This past Monday night, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of college athletes within the Athlete Intervaristy group of my alma mater, TCNJ, on the topic “How to Find and Praise God in Defeat”. My guess is if they all knew the topic I was assigned ahead of time, no one would have shown up.
If you play a sport at the college level, you will experience defeat. Personal defeat (a bad game), or corporate defeat (a bad loss) is intertwined in every athlete’s experience, but I was keen on conveying the fact that praising God in defeat will go far beyond their playing days and into the real world. With that in mind, I don’t think there are many other topics that you can speak on that gets you closer to the bullseye center of the gospel itself.
Here was the singular point I sought to unpack from Scripture: God will be effectively glorified in you when you praise him in defeat. To many (most?) in attendance that night, that statement probably didn’t mean much to them at the outset, but I hope and pray it meant something to them at the end.
From there we all turned to the book of Hebrews, and we began with chapter 11, verse 1 where we read the Biblical definition of faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
This is a monumentally important verse in your Bible. Everyone has faith, whether or not they realize it. The question is not if you have faith, but what are you putting your faith in? We all wake up in the morning and go about our day with a belief in something that shapes us, informs what we do or don’t do. Indeed, it even takes faith to believe in nothing. An atheist puts their hope in the fact that there is NO god, it’s their conviction of things unseen – it’s their faith.
From there, the author goes through this Hall of Fame of Old Testament Biblical characters throughout Hebrews 11 to show how their faith in a God who saves, redeems, and restores them is the very power through which they were able to persevere in good times and bad.
When you get to Hebrews 11:32-34, you read of the glorious victories of God’s people:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Heb 11:32-34
We read that, and our initial inclination is to say sign me up for THAT kind of life. Overcoming kingdoms, shutting the mouths of lions, quenching fires – this is the kind of victory we all want to walk in. But the author doesn’t stop there. Things take a strange turn after that:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” Hebrews 11:35-38
That looks like defeat. The kind of defeat that the world would respond in saying, shame on them. Put in prison? Nah. Tortured? Sewn in two? No thanks. This must be the author’s strange way of contrasting those who were faithful and those who were faithless, right? Wrong. Look at verse 39.
“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Heb 11:39-40
Did you see it? ALL of these, both the victorious ones and the defeated ones, were commended for their faith. All of them, regardless of their circumstances in this world, had something “better” in store for them. The victory or the defeat on the surface was not the point. The point was faith in God’s promises, and with faith, God could be glorified even in the “defeats” of this world.
This, of course, gets us straight to the center of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the world’s eyes, the cross was a major defeat for Jesus. His earthly ministry came to a crashing halt as he was arrested, tortured, and crucified. This is the very scandal and sovereign power of God and the gospel, however, for Jesus’ highest moment of glory in this world was the moment he died on the cross. It was his perseverance of and praise for the Father in defeat that paid for the sins of the world in full, purchasing the freedom of those who would put their faith in Him.
From this point, we can apply the truth from Scripture directly to our lives. We know why we can praise God even in defeat, because our joy is rooted in something that can never be taken from us, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have something coming better for us, so we can and will trust God in the midst of any and all circumstances in this world. Some of us will put foreign armies to flight, and others of us will be left to wander in the desert, but in whatever circumstances we are in, God may be glorified through us.
We also know how we can praise God in defeat, because Jesus modeled it for us on the cross, and over the course of 2,000 years of church history, we have seen and heard of faithful men and women who have gone before us on the pathway of suffering for the glory of God.
My charge to the athletes (and to all of you) is this: everyone reacts the same when they win, but I want to see your reaction when you lose. Is your joy stripped from you? Is your identity shaken? You can tell a lot more about a person’s faith when they lose as opposed to when they win, and that is why I can confidently tell a room full of college athletes that God will be effectively glorified in you when you praise him in defeat.
People notice one’s true character when they face adversity, when they continue to press forward with an unshakeable, rugged faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We don’t need to be happy when we lose, but we will not be destroyed. “Afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Cor 4:8).
Our circumstances may say one thing, but the future grace and promises we cling to say another. And so I closed with this illustration from Ray Ortlund in his book, The Gospel.
The people who believe in the gospel still suffer like others. We are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing because of what’s coming. We are like a homeless man living in a cardboard box who is told that he has been left a fortune by a long lost uncle, and the check will arrive in a few days. Suddenly, the box doesn’t feel as helpless, we can live in it awhile longer. A fortune is coming.
I hope those student-athletes win a lot in their career and in their lives (not only because they represent TCNJ). But when they lose, I hope they will steward their losses well because it is an opportunity for their faith to shine bright in those moments, and in doing so, God will be most glorified in them.