The game of life

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Just a little over a month ago, the summer Olympic games ended in Rio de Janeiro. Over 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries and national groups competed in 28 different sports. Hundreds of medals were distributed to the winners. The losers pretty much disappeared.

Now we’re right in the middle of football season and youth soccer games. In a few weeks the World Series will begin, then basketball and hockey. And in the middle of all that, there are bridge games, road races, tennis matches, and golf tournaments. And the presidential election. And a host of other contested encounters such as lawsuits, international disagreements, and wars.

In our world, life seems to be filled with competitions where people win and lose, often publically, and not without emotion. All of us have been there. We’ve won and lost. We may not even play sports, but we know the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Almost everyone wants to do better. Who doesn’t want to succeed in school, in business, on the playing field, or in life? Most of us want to win in whatever we are doing.

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And so we compete—to do better, to be better, to look better—better at sports, better in school, better in business, better in life. We work to win, to succeed, and to somehow get ahead.

Competition—winning—is built into our way of life. You’ve heard the saying, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Or maybe this one, “Winning may not be everything, but it sure beats coming in second.” Or, “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.” Competing, playing games, is supposed to build character. Competition is supposed to be a good thing, improving performance and building self-esteem.

But sometimes we lose sight of the forest as we focus on the trees. As another writer once put it, “If you win the rat race are you any less a rat?”

In truth, some of the most important games of life have no score, no teams, and no uniforms, just one player at a time dealing with the struggles of life. Recently I was talking with a man who is struggling with terminal illness. Part way into our conversation, he stopped, looked me in the eye and said, “You know, it really doesn’t matter to me who wins the college football championship, or even the presidential race for that matter. It used to matter, but now it’s just not that important. When you’re facing a terminal illness, winning takes on a whole different meaning.”

He’s right of course, because sooner or later every one of us will lose, at least in the world’s terms. I love Wilma Rudolph’s reflection: “Winning is great, sure, but the secret is learning how to lose. No one goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick yourself up after a crushing defeat, you’re already a champion.”

The Apostle Paul could compete with the best of them, but somewhere along the line he also learned a better way. In Hebrews 12 he wrote: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).

Take the life you have and live it as fully as you can. That’s why in his first letter to Timothy he can say, “Fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12). “It’s not the fight to overcome the best of the competition that he’s talking about,” as Frederick Buechner says, “but the fight to overcome the worst in ourselves.”

To be human we must first of all be faithful to ourselves, and our God-given potential for life. Even then we have to be courageous and persistent. We may win or lose. Whatever happens though, we will be vibrant with life, even if we just stumble across the finish line after everyone else has gone home.

~ Dent Davis Pastor,
Tryon  Presbyterian Church