A defeat that survives all conquerors

I do not do well with defeat. I don’t mean to say I’m a sore loser. I was raised right, taught to be a gentleman when bested in competition, but I still hate to lose.

Here in the West, specifically here in these United States, we love winners. In fact, we worship them. We idolize our own history. From the upset victory over the Redcoats back 1783 to the current ongoing political news maelstrom. Be ye Republican or Democrat, it’s all about winning.

Just a few days ago I was playing a few friendly games of one-on-one basketball with a colleague. Losing by one in the first game, I came back and drubbed him in the next two games by five and eight points respectively.

“Oh yeah,” I said, reveling in victory, “I’m just a big hairy American winning machine.”

So much for a friendly game of one-on-one!

Coming off this weekend, and the holiday of Easter, I spent a considerable amount of time considering what it is to lose and to win. To win even when it seems you’ve lost, and vice-versa.

The story of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of dark horrors that soon yields to radiant glories. He enters Jerusalem like a conquering hero, is captured on false charges and interrogated like common criminal, beaten within an inch of His life and executed in one of the most humiliating ways the ancient world allowed.

Loss upon loss. The front-runners that had once waved palm branches and welcomed Him as their “king” quickly found a new horse to back, or maybe got out of the race altogether. Even His closest followers were like sheep whose shepherd had been struck down. Aimless without direction, uncertain about what was to come, despairing that everything had taken such a tragic turn of events. I cannot even imagine.

The sun sets on Friday and darkness surrounds an already dark day. Over the course of that Sabbath there was little to celebrate. Every hope for redemption was buried and sealed in a tomb, the stone cold corpse of Jesus hastily buried before the sun could set added insult to ignominy.

A day later, resurrection. What had once been the lowest of lows was lifted to such great heights. Not only an immediate victory, but an ultimate one. With the conquest of death, Christ established Himself as king for all time. He would not simply lead a temporal kingdom for a single golden era, but would rule supreme for eternity. The final assurance before His departure contains the promise of an inevitable return.

For hundreds of years the young church struggled to survive in a barbaric world, growing in numbers despite unceasing persecution from every quarter. The religious authorities of the day considered them heretics, the political leaders considering them rebels. Time and time again they were harassed, cast out, tortured and executed. Their only confidence amid such defeat came in knowing of the ultimate victory promised to them. Christianity flowered even as its branches were being crushed or, as one early theologian put it: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” (Tertullian, circa 200 AD)

One of the first issues I had to wrestle with in converting to Christianity some years back was reconciling the defeat found so often within the faith. While those of us in the United States enjoy tremendous privilege, it’s not the case for much of the rest of the world. A very conservative estimate says that each year at least 250,000 Christians are killed because of their faith.

Last month four Christians in Turkmenistan were arrested after local police discovered Bibles in their possession. In Laos 11 orphans have continued to attend church, despite being threatened with expulsion by the government. In February the pastor of a small church in India was assaulted by Hindu extremists, who also attacked his children and crushed his car with a boulder. On March 15 Islamic radicals in Nigeria bombed a church, killing one adult, one newborn, and injured 38 others.

What do these saints know about winning?

The closer I look at Christianity, the more I see every victory doused in a cold shower of hard reality.

Faithful followers still die in car wrecks. Godly adherents still get cancer. Every saint has to endure hardship like any other sinner. This mortal coil tightens its grip around us all.

Ultimately, the only thing we can cling to is hope… the hope that blossoms forth in believing that God is who He says He is, and that he keeps His promises.

We glory in victory, but a victory unearned. The victory that none of us can achieve, victory over the defeat that none can overcome but One.

Christianity is rooted in defeat, and yet it survives all conquerors.

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