When Winning Looks Like Losing

U.S. President Donald Trump departs next to first lady Melania Trump from the Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., January 20, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

When I was 27 I became a Christian. My motivation was essentially one of desperation: my life didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, I had no idea what I was doing or even wanted to do, and society didn’t seem to offer any answers. Almost entirely out of ideas, it occurred to me that people have been considering these sorts of questions for as long as there have been people, and that a book which had been written over thousands of years might potentially hold some useful answers. I suppose I could have just read the Bible, but I didn’t, I felt drawn to go to my local church, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But even as a Christian I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do. I asked my vicar and he said: “Read the Bible and pray.” But the stories didn’t seem to make much sense, and pray about what? Forgiveness? What had I done wrong, exactly? I didn’t seem to be much worse a person than most people, and I was a darn sight better than some. So Christianity seemed to be a bit of a non-starter.

It wasn’t until four years later that I started to make any headway, when my one-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Angelman Syndrome, a completely randomly occurring genetic condition. Finally, here was a theological problem I could get a grip on. Out went the nebulous “What does it all mean?” questions, and in came something specific: a charge to lay at God’s feet, or perhaps my own.

Why me? What had I done wrong? Had I done anything wrong? Everyone I knew was happily married with perfect, healthy children, and here I was, single and with a child with severe special needs. Was it a punishment for sin? Was it a preventative for future sin, such as idolising my only child? Was God merely capriciously vindictive, a spoiled child playing meanly with dolls? All these questions I asked and more: How could God claim to love us when such bad things seem to happen so often?

I wrestled with this problem for a good year, and as I did I noticed one piece of scripture kept floating into my mind. It was: ‘He who is first shall be last, and he who is last shall be first.’

The saying, by Jesus, comes in two places: Matthew 19:30 and Matthew 20:16; the first after Jesus tells the rich young man to give up his wealth if he wants to gain eternal life, and the second following the parable of the landowner who hires workers throughout the day, but pays them the same wage whether they have worked a whole day or one hour.

A good way of interpreting these verses is that God’s value system is very different from human ideas of ranking and hierarchy. Clearly those who are the most powerful on earth are more often than not far from being right with God, whereas we know he holds considerable esteem for those we would consider lowly.

Certainly that was a perfectly adequate answer to the conundrum of my daughter who, although she will never attain fame, power or wealth, more than proves her value as a human being by the smile she brings to people’s faces when we are out and about.

However, the more I considered these verses, the more I felt that God was trying to impress upon me a more fundamental concept, and that concept was this: We live through a looking glass.

In my all-time favourite piece of scripture, 1 Corinthians 13, St Paul writes: 12 “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror. Paul isn’t just telling tell us that we don’t see God clearly in this realm – we know that without having to be told. He is trying to tell us the same thing Jesus was saying in his comments about first and last: that we live in a mirror image world, one that is backwards to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Clearly this manifests insofar as God (but not the world) values humility over ostentatiousness, generosity of spirit over wealth, and temperance over self-indulgence. But I believe we can take the principle further. A lot further, into the realms of counterintuitivity.

For example, say you want something, such as a great job. Conventional widsom has it that in order to be successful you need to give it your all, throwing yourself headlong into the task – you need to read the right books to give you a good grounding, mingle with the right people, be the first to volunteer and give up more of your time until your efforts get you noticed and you get the job you want. But in practice, that’s not how it works at all. The job is much more likely to go to someone who somehow effortlessly swans into it over the heads of those who scurry around furiously trying to climb the ladder of success.

This same principle is perhaps more easily seen in relationships and can be thought of this way: Who is more attractive, the person who phones you five times a day to see how you are and what they can do for you, to prove to you how devoted they are, or the mysterious person who always leaves you wanting more?

The principle can be summarised as: If you want something, don’t chase it; wait for it to come to you. In New Age terms this is known as the Law of Attraction. In the Bible it’s rendered: “Ask and it shall be given.”

Luke 12: 29 “And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”

And moreso:

Matthew 13: 12 “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (Repeated in Matthew 25:29)

There are loads of apparent paradoxes like this, and they don’t only crop up in Christian texts. Here is the Sufi poet Rumi’s version of Paul’s text:

“This place is a dream. Only a sleeper considers it real. Then death comes like dawn, and you wake up laughing at what you thought was your grief.”

This place is a dream, and not real? Death comes like dawn? We’ll laugh at what we thought was grief? Sounds all kinda backwards, right? And yet, it is true. I encourage you to search for similar paradoxes in whichever scripture you hold to – you will find them once you start to look.

So, given that, how do we explain the apparent contradictions of this week? For those of us who believe in truth, justice, honesty, freedom, the political events in America this week seem to be totally wrong. People cheated and were rewarded! Those who claim to love justice and be wiling to fight for it have slunk off the playing field, tails between their legs! What is going on here?! Has God abandoned his people?

But ask yourself this: if we live in a mirror world, if up is down and black is white, wouldn’t winning look like… losing?