The Theology of Losing

The call is to glorify God in all things, even in losing.

By Dr. James Thrasher

The coach angrily paces outside the locker room after losing an early season game. He steps on to the bus and says, “If I hear one word or see even a crack of a smile, you will pay for it in the morning: practice at 7:00 am. Yes, you heard me, 7:00 am!”

When we lose, our cultural training dictates that we storm around and be irritated, enraged, and left alone to sulk. Kicking and throwing things are good ways to convey to others that we despise losing.

This hatred of losing is overtly taught. You are expected to possess a total disgust for losing.

Tom Brady boasts that he is a pretty good winner, but a terrible loser. One slogan suggests that losing is worse than death, because you have to live with defeat. Knute Rockne said, “Show me a gracious loser, and I will show you a failure.” Just look to the television documentary “The Last Dance” and witness what Michael Jordan still zealously detests 23 years after retiring from the NBA.

This hatred of losing is a perspective that is universally accepted and pervades our American culture. All of us have succumbed to this way of thinking at certain points in our lives. But what are the roots of this cultural, man-centered theology of losing? centered theology of losing

We have made winning life’s ultimate pursuit, and individual performance has defined our self-worth and our personal identity. These are the idols that drive this mindset. This cultural norm demands that winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Most people wink at the phrase, but in reality, they have become slaves to it. Parents schedule every minute of their young children’s lives so they will win at life. Winning delivers a passionate, productive, purposeful, and prosperous life, right? Tiger Woods says that “winning solves everything.”

There is, however, a completely different, edifying, and freeing way of thinking to consider. In opposition to this cultural norm is the theology of losing, which affirms that God created us as competitors. It follows, then, that competition is embedded in our lives, and it provides an opportunity to glorify the Creator. We are to find our joy and total satisfaction in Him alone, in all circumstances. His view of us, for those called according to His purposes, does not change based on our performance, our winning, or whether we are number one. His love for us and our redeemed status never changes. The Scriptures tell us that the Lord is sovereign, and He ordains the minute details of our lives, even the wins and losses. He does everything perfectly, and He has a higher intention and a reason for all things. We are to be fully satisfied in Christ, no matter the score, situation, or the state of one’s affairs.

Paul’s life and words in the New Testament speak to our challenge of handling setbacks and losses. His example can be summed up in the phrase “content, but not complacent.” Paul was beaten, jailed, shipwrecked, whipped, starved, rejected, and stoned and left for dead. He had overwhelming peace, contentment, and joy in all circumstances, regardless of how he was treated or the outcomes of his evangelistic efforts. His losses were counted as blessings because he knew that his Savior was working out His purposes through those hardships. There is meaning in adversity and suffering. The Lord intends to grow us through life’s difficulties. Paul had true freedom from the encumbrances of earthly approval. C.S. Lewis wrote about this same perspective in his work “The Weight of Glory,” stating that people will never find infinite joy and contentment in the things of this world.

To many, this nonconformist way of thinking sounds outrageous and ridiculous and is a formula for displaying weakness and defeat. Truth be told, it is exactly the opposite. Individuals, teams, and coaches who embrace this God-centered theology of losing will benefit from humbly asking God, “What are you teaching me through this situation?” They also will eliminate wasted time and distractions and will experience liberating freedom, unshakable on-task focus, governed passion, and a soul-satisfying, inspiring trust that all things work together for good.

Tony Bennett, the head coach of the University of Virginia basketball program, after experiencing the most embarrassing loss in Division I basketball history — which then uniquely transformed the team the following season — remarked that, “If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone, any other way.”

The call is to glorify God in all things, even in losing.

Dr. Jim Thrasher is the Senior Advisor to the Vice President for Student Recruitment and the coordinator of the Institute for Faith & Freedom’s working group on calling.

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