“But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Play to win. That’s the mantra – spoken or unspoken – of pretty much every sports team ever. If you’re going to play, you might as well put forth the effort to win. Otherwise, why bother? But just what exactly does it mean to win? Well, it means you beat everyone else. When all of your opponents are defeated and you are the only ones left standing, you have won. My Kansas City Chiefs played to win all last season until they got to the Super Bowl. Then they played to…whatever else it was they were doing…and got absolutely decimated by Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Always Tom Brady… In any event, we did not win. This is just how life works. Well, that’s not quite true. It’s just how life works here, but not in the kingdom of God. There winning takes on an entirely different look.
My family and I have been watching the Disney+ series, Mighty Ducks: Game Changers recently. We absolutely love it. (Disclaimer: not every part jives with a Christ worldview and an understanding of family rooted in the Scriptures, but rather than censoring out, we have conversations with our boys about the parts we don’t agree with and celebrate the parts we do.) We can’t wait for each new episode to release every Friday so we can find out what happens next. Besides the heaping dose of nostalgia for Lisa and me, the story is tailor-made for our boys to enjoy it right along with us. I will likely do a full review when the series comes to an end in a couple of weeks. What comes to mind for me right now, though, is the interesting way the show puts on display these two different understandings of winning.
The show begins when a kid who is a pretty good hockey player gets cut from the Mighty Ducks which have now become a local hockey powerhouse like the Hawks were in the first movie a generation ago. His mom takes up his cause and forms a new team for him hilariously named the Don’t Bothers so he can have fun playing with friends absent all the super competitive craziness that has consumed the Mighty Ducks organization. His mom and now coach tells the players who gradually join the team that they are not all about winning first. They are about having fun together and meshing as a team.
Their goal is to be a place where the left outs and losers can be accepted for who they are while being changed together into something better. There are not a few echoes of the church and the kind of community we are to be creating there in the beginning. Somewhere along the way, though, the team starts to really come together and actually begins winning their games. They win enough games to make the Mighty Ducks coaches and parents nervous. In the most recent episode the Don’t Bothers’ success combined with the obvious effect it is having on the parents of the other team (one of whom is her boss at work) begins to get in the head of the coach and she starts to become just like the organization she left behind – winning is what matters most and doing whatever it takes to guarantee victory is a worthy price to pay to keep that feeling coming.
We live in a culture, in a world, in which gaining victory is all that matters. We want to finish first. That feeling, that drive is completely natural. I see it in our boys all the time. They are all three very different in terms of which activities allow their natural abilities to shine the brightest, but no matter what competition they happen to be engaging in at the moment (and everything is a competition with three boys running around the house), they are all equally focused on winning. And, if they can’t win, their reaction is to either not play in the first place or quit before the loss is fully experienced. Not a small amount of our parenting efforts are focused on coaching them away from this mindset. Even if you have girls, though, while the competitions are certainly different than what unfolds around my house, the drive to win is just as present. Victory looks different, but the drive for it does not.
This is not, Jesus said, how the kingdom of God works. In the kingdom of God, victory still matters, but the way to achieve it turns what we see in the culture around us completely on its head. Those who work themselves to being first in this world, will find themselves last in the kingdom of God. Okay, but does this mean we shouldn’t try to win anything now to make sure we don’t miss the cut then? No, I don’t think your team needs to forfeit all future competitions to gain a good standing in God’s kingdom. That’s not Jesus’ point. Then what does Jesus mean here?
So much of our effort toward victory in this world is about putting ourselves first. We are striving to get the most we can lay our hands on so we can hold ourselves out as superior to the people around us. We don’t even really have to be the best at whatever it is we’re doing. We just have to be better than most of the people around us. Then we’ll always know that whatever happens, we have an up on them. We want to be in the position they are coming to us for counsel. We want to be in position where people are looking to do favors for us to secure our blessing. Whatever is best for us is what we are aiming to have. If that happens to benefit the people around us, great, but that’s not at all our goal. That is only a mildly beneficial side effect.
In the kingdom of God, things work in just the opposite way. God is already the greatest there is. There is no one and nothing greater than Him. He created the world and everything in it. He is the smartest, strongest, most powerful being there is. And there’s not a close second. The gulf between Him and the rest of creation is infinite in its span. And yet, He consistently looks to serve us. He bends in our direction. He puts up with our faults and failings. He looks for ways to help us along in our journeys and He doesn’t do it for credit. He does it because of love. His goal is our good. When Jesus came, He arrived not as the glorious king He was in reality. He arrived as a helpless baby. He spent His life serving and ministering to the needs of others. Then, He allowed Himself to be nailed to a cross to die the death we deserved so that we could live the life He would receive.
What all of this means is that greatness or being first in the kingdom of God comes by the pathway of serving. Putting others first, leveraging our advantages for the sake of those around us without similar advantages, ministering selflessly to the needs of others even if that comes at the expense of our needs, is the pattern Jesus set for us to follow. If we happen to be in a place where we find ourselves on the top of the world, the way to achieve an even higher level of success as far as the kingdom of God is concerned is to take all the resources being in such a position places at our disposal, and use them to bless the people around us. And if, at the end of the day, this leaves us somewhere lower than the top of the pile, that’ll be okay. Because in the eternal kingdom of God, our stock just went through the roof.
So strive to win all the victories you can in this life. But understand as you do that there are even bigger victories to be achieved when you leverage your success to lift those around you up in Jesus’ name. You may wind up last in your efforts here, but you’ll be guaranteed to be first there. And, as Jesus said in the verses just before this one, any losses you experience in your efforts to advance others in Jesus’ name will be returned in full and then some. When you play in kingdom terms you really can’t lose. Those seem like the kind of odds I’ll take any day of the week.