When I was fourteen and watching the NHL playoffs, I swore aloud in front of my gathered family that I would shave off my eyebrows if God would grant the Philadelphia Flyers a Stanley Cup.
God, having far more mercy than I had sense, declined the request. I kept my eyebrows, and the Detroit Red Wings went on to decimate the Philadelphia Flyers in a series so embarrassing I had to purge it from my memory.
The thing is, my request – and the way I chose to relate Christianity to sports in that moment, and meant every word of it – isn’t so uncommon. Granted, I suspect not many people are ready to barter their eyebrows for glory, but the principle is the same: there’s an underlying belief that God’s presence means victory.
I’ve heard people pray about their sports teams: “God, please help ____ play their best tomorrow night.” I’ve watched sweaty football players, sticky with Gatorade, lift fingers to the sky after a touchdown and then address the camera: “It’s God, it’s all Him, it’s not me, He’s the reason we’re here.” Tim Tebow is famous for…well, Tebow-ing. After every Superbowl, Stanley Cup, or NBA Finals series stands a player declaring that God blessed the team with a victory.
None of these things are wrong. But it’s interesting to me that we never equate God’s victory with loss. That we never equate God with the less-than-happy-end, or with what happens when things don’t turn out right. The team that slumps into the locker room doesn’t say, “Well, He’s the reason we’re here.” After a fumble or a turnover, the football player doesn’t crouch and quietly thank God. Sometimes we equate God with character-building through loss, but rarely do we take the time to look at the loss itself and see that God is present in it.
As Christians, we like to think about God and victory. To us, victory means winning. And sometimes victory is winning. But it can also be more than that. Victory can live even where death is (1 Cor. 15:55). Victory is “to [rise] and to [stand] upright” (Psalm 20: 7-8). Victory is when God literally holds us up (Psalms 18:35). And victory is when, in spite of us being broken and ruined, afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, Christ’s work is manifested in us (2 Cor. 4:7-12).
There is a verse that periodically comes back to haunt me from the great Hall of Faith list in Hebrews 11:
There were others who were tortured… Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated–the world was not worthy of them.
Those images jar with the narrative of “victory” that pop culture feeds us. The triumphant football player, the grinning point guard, the players lifting trophies to the sky: those are the images we like to think about. We want victory to look good. We want God‘s victory to look good to us, and to fit our neat narrative of winning and material wealth and success. But as I look around in my life lately, the images of victory I see exist in battered, weary folks who are holding on tight to God and His promises. Not everything is going their way. Not everything is turning out as planned. But they stand fast. And through the brokenness, Christ shines through.
That is what victory looks like.