Straining Toward the Goal

by Mike Ratliff

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives s the prize? So t run that you may obtain it. (1 Corinthians 9:24 ESV)

Back in the late 1970’s, through the 1980’s and even into the late 1990’s I was a runner. I trained on long daily runs between 6 and 7 minutes per mile. During a race, I could lower that by quite a bit when the time was right, like the last few hundred yards to the finish line. You would never believe that that was true by looking at me now that I am nearing 60. My left knee will not allow me to run anymore. I miss it. However, I do remember very well preparing for a race and that high anxiety, high-energy period leading up to the starting gun. Then there would be the mad sprint for the first few hundred yards before the experienced runners would settle in and run according to their strategy. My favorite races were those in which the finish line was around a turn instead of at the end of a long straight. In those, I could hear the people at the finish line, but I could not see them. Then as I made the last turn to sprint to the finish line the people would begin applauding, some cried encouraging things. Then there was the last 50 yards or so in which I would run as fast as I physically could. As I crossed that finish line, it was incredible to look up at the clock and be amazed that I was physically able to cover that many kilometers or miles in such a short time. I would look back and the line of runners still on the course would stretch down the road. There was one common thread for me in all those years of running. If I trained well, I raced well. If I could not put in the miles in training for whatever reason, I simply could not compete. This is a direct parallel for us in how we walk before the face of God in our daily walk in this life. There is no way we can have the spiritual acumen to run the race set before us by God if we do not prepare correctly to do so. Then as we run the race, we must do so correctly or we will run poorly and may even fall out in shame.

8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of c the surpassing worth of d knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I e have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain. (Philippians 3:8 ESV)

Here we read from Paul what it takes to “press on toward the goal for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” What is it? It begins with where our priorities are. If we value anything or anyone with a higher worth than that of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord then we are not pressing on toward the goal that Paul is talking about. No, we are pressing on toward our own goals. Paul counted everything as loss that competed in his heart for first place with knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. The word “count” in v8 is the Greek word ηγουμαι. This word means, “to bring or lead.” It primarily signifies to lead on or forward to be the chief or principal participant. It also means to think, esteem, or reckon. I believe that this is what Paul is telling us in v8. All those things that most people count dear, he counts as “loss.” The word “loss” here is the Greek word ζημιαν. This word gives us a picture of things that are damaged somehow and are no longer worth anything because of that. My brethren, this is a vital component in running the race unhindered that God has set before us.  When we are encumbered by affection for people or things in such a way that they take away from our devotion to our Lord then we are not doing as Paul describes in v8.

Paul makes it clear that knowing Christ Jesus as Lord is of “surpassing worth.” This is actually one word in Greek, υπερεχον. This word is translated as “excellency” in the KJV in this passage. This word means, “better, excellency, higher, pass, supreme.” In other words, Paul’s evaluation of knowing Christ as Lord is of the highest value while all other things, even good things, are counted as rubbish in comparison. Notice that Paul says this is necessary in order to “gain Christ.” The KJV translates this as “win Christ.” It is vital that we come to understand this my brethren. Paul is telling us that to “win Christ” all things that compete with our affection and devotion for Him must be valued by us as garbage in comparison. This seems to be a parallel to our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 16:25-26).

25 For x whoever would save his life [1] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For y what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or z what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:25-26 ESV)

This is an incredible statement my brethren. Our Lord is saying that those who find eternal life are those who lose their life for His sake. This is talking about becoming a slave (δουλος) of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who find their true life in Christ become his δουλος. Slaves cannot demand their rights. They serve their master as He demands. Therefore, becoming a genuine disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ is done by giving up all of ones rights in return for eternal life in Him. This does not mean that God will not bless us or give us good things. It means that even in this, we must value the fact that Christ is our Lord as higher than anything or anyone because He is our Lord and He gave up His life in order to purchase us, to redeem us, from eternity in Hell.

9 and be found in him, not having f a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but g that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 h that I may know him and i the power of his resurrection, and j may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may k attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:9-11 ESV)

In v9 we see that those who are truly in Christ are not in Him based on personal righteousness that comes from the law, but only by possessing a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. This relationship in Christ is designed by God so that each disciple will share in Christ’s suffering, becoming like Him in His death. What does this mean? This refers to a partnership—a deep communion of suffering that each believer shares with Christ, who is able to comfort suffering Christians because He has already been down this path and suffered infinitely more. Therefore, when we stand firm and contend for God’s truth against false teachers and prophets and their apologists we will suffer their wrath. They will abuse us and through it all, our enemy is accusing us. In these fiery trials, we must look to the Saviour. He has already been through this. Notice in vv10-11 in this passage how Paul is actually looking forward to his death and the resurrection from the dead. When we view all that the world has to offer as a manure pile in comparison to our being in Christ then our focus becomes eternal rather than temporal and this is a good thing. The Emergents decry this. They insist that we focus on the here and now and make the world a better place and so look a salvation as something temporal that happens through this. Utter nonsense. No, we must emulate Paul and as our Lord’s δουλος, we obey Him and count the temporal as worthless because we are pressing forward to the prize, the upward call of God.

12 Not that I have already l obtained this or m am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: n forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for o the prize of the upward p call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are q mature think this way, and if in anything r you think otherwise, s God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only t let us hold true to what we have attained. (Philippians 3:12-16 ESV)

Carefully read v12 my brethren. Do you desire Christlikeness? The race toward Christlikeness begins with a sense of honesty and dissatisfaction as Paul shared here. We will never be perfect in these bodies, but that does not mean that we can be satisfied it. No, we must press on as if in a hard fought race to the finish line. Why? It is because of what Christ has done for us, not what we have done for Him. When we believe we are Christians because of what we have done then we cannot have this mindset. I know this, because I used to believe this way. However, when God drew me into the truth of His Sovereignty then I understood that I was a Christian because Christ had made me His own. I did not make Him Lord, the Lord made me His. Another vital thing that we must do in order to run this race correctly is to “forget what lies behind while straining forward to what lies ahead.” We must refuse to rely on past virtuous deeds and achievements in ministry or to dwell on sins an failures. I have done both and in each I become paralyzed somehow. When I think of all these posts, et cetera, I make the mistake of focusing on these works rather than the Lord who enables me to do them. When I think of all of my past sins and failures, I wonder how God could ever love someone like me. We must forsake both of these things as we strain forward to what lies ahead. What lies ahead? It is the goal, the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. The goal for this life is Christlikeness my brethren. However, there is also the upward call of God in which He will call each of us to heaven and into His presence. It is then that we will receive the prize that is unattainable in this life.

We are commanded here to make this manner of thinking our own. However, we do fail in this quite a bit don’t we? Sure we do, but in vv15-16 Paul tells us that even if we are dwelling on the past that God will uncover and reveal the truth to us even if it requires chastening to get us to let go of what is hindering us from straining forward to what lies ahead. In v16 we see that spiritual growth is accomplished as we consistently hold true to these principles.

17 Brothers, u join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk v according to the example you have in us. 18 For w many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you x even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 y Their end is destruction, z their god is their belly, and a they glory in their shame, with b minds set on earthly things. 20 But c our citizenship is in heaven, and d from it we e await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform f our lowly body g to be like his glorious body, h by the power that enables him even i to subject all things to himself. 1 Therefore, my brothers, [4] whom I love and j long for, k my joy and l crown, m stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. (Philippians 3:17-4:1 ESV)

We must follow those who are less imperfect than us who know how to deal with imperfection and who can model the process of pursuing the goal of Christlikeness. Paul was that model and we would do well to follow his example. Notice in vv18-19 how sad Paul is about those who are enemies of the cross of Christ. We should not rejoice in the coming destruction of those whose god is themselves and their focus the temporal. No, we must pray that God will have mercy on them. On the other hand, those who are truly in Christ are citizens of heaven. We await the return of our Lord who will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body. This will be by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself. This is our blessed hope my brethren, not making this world a better place. Therefore, let us stand firm in our precious Lord and run this race He has set before us, straining toward the goal.

Soli Deo Gloria!

8 thoughts on “Straining Toward the Goal

  1. Thank you for the push Mike. Four years ago, God broke me, and in His great mercy revealed His son in me and set me on the path of suffering… To follow His Son. And Immediately showed me the cost of following Christ. Since then I have held the following statement dear to my heart. “He will be everything, or He will be nothing.” I understood this when reading Luke and came to this verse, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (verse 26) I knew then that anything in my own heart that held affection more than Jesus was an idol. I still love my wife, kids, etc., but Christ is first. He is everything. And it is by pressing on that I might lead my family in the path of the Lord. Nevertheless, someone once told me to “not let the fire within me die.” And after four years, I must train harder now than when I first believed. The things you have written here are of great encouragement. Again I am reminded that this is a race, and there is a finish! “He will be everything, or He will be nothing!”


  2. Hi Mike
    Again a most edifying post – thank you! 🙂

    May I reply to Lazaro here?

    @Lazaro – I praise God for your comment. It is indeed a difficult road you have come with the Lord leading, but oh, the results are inexpressible joy! Loving the Lord above all else and all things is only wrought through a great work of God in our lives and often with much pain attached, as we learn to let go of us and let Him form the nature of Christ in us. Andrew Murray has a book called Humility, which you may or may not have read, but I think it is one that would leave you so encouraged in your walk to keep on running the race even harder. It can be found online for free. He stresses so much that we must ask God to show us how to become nothing, so that Christ will become all.
    Be so blessed and encouraged dear brother. 🙂


  3. Another great post Mike. I was thinking about this the other day. How we are running our race. So many believer’s get shipwrecked, even Pastors, and shame is brought upon the Lord’s Name. When The Lord shook my world 15 years ago, I was at a Van Halen concert and I had an open vision of hell. All the people around me were sliding down into the ground as this huge hole opened up . I knew I was headed down with them. I heard Jesus say “You belong to Me”. And in that instant He became my everything. The girl who walked up to the altar at age 13 and gave her heart to Jesus was kept in His hand thru all those prodigal years. And at that moment when He said You belong to Me….I knew my life would forever be lived for Him. Now thru all the sufferings of divorce God is still leading me and training me and HE is at the end of the finish line. Yes, He blesses here in the temporal ( I may be getting a home thru Habitat for Humanity) but NOTHING is more important than finishing my race and falling into the waiting arms of Jesus, My Lord! Press on runners!!


  4. Isn’t it amazing that He gives us this great love of His with which to love Him back and love others? All from Him! It leads me back to the cross and the deep gratitude I have to Him for my salvation and keeps in me the desire to follow Him and run the race…even though others are running a different race than me. We are kept by His power!
    I have read Murray’s book Humility as well and very much recommend it. Every time I read it, it is as if I had not read it before. I would also recommend Absolute Surrender, another small book by him.
    Mike, thanks for another helpful and convicting teaching.


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