Winning by losing


"But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.-Matthew 19:30 (NRSV)


I remember well the day I turned 30 years old. The headlines at that time proclaimed no one older than 30 could be trusted! (I never figured out how they arrived at that conclusion; I was never consulted.)

It was the age of disco, long lines for gasoline, and burgeoning health fads. On my birthday, I stood at my mirror and asked myself, "Bob Hayes, what gift can you give yourself that will last a lifetime?"

As soon as I asked that, I realized the one thing I could do to make a significant difference was to get serious about my health. Taking care of myself had not been a priority, overridden by married life, raising children, etc.

The very next morning, I laced up my Converse tennis shoes and went walking, determined to give myself the gift of a healthier life. Along with my walking came a much-needed change in my eating habits.

In a few weeks, I began jogging. In a matter of months, I was running 3 or 4 miles a day. I felt good about myself-so good that a friend convinced me to enter a 5-mile race.

"It's all for charity," my friend said, "and I'll be there on the sidelines, cheering you on!"

Proverbs 17:12 declares: I'd rather run into a she-bear robbed of her cubs than allow a friend to convince me to enter a race. Well, maybe not those exact words. You understand my meaning.

The day of the big race came. More than 300 people showed up. I was an amateur in the midst of serious-minded runners. A handsome gift bag, complete with T-shirt, certificate of participation, and Gatorade awaited each person who completed the course.

I recall trying to conceal my nervousness by seeking obscurity in the middle of the throng. I must have done a good job of that, because my friend never saw me.

The starting gun barked, and the crowd surged forward. I couldn't believe how fast they ran away from me-with emphasis on "away"!

There is a story about a snail that was the victim of a hit-and-run by a turtle. As the snail filled out a crime report, a policeman asked what happened. The snail said, "I don't know! It all happened so fast!" I was like the snail. Before I had run 200 yards, I felt victimized.

Foolishly, I dashed after the other runners, trying to catch up. Less than a mile into the race, I wanted to collapse, but two obnoxious youngsters ran up behind me. They were exhorting one another, "C'mon, we can't let an old man beat us!"

So I ran faster, tiring myself even more.

Not only did those two finish ahead of me. By the time I limped across the finish line, everyone was gone. There were no crowds, no gift bags, and not even a hint of Gatorade.

And yet-I felt like a winner. That race changed me! Although I had finished in last place, I felt good! For the first time in a long time, I had accomplished something that made me feel good about myself. My self-esteem was restored. I had won a psychological war against the viewpoint that claimed I couldn't compete and finish.

That was the first of many races for me. Although I have never finished in first place, I've always been a winner simply because of my sense of accomplishment after competing.

Jesus talked about the race of life. He knew that within each of us is an overpowering urge to always win, to always be first in everything we undertake.

Wanting to excel is admirable, but we often take it to the extreme. The late football coach Vince Lombardi said, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing!"

That perspective drives our culture today. Consequently, we focus our aim in life to be first, to be best, to be greatest. Written on a T-shirt were these words: "Second place is just another name for first loser!"

Into this win-at-all-costs society comes a Savior who upsets everything by proclaiming we can all win-by losing!

Jesus declares there is such a thing as a last-place winner. On the surface, that sounds so strange to us. Yet most of what Jesus teaches us is radical and out of the ordinary.

As we vie for a special place on the winner's stand in our lives, Jesus reminds us, "Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 10:39)

What began as a desire to give myself a gift at a memorable moment in my journey turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons for all my life. When it comes to serving Christ, it's all right to come in last. That's the preferred position for servants who truly understand the ranking order in God's Kingdom.

Indeed, "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last." (Mark 10:31)

Jim Elliot knew this. While proclaiming the message of Christ, Elliot lost his life in the jungles of South America. He left only a haunting quote that I happened to read in recent weeks.

This is what Jim Elliot wrote: "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose."

We all can be winners, even if we finish in last place. We truly win if we are willing to lose what we cannot keep: our lives-so that we can gain what we cannot lose: eternal life!

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