As a former athlete, and as an inherently competitive person, the striving for victory is a too-often dominant priority in my life. Victory means triumph, a prevailing over rivals and all the right and privileges usually given to the winners in any conflict. Those honors vary...for most contests, the honors usually limit themselves to the winner getting "bragging rights." In contests for control of systems, populations or territories, the stakes are higher: "to the victor belong the spoils." The winner in those contests gets to control the way things happen, the way the stories of the culture are told...they get to define reality. Lost in the mix as the victors define the narrative are those who are not victorious. Who are these? The footnotes in history...the "also-rans." These are the vanquished, the defeated.
That is the problem with our human pursuit of "victory." It means winners and losers. It means that competitive human beings usually wind up seeking to defend a previous victory or otherwise are attempting to overcome a past defeat. It means histories, and often what we perceive as "truth," wind up being defined by the ones who overcome their competition; and while the facts of the matter remain the same the perspective, the "spin" becomes subject to the victor's interpretation.
As we work our way into the dynastic succession following David's and Solomon's rule in Israel, and as we bid goodbye to Paul's letter to the Romans, I am aware that theme of either naming, or being named, the victor is really important to human beings. I am also aware that we get into real trouble when we experience success in any form and think that gives us leave to claim victory apart from God working through us more than we could ask or imagine. Contests are fine, but the moment we decided "winning" is our right over and against "losers" we break from God's will and depart from the ways that God asks us to walk in.
Abijah and Asa are struggling to hold on to a disintegrating kingdom and the stressors show. They are outnumbered and surrounded. They are no longer ascendant as a people, as Israel experienced during the rules of David and Solomon. They are trying to hold on to some semblance of surety as the people of God, and to some shred of confidence that God can be relied on to provide....victory. The prophets are consistent in their counsel: Be faithful and keep God in the forefront of your life and God will be with you. Fail to do that and God will depart from before you....in that context, victory becomes less about winning and more about a sense of commitment to fidelity to God. Why do we win? Not because we are better, but because God favors us. We still have to show up, to strive, to endeavor to offer our best effort; but to God belongs victory. The only glory is God's.
On one level, that lets us overly-competitive people off the hook. The fact that glory can only be of, and from God invites us to let go of our clamping grip on winning. At a deeper level, the fact that true victory can only be found in God is in the best sense of the word, humiliating: it creates and fosters humility.
Pauls exhibits that humility throughout Romans. He points continually to Christ as the author of all his recent victories in life. In fact, he decries the victories of his pre-Christ-centered life as misplaced arrogance on his part. What matters now to him? Community and mutual grace in the pursuing the victory that is Christ's: the proclamation of the Good News to the ends of the known world.
I hope that I can remember that the only true victory belongs to God, particularly the next time I feel that impulse to flex my strength, my certainty and unleash my competitive nature...
Not an easy thing...not an easy thing at all....