1 Corinthians 9.24-27:
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I wear down my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
Over the past few months, I have endeavored to lose weight. From starting about three months ago, I lost about 25 pounds, although my weight loss was partly held back by a car wreck and shoulder surgery. My goal to become healthier and come as close to the athletic fitness I had over a decade ago as I can is rooted in a desire to bring a bit more healthy order to my life. As my struggles with PTSD was a partial contributor to an increase in body weight, I progressively lost more and more energy, and with that, motivation. While I could complete the tasks I knew to do, I was regularly devoid of energy and motivation. As I have lost weight, I notice a slowly increasing energy level over the long run. However, as I lost weight, I experienced many of the unpleasantries that come with dieting and exercise, such as hunger pains, cravings for specific goods that go unsatisfied, and aches from working out. Such experience makes salient to me that the physical fitness of one’s body is tightly interconnected with our mental life in a circular fashion. In other words, we really can’t separate the mind from the body as has historically been done in the West in the past few centuries.
When Paul uses the metaphor of athletic exercise to describe his own self-discipline, we may often be inclined to regard Paul’s approach as somehow ‘spiritual’ or ‘mental.’ Yet, Paul is very explicit that he is not simply disciplining himself mentally/spiritually to be in relationship to God, but that he is disciplining the body. His goal is to bring it into subjection to his mind, so that it does what he wishes. By contrast, in Romans 714-19, Paul speaks of the personified, but probably not autobiographical, “I” who experiences his flesh being in control of his actions rather than his mind. In Paul’s mind, one’s relationship and submission to God is irreducibly contingent upon one’s relation to one’s body. Does a person have control of the body and its desires or does the flesh and its desires have control of the person? As Paul goes on to describe in 1 Corinthians 10, the people of Israel were mysteriously partakers in Christ but yet their desires, which the flesh regularly serves as a source for according to Paul, were for evil and lead them to fall under God’s judgment.
To be clear, Paul is not describing the ability of the body to endure contests of physical endurance, speed, and strength as many athletes train for. Yet, there is a relationship between the body and serving the Lord, a relationship that the Corinthians Paul is writing to have seemed to miss in lieu of a focus on a Stoic-like wisdom that prioritizes knowledge and reason lead many of them to regard the body as peripheral to one’s faith. While not yet a form of gnosticism, the Corinthian blend of Stoicism and Christianity likely prefigured early gnosticism through the blending of the Stoic ethical indifference to many bodily matters that is combined with a Christian sense of God’s impending judgment that will destroy the body. So, when Paul speaks of discipline his body in 1 Corinthians 9, this isn’t just some throw-away line of inspiration meant to encourage people to view themselves like they are in an athletic contest. Paul is trying to make a critical point: the Corinthians’ response and faithfulness to God, that is their holiness and sanctification, is crucially connected to the way they relate to their body.
The body is central to understanding 1 Corinthians. When Paul says that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6.19), this is expressing a central, critical idea that dominates almost all of Paul’s letter. This goes beyond simply one’s direct relations to one’s own body, but includes even the way believers treated the bodies of other as part of the body of Christ, failure in which brought duscipline so as not to be condemned with the world (1 Cor 11.27-32)., and perhaps even the Israelites of the Exodus that Paul mentioned in the previous chapter. Such a focus on the body is important to hear the message that Paul has about God’s redemption in the letter.