Yes, being a Browns fan is a form of suffering—and suffering does tend to lead to sanctification. But that is not the point here…
Yesterday, I listened to the Browns blow another winnable game to the Arizona Cardinals. The Browns record this season is a deplorable 4-10. Truth be told, however, if it were not for a few bonehead plays they could just as easily have a luck 8-9 wins. (They are not good, they are not even close to a playoff team—but given their schedule this year they aren’t quite as bad as 4-10 would have us believe).
The problem that I see with the Browns (and have noticed this problem for the past 3-4 years) is that rather than playing to win the Browns seem to be playing to “not lose”. That is a subtle difference but it is huge; both in football and in life.
One of the things that I have to do as a Browns fan is around week 12 or 13—when the Browns are already out of the playoff hunt—I pick a new team to cheer for. I do not abandon the Browns I just become like every other Browns fan and wait for next season. This year I am rooting for another underdog; namely, the Detroit Lions.
Yesterday was a great comparison. Down 27-21 with only a little time left in the game the Lions confidently and fearlessly put the game in the hands of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. They marched down the field and won the game 28-27. They were playing to win.
A few hundred miles East in Tempe Arizona the Browns and Cardinals were tied up at 17 with under two minutes left. The Browns had the ball backed up deep in Arizona territory. The Browns—as has been the case for most of the year—played to not lose. They ran the ball, had a few dink and dunk passes that they probably hoped they would get luck on, and then ended up punting. They eventually blew it in overtime having squandered what was once a 17-7 lead. Why? They played conservative and tried to “hold the lead”. Same junk that has been happening all year.
Running to Win the Prize
What does this have to do with Christian sanctification? In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 the Apostle Paul says this:
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. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
(1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV)
In other words “race to win”. You don’t get a prize for just showing up. As David Garland notes, “they are to run as if their life depended on it. It does”. Many professing Christians are like the Browns, they are doing just enough to not lose the race. Perhaps running aimlessly hoping that somehow they can blow enough time off the clock that they have a couple more points than the other team. In the same way many believers do just enough (at least in their mind) to keep God happy—just enough to get them into heaven.
That’s not the way Paul talks about living the Christian life. Yes, I believe that we are held by grace and that none can snatch us out of the loving hands of Jesus. But also firmly believe that the Scriptures teach the necessity of grace-driven effort in the Christian life. Here Paul is saying we need to run to win the game and not to merely not lose.
What does it look like to race to win? Fundamentally, it is a daily grabbing hold of Jesus and resting in and enjoying everything that He has already purchased. But it is a daily battle to believe the promises of God and to find satisfaction in the pleasures of God over and against all those fleeting pleasures that would turn our eyes away from the prize; namely, Jesus the Christ.
So fight the fight of faith today as one that is trying to win the race and not merely not lose it.