I’m a third generation Detroit Lions fan. I am not a fair weather fan - such a phenomenon is new in Detroit (to mix metaphors, Michigan isn’t known for its great weather). I’m a Lions fan because they hit hard.
They belong to “the black and blue division” with the Packers, Vikings, and Bears - all teams known for hitting hard. I like the grind-it-out, bear-with-it, every-inch-counts battle that plays out each fall weekend on my TV screen. And I especially like when it’s a defensive game with a low score, back and forth jockeying for better field position, and literally every yard gained or lost has the potential to make a difference in the final outcome.
If I’ve lost you in a sports analogy, don’t worry, I’ve also lost all the other football fans with that last sentence. No one likes a defensive battle these days - I’m a freak.
Or am I?
I have a hidden disability. This article is not about disabilities, and most people have never heard of the one I have anyway, but my hidden disability has enabled me to experience life differently than many other people.
Actually, that’s not quite true. My disability has reduced my ability to experience some parts of life that others get to experience and focus on to a greater extent than I. I have long been aware that a good life is ground out one yard at a time. I’m not as equipped to ignore even a glancing blow of an opponent. My defenses are thin. As a young man I was faced with the choice, not of whether my life would often feel like a fight, but whether or not I would fight the good fight (cf. 1 Tim. 6:12).
I don’t believe for a second that I’m alone in this. I’ve been privileged in my ministry and my personal life to see behind the curtain in so many people’s lives. They’re all fighting. I learned years ago that one of the best gifts I have to offer is the ability to normalize that.
So many people get to discover much later than I did how hard they have to fight to do well in this life - spiritually, materially, in every way. I’ve met many that didn’t realize until quite late in life that it was never a choice of whether or not life would be a fight, but only of whether they would fight the good fight. It’s a hard lesson, but a huge blessing to be there for someone that’s first discovering that or discovering it in a new way.
We are all fighters, but we’re not all equally aware of it. Those of us who truly believe that Jesus died, rose, ascended, and called us to follow him in a world of “already"s but “not yet"s - we are all fighters to manifest the kingdom that is already, even while we wait upon the kingdom that is not yet. It is a slow battle.
Oftentimes it feels we are defending the kingdom instead of advancing it the way we feel called to and are more excited about. Even when we can go on the “offensive” (what a strange way to refer to bringing good news!), it is a battle where we gain only a matter of yards before we’re pushed back almost to where we began.
I won’t ask too deeply here why it’s such a battle to bring the good news of freedom in Christ to the world. But I suspect that at least some of the world is simply turned off by how many Christians seem to live in denial of how hard it actually is to believe that things can and will be better. At least some of the world thinks we must be freaks to fight so hard, daring to believe that the phrase “that’s just the way the world works” has no real bearing on us, because Jesus has already (but also not yet) changed the way the world works.
Who wants to join a group of freaks that are battling the whole world? Who wants to be crazy enough to believe that the evil ways the world works can change?
And if in their battle with the world these followers of Jesus (after centuries of mistakes) are learning to deny themselves the ordinary worldly methods of battle - physical force, political scheming, financial power, coercive words, and so forth - and instead increasingly try to adopt the methods of Jesus - self-sacrifice, suffering, peace that passes understanding, honesty, faithfulness, etc… Well, it should be no wonder that many people simply can’t believe that our fight will ever prevail.
Why choose a team that seems destined to lose? Perhaps only a Detroit Lions fan can understand (though Maple Leafs hockey fans might come close).
But the point of this article is also not about how hard the gospel is, or that we should all listen to DC Talk sing “Jesus Freak”, or even that we should bring back “Onward Christians Soldiers” as a way to rekindle our passion for spiritual battle with the world.
The point is that I’m a freak.
This is a confession and a testimony. Because most days I am not disheartened by the battles I hear about within the Church. Most days I’m encouraged to hear it.
I did not wake up today, or any day that I can remember, thinking that today would be a day when I would not have to fight the good fight within myself. The kingdom of God is already in me, and I in it… but then again not yet. Likewise, I didn’t wake up thinking that the Church should exemplify anything other than being in the kingdom and not yet.
Most of our fight with “the world” is going to be with the world as it is in us. It doesn’t matter how much we try to isolate our portion of the body of Christ (as if a portion of the body actually belongs to us), we will still find within “our” church that there exist elements of the world that seem too casual toward Scripture, too legalistic, too whatever.
Those elements of the world have been present even in every small group I’ve ever been part of. Why do we think they won’t be present within a whole congregation, not to mention a whole group of congregations, such as a classis or a denomination? Do we think that if we just break the Church down a little more we can isolate “our church” against elements of the world and escape the fight?
So, I woke up ready to fight against the world as I find it in myself and “my” church. I woke up ready to say, “hey we’re getting a bit legalistic here aren’t we?” to one group of brothers and sisters, and in the next conversation, “I think we need to remember that Scripture is the definitive answer to this” to another.
I woke up ready to say these things not because I, alone, have been given insight on those things, not because I’m a centrist, and not because I believe in unity at all costs. I suspect some will leave the fight. No, I’m fighting simply because I’m a freak and I woke up ready to fight - not with coercion, not with a self-righteous attitude (I expect to be put in my place many times today), not because I’m smarter, better, quicker, more powerful, or anything like that. I woke up ready to fight because I had to learn how to wake up that way, and because Christ taught me how to enjoy it. (Much of the time anyway, I still have ground to gain.)
So, in the spirit of what I consider a good battle, let me throw a good defensive block toward my brothers and sisters in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Don’t you think it’s great the way the Church's values of Scripture, truth, unity, hospitality, and differing methods of loving are colliding right at the scrimmage line right now? Isn’t this what it’s really about? Isn’t this exactly what must happen in order for the Church to be honed and shaped by our Lord?
Did we expect growing in Christ to be easier? Did we expect that our Lord wouldn’t use our brothers and sisters to hit us right at the core, ripping away any worldly ground we’re still trying to hold onto? Didn’t we wake up this morning saying together, “to live will mean to be shaped as Christ by Christ through whatever means, and to die on the field will be the ultimate gain?” (cf. Phi. 1:21). Did we forget that even our fights together are providential gifts of God? Or are some things outside of God’s providence?
Though the battle is hard, it is not all bad. It is not all sad. It is not all unchristian. And it is not at all hopeless. It is real. It is our stage of redemptive history. It is our calling. It is hopeful and faithful. It can even be exciting. It is an adventure.
And over time, with Christ’s help, the ground gained includes joy, peace, patience, humility, honor, integrity, inner fortitude, and so much more. If, by God’s grace, I have scored one touchdown in this battle called life, it is that he has handed off to me a joy that doesn’t come from winning or losing, but simply from playing hard.