A Theology of Winning

I have a go-to sermon when asked to preach.  It’s called: “Does the good guy win?”  It works well at Easter.  It goes something like this: We all want Johnny to play by the rules and learn good sportsmanship.  But that’s not what keeps Johnny in the game.  Winning does.  He doesn’t have to win every game but at least some.  Otherwise, he’s likely to quit.  So in life: it is nice to work for good in this world – but it’s hard work.  What keeps us in the game is knowing that goodness will win out in the end.  So if I’m on God’s side, I will come out on top.  It’s inevitable.

The sermon always preached well.  But recently I’ve been reluctant to preach it.  Not because I don’t believe it’s true but because I think it can be misleading.  For two reasons.

The first has to do with the idea of being ‘on God’s side.’  What does that mean?  Does being on God’s side mean choosing the right religion?  The right denomination within a religion?  The right political party?  The right country?  The right side of the globe (e.g. West or East)?  In each of the above criteria, large swaths of humanity have seen them as fail-proof indicators of divine favor, favor that should lead to things like passing exams, crushing an opponent in a debate, entering a certain income bracket, having disability-free kids, even winning elections.  ‘If God is for us,” says the popular verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans, “who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)  Never mind that the writer suffered horrible abuse and torture for his faith: if I have given my life to God, then He is ‘for’ me, and things should generally go my way.

It’s a very natural line of reasoning.  Probably why in both Jewish & Christian Scriptures (Muslim too?), the keepers of the faith have to repeat a disclaimer over and over: just because God has chosen to work closely with you doesn’t give you a monopoly on righteousness (Deut. 8: 19 – 20; Luke 3: 7 – 9; Roman 2: 13)  In other words, you’re good by virtue of your behavior not by virtue of your affiliation.  This goes for the football team that prays before their game, the government official that quotes Scripture, the rock star that has a conversion experience, or the nation who feels that they have a special place in any sort of Heavenly Master Plan.  The only individual or group that has any business laying claim to God’s special favor is the one that actually does what God wants them to do in the present.  Period.

The second has to do with the idea of ‘winning.’  Traditionally, in an all-or-nothing contest, winning means being the victor.  There are certainly many examples of such showdowns in Scripture.  But Scripture also surveys those moments in history when even those who are following God’s ways don’t seem to be the victors.  This conundrum has baffled the devout from Job’s followers to Jesus’: how can a good God let evil happen even to really good people, even the best of the best?  My heart goes out to the parent who is driving down to the precinct office to pay the bail for their son or daughter, banging their head on the dashboard in consternation: “but I did everything right!  How could this be?”  For some reason, the Sovereign chooses not to have the good, the noble, the upright, or the righteous come out on top all the time.  Just because God is sovereign doesn’t mean God’s rule is in place evenly across all place and time.  Hence the phrase in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” an admission that it is in fact not always done.  Not here.  Not yet.

And so what does it mean for goodness to ‘win’?  Does it mean to be victorious or to be consistent, to be faithful, to be undaunted in the face of evil?  Is it more about who wins the debate or whose character stays the course through the debate?  The Jewish faith records a long line of prophets who never won much favor with their client-kings, never got very wealthy, rarely said their people would win the war, and were never particularly popular.  But they were good.  Did they win?

I have to agree with Martin Luther King Jr.: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  Yes, goodness will win someday.  It will fill the earth, define the landscape, arbitrate among the nations, and allow for justice to ‘roll down like water’ across our world.  But it will take time.

From my perspective, in a Judeo-Christian world, goodness will triumph in the end, but that doesn’t mean that my people will win our next battle and it certainly doesn’t mean that if we do, it’s because we were wearing the right label!



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