part of our lives. A medal winner in the Olympics does not get that medal by doing the same things all his friends are doing. They get the prize by patterning their entire life around the goal of winning that medal. The dream of the medal dictates where and what they eat, how much they sleep, all their activities and even who they hang out with. Their lives are controlled by the pursuit of that medal.
I once spent a couple of hours talking to Ray Allen- formerly of the Seattle Sonics. He told me that during the entire season he had the exact same food every day at the exact same time, slept the exact same amount, practiced the same things, every, single day. Many of his teammates would go out and party and shop and do other things, but Ray didn't. He knew that the season is long and that if you loose focus you can't win.
Our lives must be centered on- focused on- winning a prize that is so much more valuable than any earthly prize. The early Olympian's prize was not actual gold or silver, but a laurel wreath, that was intrinsically of no value. But they did it because they could say they won the wreath. They focused their entire life to get a bunch of sticks, laced together, so they could tell anyone, who didn't already know, they won it.
Our prize for running to win is an eternal prize that is more valuable than anything we could ever receive here on earth and all we have to do is run according to the rules and be faithful. The awesome thing about the entire situation is that He gives us the strength to finish the race and those He enlists in the race always finish. He has never allowed one of His participants to drop out.
If Paul was concerned about run in such a way as not to not gain the prize, I think it is safe to say that we need to guard our own lives to make sure that after we have instructed many others in the way to win, that we are not disqualified ourselves.