What does every athletic team in the world have in common with every reality-TV-show contestant at the end of each season? All, except one, go home with a loss on their mind.
While watching our premier American sports and music combatants this spring, it seems that everyone expects to be the last one standing, and everyone seems shocked when they are sent home with that final loss, as though winning were an entitlement and losing should be reserved for, well, losers — something to be tasted only on rare occasions.
This expectation isn’t necessarily bad. When an underdog concedes defeat before the battle begins, our competitive instincts get insulted, as though unspoken rules of engagement were violated — you don’t invite, request, or welcome losing. Nobody intentionally practices to be second best — “the first loser.” When the brackets come out, and a play-in team gets matched against a number-one seed, if competitive instinct cannot rile the underdog into believing they can win, save the airfare and stay home. We play to win — period.
Even Winners Lose
In youth leagues across the country, our five-year-olds learn from their parents’ and coaches’ behavior almost immediately the adage Vince Lombardi popularized decades ago: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Whether on a field with balls or a stage with microphones, we are regularly reminded that failure to win should be welcomed like a slice of death, that losing practically equals a moral shame. As long-time baseball writer Jerome Holtzman suggests, “Losing is the great American sin,” and we work devotionally to purge ourselves from experiencing its pain.
But even an iconic “winner” like Lombardi, who won a ridiculous 74% of the time during the regular season over his ten-year career, while taking five league championships, still drove home with something less than a championship in five of those years. Lombardi’s fifty-fifty experience with final-game loss doesn’t mean he had to accept losing, but apparently even he had to make sense of it at the end of the season half the time.
Unfortunately, in a society whose sole criteria for success is “winning it all,” we completely ignore an opportunity in sports to engage a central and practically unavoidable reality — even if distasteful and embarrassing to our senses — that life in this age is far more about learning to lose well than experiencing the victor’s parade. Most teams close their season with a loss — no matter how hard they worked. Most lives trend toward their end with one series of losses after another, as indeed “our outer nature is wasting away” (2 Corinthians 4:16). The challenge, of course, becomes losing without being a loser.
Preparing for Loss — And the Great Victory
For the Christ-following athlete and fan, identity in Christ becomes immeasurably practical at this very point. Understanding that in Jesus we are loved unconditionally (Ephesians 1:4–5), forgiven freely (Romans 4:7–8), pursued endlessly (Psalm 23:6), and given meaning and purpose that stretch far beyond the scoreboard (Ephesians 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:9) can free us to rise above box-score circumstances, offering a steady anchor for the soul (Hebrews 6:19) regardless of the scoreboard’s final report.
Embracing what Jesus says is now true about us in him allows an athlete to strive for excellence every time out, and play with the intensity, passion, and confidence of someone who anticipates victory, while still being able to process defeat with dignity and depth for having faced the test — regardless of the final outcome. In Christ, we’re liberated to savor the ride and acquire wisdom enough to appreciate the God-given privilege of journeying in the first place. We’re able to pursue winning on the scoreboard without allowing that to be the sole measuring instrument of our success.
Lombardi summarized the American competitive spirit when he said, “If you can accept losing, you can’t win,” but that doesn’t mean he was right. As Americans we’re immediately taught that accepting losing is unacceptable, but whether we like it or not, accepting loss is absolutely necessary. Within the competitive realm, viewing losses redemptively may prepare a player or team to “win” the next time out — if not on the field, then in life.
Certainly within the Christian worldview, loss is tightly woven into the fabric of the creation-fall-redemption motif that hangs like a canopy over the entire Bible, and Jesus himself one day will demonstrate for the universe that “losing” is but a matter of perspective. Indeed, as coaches, players, parents, and fans, we might benefit from letting Christ both expand and redefine our understanding of winning and losing — especially since, over the course of this lifetime, we’ll do far more of one than the other.
More from Desiring God on March Madness:
Why Do We Love March Madness? (Ask Pastor John)
The Christian and Sport (Interview with Erik Thoennes)