Losing to Win

By Rev. J.C. Austin

I was a wrestler in high school. Not many people grow up wanting to wrestle the way many people want to play baseball, or football, or basketball. I had never thought about it myself until a friend talked me into trying out. I did, and discovered that I liked it.

Well, maybe “liked” is the wrong word. The practices were always exhausting and often painful; the matches were intense and sometimes terrifying because some of my matches looked less like a match and more like my opponent was using me as a human rag to vigorously wipe down the wrestling mat. So I can’t say that I “liked” wrestling; but I felt a deep satisfaction about it

First, I appreciated the fact that despite looking like it’s a purely physical contest, wrestling is a very mental sport. It’s more like a high-speed chess match than anything else, with strategies and tactics, feints and counters, risks and sacrifices. Second, I loved the purity of the competition. There’s technically a team, but you are utterly alone when you are actually competing. It is literally just you and your opponent: there’s no ball, or goal, or finish line.

And third, it was the first sport in which my spiritual gift of stubbornness gave me a real edge! I was not a particularly good wrestler, and I lost more than I won, but I was rarely pinned because I was just too stubborn to let that happen.

Probably my greatest achievement in wrestling was a match that I lost by a huge margin to the defending state champion, who had me on my back within a few seconds of the start of each period (there are three 2-minute periods in wrestling) and kept me there until the whistle blew, but he just couldn’t pin me; I managed to keep my shoulder blades just off the mat.

If I close my eyes, I can still remember what the burning of my neck muscles felt like in the third period after bridging up off the mat with them for so much time. I think the match was finally stopped as a “technical fall” because he got so many points from holding me, but when we finished and walked off the mat, my coach was beaming with pride, while his was scowling that he had been unable to seal the deal against an opponent as undistinguished as I was.

As my wrestling career, so to speak, went along, I ended up setting a single-season team record for escapes, which is what it sounds like: when you escape the control of your opponent and get back to your feet facing them, which earns you a point in the match. It’s sort of a dubious record to have, because it means you had to be under the control of your opponent so many times in the first place to be able to escape. But at least it was a testament to my tenacity, if nothing else.

Except that it was also a testament to something else that my coach, Coach Lattizori, pointed out to me at one point. He took me aside after a practice and said, “I want to tell you something about your wrestling.” “Okay,” I said, wincing a little already at what might be coming next. He waited a beat and then said, “You hate losing, right?” “Of course,” I said. (What competitor, regardless of their ability, likes to lose?)

I looked at him, puzzled. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” He smiled slightly. “It’s not a bad thing,” he said, “but it’s also not enough. You can’t just wrestle not to lose. Because if you do, you won’t take the risks that you have to take in order to win. You can’t win if you’re focused on not losing. You have to be willing to lose, or at least be willing to risk losing, in order to win.”

I wish Coach Lattizori knew just how much of an impact that had on me. Because it didn’t make me a notably better wrestler. But I still count it as one of the most important singular life lessons anybody has ever taught me, one that I has guided me in life over and over again, not simply as an athlete, but in my professional and personal and even spiritual life: “you can’t win if you’re focused on not losing; you have to be willing to lose in order to win.”

Nobody likes to lose. Nobody wants to lose. Losing, by definition, is a loss: when you lose something, you had something of value that you no longer have but which you wish you did. That last part is particularly important: you wish you still had what you have lost. Losing something is not the same thing as giving something up. They can overlap: if you give up a beloved food item for health reasons, you’re doing that intentionally for your own well-being, but also probably experience it as a loss because you still want the delights of eating it even if you know it’s better to give that up and you are choosing to do so.

Not all losses are created equal, of course. There’s an extraordinary range of experiences of loss, from the mildly irritating to the utterly devastating. Elizabeth Bishop, in her extraordinary poem entitled “One Art,” reflects on this reality. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” she begins straightforwardly; “so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster. / Lose something every day. Accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

We lose small things so often that losing itself is easy, she’s saying, both in terms of doing it and in terms of accepting it. Of course, not all losing is so simple, no matter how much she and we might wish it to be so. “Then practice losing farther, losing faster,” she continues, and begins listing bigger and bigger losses. Her mother’s watch. Three loved houses. Rivers. A continent.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” she continues to insist; “I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.” And finally she comes to the real loss, the person to whom she’s writing the poem. “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not hard to master though it may look like” – and she pauses in the midst of the last line to urge herself to finish the sentence – …thought it may look like (write it!) like disaster.”

And that’s why it is so very tempting to focus our attention and efforts on not losing, because losing something important, something essential, to us or our well-being so often does look and seem and feel like disaster. And that is true of few things more than our very lives. Which is why what Jesus is saying in this passage is so shocking, and so important.

Just before our reading begins, Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God whom God has sent to rule for God, to speak for God, and to mediate between God and the people. Jesus tells them not to tell anybody, and then proceeds to tell them why: because he was going to undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious authorities, be killed, and then be raised from the dead three days later.

And Peter is having none of that. He takes Jesus aside and begins to “rebuke” him, which is a pretty audacious thing to do to the person you’ve just declared to be the Messiah. But that’s exactly why he does it. The Messiah can’t lose that much, that way: can’t lose his freedom, his authority, his control, his dignity, his life.  That looks like a disaster, because it is, Peter thinks; losing all that is losing…well, everything. And he can’t allow that to happen.

Of course, it’s not up to him, which is why Jesus responds with these seemingly harsh words: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things.” Jesus says “get behind me” because that is literally where Peter is supposed to be as a disciple; to be a disciple means to follow, and to follow you have to get behind the person you’re following.

And calling Peter “Satan” sounds harsh, but remember that the understanding and depiction of Satan in the Gospels is not as a giant red demon with horns and a pitchfork who lives to torture people in the fires of Hell; he is more like a smooth-talking con man in a sharp suit, with a quick wit and a deep grasp of human fears and desires and how to manipulate them.

Satan tempts Jesus at the beginning of his ministry to accomplish that ministry by setting his mind on human things rather than divine things, and now here is Peter doing the same thing: encouraging Jesus to be a Messiah without rejection, without humiliation, without suffering, without death. Peter wants Jesus to be a Messiah who comes not to lose.

And that is a very tempting offer to Jesus, because yes, Jesus is the Messiah; yes, Jesus is the Son of God; and yes, Jesus is fully human, and humans are very tempted by anything that will help them not to lose. Jesus, being Jesus, resists the temptation. Jesus stays focused on the victory he is pursuing, which is going to require risking and experiencing these major losses.

So with Peter back in line, he then doubles down on what he’s already told his disciples about all this: if they want to be his followers, they have to follow him, they have to do what he does and go where he goes. And to do that, they’re going to have to be willing to lose the way Jesus does, because that is the only way to achieve the victory he wins. One of the hardest, scariest, most powerful, most beautiful truths of the whole Christian gospel is this: there is no resurrection without death; and there is no death that can defeat resurrection in Christ.

That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it.” Now this is one of those passages that has been distorted and abused in order to justify suffering and oppression that should be resisted rather than accepted, so it’s important to be clear here.

Jesus does not say, “if any want to become my followers, let them be denied their life and dignity and well-being by others, and submit to the cross that is pressed down on them.”  He doesn’t say we should lose our lives for the sake of another’s convenience or control or brokenness or anything else. He’s talking about taking up a Christ-like ministry of radical love that focuses on serving those whom the world deems unworthy in order that God’s compassion and justice and mercy and peace may prevail.

He’s talking about taking up such a ministry in full knowledge that those who benefit from apathy and injustice and vengeance and conflict will resist such ministry just as they did Christ himself, and that doing so may require us to lose our own comfort or security or will or anything else that would keep us from taking up that ministry. Because if your hands are so full of things that you are clutching to yourself because you think at least one of them alone or all of them together will keep you safe, then you can’t pick up or receive what is truly good and beautiful and life-giving and life-changing when you have the chance.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean we will not lose; following Jesus means we will win because we are following Christ into his victory over everything that seeks to separate us from God and from our neighbors. When Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it,” that’s not a threat or a warning, even though that’s how we often hear it.

No, it is first a fact: throughout the ages, the church has always been at its very worst when it has been focused on not losing, saving its prestige or power or influence or traditions or resources. And the church has always been at its best when it has been willing to risk losing any and all of those things for the sake of Christ and the gospel.

But more importantly than it being a fact: it is a promise. When we are willing to do more, risk more, try more than simply not losing, that is where we truly begin to experience Christ’s victory. That is where we find life. Not the life that we do our best to protect and wrap around us like an increasingly threadbare blanket, and so often lose anyway in strands that are pulled apart and pieces that are worn thin and worn away.

No, it’s when we are willing to risk losing that life that we are finally able to find the life that Christ came to give us, the abundant life that he offers to all who follow him, an abundance that never runs out, never wears away, never gets lost, and can never be taken from us, because it was never ours in the first place, but a gift from God that we can never truly have, but which always, always has us.


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