Christianity is not a competition. No one "wins" salvation by being better than others. It is not a competitive comparison . . . an “I did more than you did” system. Scriptures repeatedly talk about appreciating what each person contributes and that no one is greater than the other, and more importantly, that God’s saving grace is freely bestowed on every individual who personally accepts His son’s sacrifice on the cross.
However, Paul often compares living the Christian life to an athletic competition . . . such as running a race (Heb. 12:1; I Cor. 9:24; Phil. 2:16; Gal. 2:2 and 5:7) or competing in a boxing match (I Cor. 9:26) or in athletics in general (2 Tim. 2:5). So if Christianity is not a competition, then why would he do that? Because the end matters. No, we cannot earn or win our salvation, but we should be living our lives in a manner honoring to God. We should be more like Christ than like the world by the end of our lives. Unfortunately, this metaphor does create a few problems for many of us. Let me give you an example.
I belong to a local golf club and play with the ladies on a regular basis. It is very enjoyable. However, once a year the Club Championship comes around and these same ladies all play together again . . . but something has definitely changed. As one player remarked, “We play with each other all the time but suddenly, when it is for the Club Championship, we tighten up, get nervous, look ahead, keep thinking about the last mistake . . . .” Add to that comparing how well we did last week and looking at how well we think we should be playing, and suddenly there is a lot of stress. Ah yes, and why? Because now something is at stake.
And that is sometimes what happens to us when we are running the Christian race as well. Because we know whom we are aspiring to be like, we often tighten up thinking we aren’t good enough, get nervous believing we don’t know enough, begin to worry because we were doing better last week (or made mistakes last week), or look ahead at how far we still have to go.
On the golf course, failure or falling short of our goal causes us to reevaluate and focus on areas we are weak in. Failure to hit a straight drive puts us back on the driving range or under the tutelage of an instructor. Likewise, a fall or weakness in our Christian walk should send us back to the scriptures or to a more mature Christian for mentoring and guidance.
Paul did not intend his metaphor to discourage us or stress us, but rather to encourage us to keep running because no one is successful all the time. Failures are a part of life. But if we persevere, each step we take brings more and more successes. Some are just a little further down the road.