I remember exactly where I was when I lost interest in professional sports.
In 1998 the World Cup was in France, and the player to watch was Michael Owen, starting forward for England. He was that country’s youngest player ever to participate in a World Cup. I was 16. Michael Owen was 18. I was in my parent’s basement in mid-Missouri. He was in the Stade de Toulouse in France. I played JV soccer, defense specifically, because I couldn’t score. But Owen was scoring goals against the best players in the world. He was internationally famous. I was moderately popular in my high school.
The players were just as exciting as before I lost interest in professional sports; they hadn’t changed. But somewhere along the way, as I grew up, things had changed for me. My perspective had become twisted. I loved sports because one day I could be a star, or so I thought.
But at 16, I now had the sinking feeling that dreams long cultivated would not be harvested: in two years, I was not going to catch Owen.
All of this came flooding back to me a few months back at the church office. In the stack of mail was Christianity Today. The cover story was titled “33 Under 33.” I just stared at the cover, as though opening it and skimming the pages would declare me guilty of something.
The article celebrates, as you might expect, 33 leaders in Christianity (authors, pastors, musicians, entrepreneurs, political activists, and even a dancer) who are making a difference for Jesus. And they all have one thing in common (besides being on Twitter): they are all 33 years old or younger.
I flipped the pages, and I stared at them—their super cool bios, trendy haircuts, and young faces. And they stared at me, all smiles.
I frowned. It seemed, all over again, as though Michael Owen was scoring goals in France, and I was in my parent’s basement.
Since this initial, deflating moment in the church office, I’ve had more time to think. Here’s what was going on in my heart.
1. Anything Can Become an Idol
The capacity of the human heart to turn anything into an idol is astounding. To paraphrase Tim Keller in Counterfeit Gods, when something, even a good thing, becomes an ultimate thing, then idolatry happens. Keller writes:
What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. . . .
An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.
We can do this (idolatry) with just about anything. We can do it with soccer and athletics, or with beauty and power. We can do it with career advancement, reputation in academia, political causes, or with family and children. We can do it with marriage or with singleness, profit or artistic expression.
“A-good-thing-turned-ultimate-thing” can even be true of Christian ministry success—the kind of Christian ministry success that appears in the glossy pages of Christianity Today, calling to pastors from the stack of mail on the counter. In the CT article, Sam Hurd wrote:
Today, as American Christianity faces declining affiliation, intense public debates over religious freedom, changes in the family structure, and technological advances, millennial Christians have already picked up the baton. For this story, CT set out to find young believers who we think are leading today’s church in key ways—and who embody what it will look like in the years to come (Sam Hurd, CT, July/August 2014, 35).
The problem was not with the article; it was with my own heart. In other words, we should celebrate the provision of God and the faithfulness of his people, not bemoan our own anonymity. It was never about “us.” It was never about me. Lord, forgive me for making the advancement of your kingdom about the advancement of mine.
2. God Changes People
By the grace of God, people can, and do, change. Their desires can change; their worship can change. Through the gospel, people leave behind false gods and turn to the true God. Through Jesus, we can say that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his the beloved Son” (Col. 1:13).
On the morning I read “33 Under 33,” the jealous urge was just a twinge, just a moment. Fifteen years ago, watching Owen in the World Cup, it was not just a twinge. Fifteen years ago, a sinkhole opened up, a foundation crumbled, and a house built on sand went splat. Fifteen years ago, there was not sorrow, but despair. Keller writes:
There is a difference between sorrow and despair. Sorrow is pain for which there are sources of consolation. Sorrow comes from losing one good thing among others, so that, if you experience a career reversal, you can find comfort in your family to get you through it. Despair, however, is inconsolable, because it comes from losing an ultimate thing. When you lose the ultimate source of your meaning or hope, there are no alternative sources to turn to. It breaks your spirit.
Since the time of Michael Owen, international phenom, versus Benjamin Vrbicek, JV peon, a decade and a half of life has passed. In that time—only by God’s grace—a new foundation has been laid with Christ as the cornerstone. That foundation cannot be shaken.
3. Start Strong, Finish Strong
What matters in a race is how you finish. That’s when they give the medals. I’m thankful for the young men and women celebrated by CT. I really am. I read their blogs and listen to their music. And now I’m praying for them the same thing I pray for myself: that we would finish strong.
Marriages can start well, pastorates can start well, and so can the Christian life. But consider Solomon in the Old Testament or Demas in the New Testament (Col. 4:14, Philemon 1:4, 2 Tim. 4:10). They seemed to start well, but they failed at what really counts: finishing well.
When we get to heaven, the true measure of every ministry will be evaluated, and faithfulness to Christ will be fully seen and rewarded. In light of that future, our highest aim should be to finish well, and hear in the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” No matter our age, relative fame, or anonymity, may we all be able to say with Paul, “[We] have fought the good fight, [we] have finished the race, [we] have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).