No married couple starts out saying, “We’re just hoping to endure the next fifty years. We may hate each other the whole time, but it’s fine as long as we don’t get divorced.” No. Every marriage begins with the same goal: “We want to be happily married forever!” But half of all marriages end in divorce.
No guy ends his high school sports career thinking, “In twenty years I would love to have high cholesterol and maybe even prediabetes!” No. Every guy assumes he’s going to be able to see at least one ab in his forties. But about half of middle-aged men in the US are overweight or obese.
No one says, “Someday I want to be buried under debt I can’t repay, debating whether I should declare bankruptcy.” No. Everyone wants to enjoy financial freedom and be able to give generously to important causes. But the reality is that more than 60 percent of the US population is living paycheck to paycheck, and the average household debt is more than $130,000.14
No sports team begins the season with the goal, “This year we’re hoping to come in third place!” No. Every team wants to win the championship. But only one will hold up the trophy at the end of the season.
Same starting goals, yet drastically varying results.
I know I just encouraged you by saying, “Choose your finish line! Define your win!” And you should. But we also need to acknowledge the limitations of goals.
To recap—defining the win is how you begin. But defining the win is not how you win.
How do you win?
You quit trying.
What do winners do differently? What does the couple who celebrates thirty years of marriage do? What does the healthy, fit forty-year-old do? How about the family with no debt and with savings in the bank? The sports team standing on the podium?
They don’t try.
Winners don’t try. They train.
Paul had a goal, but he also had direction and inspiration. Having a goal was not enough. Paul focused on training. Let’s continue where we left off with his talk about athletes in the Olympic and Isthmian Games: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (1 Cor. 9:25).
The competitor’s “strict training” was intense. The Greek philosopher Epictetus, who lived at the same time as Paul, wrote that the athlete’s training “involves thirst and broiling heat and swallowing handfuls of sand.”15 Seriously? When I played sports in high school and college, we sometimes had to run wind sprints, but we never had to swallow sand! If Coach told us, “Today, we’re eating sand!” I would have said, “Coach, I’m switching to band. Playing the oboe suddenly seems cool.”
Obviously, what those athletes endured was no joke. It probably made some of them want to quit. But Epictetus tells us that if an athlete withdrew “without sufficient reason,” they would be “whipped.”16 (I don’t even want to think about my high school coach whipping me because of my oboe decision.)
Paul used that level of training to describe the type of training he embraced to move toward his finish line. “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 Cor. 9:27 NLT).
The word translated “discipline” is the Greek word hypopiazo, literally meaning “to hit under the eye.” Paul chose an intense word to declare that he would do whatever it took to win.
Paul continued, “Training [his body] to do what it should.” The word “training” is from the Greek doulagogo, which means “to enslave.” Paul would not let his body, his thoughts, his emotions, his passions, or his feelings determine his actions. He was running his race and would do whatever it took to meet his goal.
Paul entered into a life of training and encouraged others to do the same. He told his ministry apprentice Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Tim. 4:7). The word translated “train” is the Greek word gymnazo. The literal meaning is “to exercise naked.” What?! We just went from a G to a PG-13 rating! Yes, the Greek athletes preparing to compete in the games trained naked. Why? Because they didn’t want anything to get in their way or slow them down. If you’ve ever watched the Olympics and questioned some of the attire—or lack thereof—now you have a better understanding of the reasoning and history.
Just to offer a disclaimer here: I am not encouraging you to show up at the gym in your birthday suit. But as Christ followers working toward change, we do need to embrace a life of training while getting rid of anything that slows our growth.
We want to achieve our goal.
We will not let anything get in our way or slow us down.
Paul defined his win. He had a goal, which gave him direction and inspiration. But a goal is not enough because winners and losers often begin with the same goals.
You’ve had goals. You’ve been desperate to change. So you’ve tried. You’ve really tried.
That’s the problem. Trying doesn’t work. You’ve been trying for too long. Trying never achieves consistent results. We’ve seen it time and time again. The vicious cycle:
You get tired of trying.
You feel embarrassed.
You get tired of trying.
(You know the drill.)
Trying doesn’t work. Training does.
In the classic Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back, Master Yoda tells the young Jedi Luke during training, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” Luke replies, “All right, I’ll give it a try.” Yoda, frustrated, demands, “No! Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”17
We are going to change. We are going to achieve our goals through training, not trying.
What’s the difference?
To try is to attempt to do the right thing by exerting effort in the moment.
To train is to commit to developing strategic habits that equip you to do the right thing in the moment.
Groeschel, Craig. 2023. The Power to Change: Mastering the Habits That Matter Most. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
We have just released a new Bible Study based on Craig Groeschel’s book, The Power to Change. These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.