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The Winning That Is Everything

by John G. Stackhouse

John G. Stackhouse is chair of the history department at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 25, 1990 pp. 422-423, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


One recent Sunday morning my pastor called to the front of the sanctuary four members of the local high school basketball team. The team had just won the state tournament and the pastor, caught up in the enthusiasm of a little town swept away by such glory, wanted to congratulate these boys. To his credit, he seemed to sense that the church should recognize the players for something more than crushing their opponents. But he had some trouble articulating what else that might be. He went on to call forward the four members of the school speech team who attended their state competition, and then all the junior and senior high school students who had helped the high school win the "sportsmanship" award at the basketball tournament. Teachers and administrators were also asked to stand. The remaining congregation then joined in a sustained round of applause for all these winners.

Perhaps it was only envy that made my applause brief and faint. Perhaps it was because no team I had ever played on had won a tournament, and I had never earned a first-place ribbon or a championship trophy. Perhaps I just resent winners. But I don’t think that’s it. For I wonder just how Christian it is to celebrate winning. Doesn’t it contradict our assurances to our friends, children and others that we want them only to "do their best"? Isn’t it a little odd that we congratulate people not for maximizing their potential but for beating whoever else happened to show up to compete that day -- which is really all that winning is? How, then, should Christians view winning"?

Several different experiences have challenged me to reconsider even the notion that one should only aim to "do one’s best." For instance, my wife once wondered aloud why I was not satisfied with my racquetball matches unless I had played my "best." I was a little hurt by this, I confess. I thought I had done well to mature beyond feeling compelled to win outright. (Some of my opponents might question this self-assessment.) Now I had to consider whether it was appropriate to aim even at playing my "best," to consider whether in fact this goal was so extreme as to tempt me to play beyond my physical limits and so risk injury, or to play beyond my spiritual limits and so jeopardize my appreciation of the pleasure, camaraderie and exercise that sport provides.

Students of mine often ask my advice about setting priorities in their lives. How can they excel at schoolwork, they ask, if they also want to play a sport, perform in a musical ensemble, act in a play or help in a nursing home? Some of them get unhappy about grades lower than they’d like and say, "Well. I guess it’s because I didn’t do my best." What does this mean? I ask them. That you should have curtailed all cocurricular activity in order to study more? That you should not have helped friends in trouble in order to study more? That you should have cut down on devotional time, church attendance, Bible studies and so on (this is a self-consciously Christian college) in order to study more?

Frankly, some of them do need to cut down on cocurricular activity in order to study more. But I try to impress upon them that God’s vocation for them is broader than just "student," along the lines of "Christian person serving God in various ways and maturing thereby." I myself could produce more writing if I neglected my teaching. I could write and teach better if I neglected my family. I could accomplish more as both professor and family man if I neglected church activities. At least in theory. But one’s vocation is not just one particular job, it is all of life -- a life that balances as well as one can the various activities to which one is called by God.

And by the way, I tell my students, one cannot expect that if one does follow God’s call to a properly balanced life, God will somehow compensate him or her for the time not spent wholly in any particular activity. I will surely write and teach better in some respects if I have healthy relationships at home and am properly involved at church. But there are people who are so devoted to writing and teaching, neglecting all else, that they may well do more and better work than I -- not because I couldn’t match them if I were as narrowly focused as they, but because my energies and time are diffused more than theirs. (Of course, they may well be simply more gifted than I am and I never could match them anyway.) If these scholars advance professionally further and faster than I will, then I must decide that that’s just tough (on my pride), and do what pleases God, regardless.

The students usually leave encouraged by what wisdom there is in this, and I sit back happy to have helped. Occasionally, however, I recall uneasily a colleague’s suggestion at a faculty meeting a couple of years ago: "I would like us to consider whether we should continue to designate students’ degrees as cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude. As a Christian institution, should we be following this worldly pattern of honoring people for success relative to their peers rather than success relative to their gifts and callings?" Several seconds of uncomfortable silence constituted the only response to this question, and then the chairman moved on to the next raised hand, the next issue. How, I have wondered since, does this pattern of recognition at commencement square with the values I attempt to teach these students in my office?

There is another way to evaluate students. For example, the little Bible school I attended for one year had its students during the first week of classes write examinations that assessed their academic ability and preparation with particular focus upon theological background. The professors then together assigned a secret "base grade" for each student to serve as a benchmark for their subsequent achievement. Assignments were evaluated only relative to this grade, with a grading scheme of 5 percent increments. Therefore, a grade of plus 3 meant that one had scored 15 percent above one’s base grade, and students had to score an average of plus 2 in order to graduate. Students who started with a poor high school background or little previous church involvement could still excel if they applied themselves, and they often did.

This system does have some important problems. Beyond the obvious question of how well the school actually can assess relevant background knowledge and experience is the fact that the system does not take into account other worthy commitments in a student’s life, like work or ministry responsibilities outside the school. On the other hand, this scheme reinforced graphically at least one of the values the school was trying to teach. "Success" was a matter of using well one’s own talents and opportunities fully in God’s service -- a question of excellence relative to each individual, rather than a matter of merely accomplishing more than others in a certain group.

Another experience that brought this issue even closer. to home for me was our faculty’s recent discussion of merit pay. Now we. the graders, would be graded and rewarded according to our work. And the evaluation would be relative not to each individual’s gifts and calling, but to one’s accomplishments relative to one’s peers -- that is, relative to whoever else happened to be on the faculty. In some ways, this was more just than the former system: why should people who contributed more toward achieving the college’s goals get paid the same as those who contributed less? It nonetheless raised some disturbing ideas about our "we-are-a-Christian-community" slogans (since we were to apportion salary solely according to performance rather than also, say, on need) and about our endorsement of responsible family and church involvement (since the new system would tempt people financially to neglect these other responsibilities in order to work harder at school)

While I cannot resolve these thorny issues, I can suggest some approaches to the general issue of "winning." Christians believe that one day our Lord will render the final, infallible and alone-important judgment on our lives. On that day the One from whom nothing is hid and to whom all is open will set the record straight. This is our hope that is to guide our every decision. Perhaps we should, in our schools, churches, families and so on, refrain from honoring certain kinds of accomplishments, since the implications might confuse others -- or even ourselves -- about our values. What might the boys on the local basketball team assume if they do not win the state tournament, or fail to have a so-called "winning season," and then do not receive any sort of recognition?

We should consider honoring people in new ways for other things, declaring our Lord’s valuing of a variety of gifts and callings. Schools could recognize faculty members for effective committee service as well as for teaching and research; churches could honor those who pray and visit as well as those who preach and sing; families could praise helpful and encouraging children as well as the athletic or beautiful.

Let’s also consider affirming each other much more than we do. If we truly esteem a well-examined and godly life, let’s praise each other for good decisions and values, especially unusual ones: for giving up a prestigious job to serve where one, is more truly needed; for staying home to care for the children rather than participating in an important church or civic group; for disciplining one troubled individual rather than leading a large Sunday school class. Indeed, few people know any particular person well enough to judge the excellence of these quiet decisions, much less the whole pattern of someone’s life, so those few of us who can affirm a person in these respects surely ought to do so. In the name of the Lord and in the light of God’s own revealed values, we can and should anticipate something of God’s final judgment when we have opportunity.

"Winning" over others may not be something Christians should ever affirm. "Doing one’s best" is a concept easily perverted into workaholism and pride, and so we must keep the idea of "one’s best" as full and broad and particular as God’s whole call to each individual’s whole life.

We should learn from the testimony of the apostle who, far from seeing success as accomplishing more than others had accomplished, measured it against the call of all Christians with whom he hoped to share the reward (II Tim. 4:7-8) :

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

This kind of winning is everything, and for everyone.


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