Every time I find myself in a high school I look for the track and field record board. It’s usually not hard to find. They’re often posted in prominent places. We want to honor those student/athletes who have achieved greatness. And we want to spur others on to try to beat them.
I ran track in college, so I’m always interested to see what the records are, especially for the 1600m and 800m races since those were the ones that I ran. I wish I could say that I’d been good enough to earn a spot on our school’s board, but there was always someone faster. I contented myself with beating a few people in the races I ran, and trying to beat my own best times. Winning is one of the greatest things that drives a person. One of the worst things that you could be today is a loser. And so, even if I couldn’t come in first, I took solace in knowing that I didn’t come in last.
Once, while I was on a backpacking trip out West back when I was in Boy Scouts, we were talking about what to do in case of a bear attack. One of our leaders piped up, “Dealing with bears is easy: you’ve just gotta run faster than your friends. Just make sure you’re not the slowest person in the group.” We all laughed, but looking back I think that advice pretty well sums up the approach many people take in measuring the success of their lives, over and against that of their neighbors. As long as we can point to a person or two that we’re “beating,” we’re OK.
One morning I was talking with a friend who was telling me that she had just started participating in half marathons. And then, she sheepishly added that she wasn’t all that fast. I could see right away that she seemed a little ashamed with what she thought was a poor performance and I wanted to make her feel better about that.
Half-Marathons are some of the biggest races out there. The two largest in the U.S. each attract over 25,000 runners each. Knowing that, and trying to make her feel better, I said, “Well at least with those races there’s always someone slower than you.” This was one of those moments where even as the words were leaving my mouth I knew I had said exactly the wrong thing.
“Actually,” she said, “I came in last.” How do you recover from that? I definitely had no idea what to say next. I think I said something to the effect of “The only place you have to go is up,” or something equally lame. I’m sure it wasn’t very comforting, but at that moment I just wanted to get away. Faced with her loss, a total loss, I found myself at a total loss for words.
Despite the lip service many people pay to the notion “winning isn’t everything,” I don’t think most of us really mean it. Deep down, we know that winning is everything. Either people come right out and say it, or you can tell by their actions and reactions, like mine with this lady, that they believe it to be true. It’s what we’re taught to believe from the moment we begin to move. Parents, doctors, teachers… all begin to compare us to each other. We compare children to each other physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially. We learn from a young age that success is coming out on top, or at least not coming in last.
And yet, at the heart of the Christian faith stands a God who lost, and lost big. I grew up hearing that God is all-knowing, and all-powerful. And yet there He was, hanging on that cross. Couldn’t the all-knowing God have seen that coming? Couldn’t He have figured out a better or an easier way to fix things? Couldn’t the all-powerful God have done something a bit more triumphant?
Those thoughts I had weren’t unique. “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40). That’s what those Jews who were gathered to watch Jesus die said. They couldn’t fathom the idea that their God, their all-powerful, all-knowing God, would lower and debase Himself like that.
Over 2,000 years not much has changed. To the winners, to the successful in life, a God like that-a God who allowed Himself to be executed-doesn’t make any sense. Paul correctly states that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The message of the cross doesn’t make sense in a world where winning is everything. The message of Jesus doesn’t make sense in a world that counts one of the worst outcomes to be coming in last.
In that same letter Paul goes on to say that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in this world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
The message of the cross is this: we have a God who came in last, who lost everything, so that you would not.