Updated: Apr 23, 2020
I’d guess about half of those reading this article believe football is played with a round ball and the primary activity is kicking with the feet. The other half are Americans. In neither case does a winning strategy include scoring as many home runs as possible. (Just in case you aren’t aware, a home run is what happens when a baseball player hits the ball so hard it leaves the field of play, automatically scoring a point.)
I have lived most of my life trying to hit home runs, only to discover that I’m actually living in a game of football. Like most Christians, I’ve been taught over and over to do better: swear less — pray more, fewer movies — more Bible, skip the bar — go to church, substitute Christian versions of all art forms; give up on lost friends (they might lead me astray) and only hang with believers, the purpose of church is to learn more about Jesus, and above all be NICE!
While each of these well-intentioned, but erroneous, ideas is worthy of its own article, right now I just want to look at the viewpoint as a whole. If life were a sport, this view would state that winning comes through personal improvement. However, there are two problems with this idea:
First, it’s not biblical. Second, it’s not possible.
Let’s start with the second problem. The truth is that it’s not possible to do enough of the right things to win the game of life. Christians make a big deal out of this when we talk about salvation. But, as soon as someone comes to faith, we change the rules. While we believe we are saved by faith, many of us think — whether or not we say it out loud — that we ultimately win by becoming better people. The vast majority of sermons I’ve heard in my life can be summed up in two words: do better. “We now have the Holy Spirit,” some would say, “and so we must live a holy life.” I won’t argue with that statement, but I will say this: doing better earns us no points and you can’t win at football by hitting home runs.
How can I say doing better earns us no points? Because the Bible doesn’t say anywhere, “Without doing better it is impossible to please God.” This is the second problem with the way I was raised to thinking about the Christian life. I was taught that good behavior (essentially niceness) was central to a Christ-centered life. However, the more I read the Bible, the more I wonder where on earth we came up with that idea. Was it when we read about Moses murdering the Egyptian? Or David having an affair with his best friend’s wife (or any of a long list of sins)? Maybe it was when we read about Nehemiah ripping out the hair and beards of Israel’s leaders? Or possibly Elijah getting his sarcasm on while slamming the prophets of Baal? Maybe it was John the Baptist calling the religious leaders of his day a family of snakes? Or could it be Jesus literally whipping up on those same religious leaders a few years later? No, I’m pretty sure nice has little to do with Christianity.
Let’s be honest, anyone can be nice. And lots of people who don’t want anything to do with Jesus are very nice people. That doesn’t earn them any points. There are also a large number of Christians who are nice and do lots of good things. They also don’t earn any points, unless …
Unless the good and nice things we do are the natural result of a vibrant and growing faith. Faith is the one thing the Bible says we must have in order to earn points. (Hebrews 11:6) The Apostle Paul says anything built on a foundation other than Christ is destined to perish. (1 Corinthians 3) We earn no points if we build all kinds of “do better” stuff on a foundation of trying to please God. Since we are in Christ, God is already pleased with us.
The irony is that by focusing on doing, we not only miss faith, but we miss the only way we can actually do better. More faith = mo’ better doing. However, doing better doesn’t lead to more faith, and often leads instead to arrogance because we have separated the behavior God desires from the relationship of faith essential to seeing it come to fruition.
Winning the Christian life is all about faith. When I focus on growing my faith I find that good works, doing, even niceness (if you insist) will follow as sure as a healthy apple tree produces apples. Get it the other way ’round and I might as well be trying to win at football (American or otherwise) by hitting home runs.
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