Marion Jones was one of the world’s most celebrated female athletes. She set out to win five gold medals in the Sidney Olympics. She was unable to achieve this goal, but she did win five medals (three gold medals, two bronze medals). Her athletic exploits brought fame and lucrative endorsement contracts. I still remember the Nike commercials she did during the height of her career.

Public Disgrace

Unfortunately, it only took one news article to tarnish all of her accomplishments. Jones has admitted to using performance enhancing drugs and lying about it. She has retired from track, her money is gone, her medals will probably be stripped, and she is facing legal consequences for her actions.

This story reminds me of something the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church:

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.
-1 Corinthians 9:24-27

The ancient Greeks had two great athletic festivals: the Olympic games and the Isthmian games. The Isthmian games were held in Corinth, so Paul’s audience would have clearly understood this example.

The prize for wining the games was a pine wreath and a few moments of fame—both of which would quickly fade away. Paul, however, was striving for eternally significant goals: the souls of men and rewards in heaven (called an “eternal crown” in heaven 2nd Timothy 4:8).

Playing by the Rules

The ancient games had rules, just like our modern-day Olympics. Those who wished to compete in the Isthmian games had to endure ten months of rigorous training. Those who could not complete the training requirements were disqualified from even competing. Paul knew that even he could be “disqualified.” I do not believe he was referring to salvation (salvation is God’s gift–we are never qualified for salvation in the first place). Instead, he was referring to the right to “run”—the right to share the gospel to others.

It isn’t difficult to find examples of those who have been “disqualified.” All of us know of scandalized preachers, some of whom had very well-known ministries. Their authority may be lost forever—many will never be able to do ministry again. This is quite similar to the shame that Marion Jones must be experiencing right now.

Even if you are not an Olympic athlete or preacher, the lessons still apply to you. God calls all believers to “run the race” with perseverance. In order to run, we must discipline ourselves and guard our own lives. The stakes are much higher than medals or crowns, for we are called to advance God’s kingdom.

Run the race that God has called you to. Run and finish well!

See also: The 100 Million Dollar Mistake.