Let the games begin (part 2)

Photo by Janusz GawronI fight like a boxer in the ring, not like someone who is shadowboxing.  Rather, I’m landing punches on my own body and subduing it like a slave.  I do this to be sure that I myself won’t be disqualified after preaching to others.  (1 Cor 9:26b-27, CEB)

In the previous post, we saw how Paul used the metaphor of a footrace to help the Corinthians understand the purposeful and disciplined nature of the Christian life.  Serious track competitors focus on the finish line and the prize that awaits just beyond.  And they don’t just show up for a race on a whim to see how they do; they subject themselves to a grueling training regimen.

Paul then extends the metaphor to boxing.  The Common English Bible (above) reads Paul as making a reference to shadowboxing.  If that’s correct, then Paul is contrasting pretend-boxing with actually being in the ring.  The New Revised Standard Version, however, gives us the more literal rendering, “So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air,” in which case Paul may be making a pugilistic parallel to the absurd image of track contestants running about willy-nilly.  Either way, the point is similar: the Christian life is a serious undertaking, requiring focus and discipline.

The metaphor then shifts: the image is no longer of shadowboxing or sparring, but of pummeling his own body and bringing it into submission.  Paul is not talking about beating sin out of himself, but explaining why he would deliberately give up a perfectly legitimate right (eating meat).  He’s used the language of “slave” before, when just a few verses earlier (9:19) he insisted that although he is “free,” he makes himself a slave to others by setting aside certain privileges for the sake of the gospel.

How seriously are we to take all this?  There is the suggestion of a warning here, which will become much more explicit as chapter 10 begins.  Paul hints of the possibility of being disqualified from the competition.  He has already said “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (vs. 23, NRSV).  Is it really possible that he might not?

He isn’t preaching a message of justification by works.  But the salvation that he already enjoys in the present still has its future fulfillment, and he is warning against the complacency that comes from taking grace for granted.  Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the passage — while eliminating the boxing metaphor entirely! — captures some of Paul’s urgency:

I’m giving it everything I’ve got.  No sloppy living for me!  I’m staying alert and in top condition.  I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.  (1 Cor 9:26b-27, The Message)

We’ll come back to Paul’s warning when we begin looking at chapter 10.  But for now, here’s the question: is there anything in our lives worth fighting for?  What future goal is compelling enough to make us buckle down in the present?  We’ll reflect on that together in the next post.