Cubby Arvin-DiBlasio | 19
I’m a gym rat. Really. If I don’t hit the gym regularly, I actually feel physically ill, not to mention a little guilty. I’ve participated in loads of sports over the years, and some of my favorite memories from high school are of playing field hockey games against impossible odds in nasty conditions. I’m grateful for all the time I’ve gotten to spend snowboarding, swimming, running, horseback riding, playing basketball and softball, and fencing, not to mention wrestling and boxing with my dad.
But here’s the thing about sports: the goal is to win. This in and of itself is not an issue. As Christians, we believe we are locked in an eternal battle that has already won, yet is still ongoing. Naturally, it is a battle we want to win. As I trained for rugby throughout the summer, I told myself that I was training for God. Every lift, every run, every push up, pull up, sprint, and jog was somehow for His glory. But I never really asked myself how. Just to be clear, I love sports, I love playing sports, and I love screaming at the television when other people are playing sports. The important thing to remember, I believe, is what exactly “winning” means, and how exactly God says we should go about doing it.
After much thought, and a semester-long study of the book of Revelation, I’ve come to realize that there are in fact two types of winning. Human, earthly winning, which is what happens on the rugby pitch, and Godly, spiritual winning, which occurs on the eternal pitch of the soul. These two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As a pre-med student, I have long marveled at the miracle of the human body and what it is capable of. Exhibiting the athletic talents and skills you’ve been blessed with is not bad at all. In fact, it pleases God to see this. (Think of 1 Corinthians 9:24; “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”) I believe that playing against an opponent who is highly skilled, and therefore forces you to play your best and use your talents, is the best way to play any sport. Nevertheless, by many people’s definitions, “playing your best” and “winning” aren’t the same thing, and getting a better number on the board (human winning) isn’t, by definition at least, in the service of Godly pursuits.
The human version of winning, however, can sometimes go too far on multiple fronts. How exactly does proving that Bowdoin can get a funny shaped ball over a line in the grass more times than Middlebury prove that we are in any way superior? Is Germany really a “better” country because their soccer team creamed Brazil’s? In addition, the nasty alienation and rivalry between teams can be far from Godly, especially when we convince ourselves that beating “the enemy” is somehow what God wants or demands. I remember far too well the names and taunts we lobbed at other field hockey teams, especially when we were being sore losers. Needless to say, despite physical ability and friendly competition being gifts from God and pleasing to Him besides, the scoreboard isn’t what He’s worried about. Unsurprisingly, the Lord of the Universe has bigger fish to fry. And as Christians, it may do us good to look at the same big picture.
As is typical – or at least seems typical to me – the Bible took my ideas about the concept of winning and promptly turned them upside down and sideways all at once. I admit, I was thrilled at the idea of reading Revelation this year. In the words of one of our fearless leaders, Revelation has everything: monsters, cities, angels, fire. What’s not to like? I completely agreed. More important to me, however, was the battle imagery we spent so much time talking about over the course of the year. Armor, horses, swords, arrows, spears, oh boy! In other words, basically the Chronicles of Narnia, and in other other words, basically what I want to do when I grow up. (The whole doctor thing is really just supposed to be a side job). At the first Bible study of the year, I was ready to learn just how to be a knight in shining armor and dropkick the Beast and all his demonic friends right back to the hell hole they came from. But, as He so often does, God had something else in mind.
Revelation begins with seven letters to seven churches, each containing a promised reward from God to the One Who Conquers. For example, in the letter to the Church in Ephesus: “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). (In the NIV, which is my personal Bible, the One Who Conquers is called “him who overcomes.” While I may refer to the One Who Conquers, in all direct quotes I will use the phrase him who overcomes.) Promises in other letters include not being hurt by the second death, a taste of the hidden manna and a new name, authority over the nations, acting as a pillar of the temple of God, and most shockingly, “the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (3:21). In other words, the One Who Conquers is not Jesus, but one who emulates Jesus to the fullest extent, and is therefore rewarded richly, just as the ultimate winner would expect to be.
Once we had discussed this idea, I was even more ecstatic. Not only was I able to be a knight in shinning armor and slay dragons, but I would be rewarded like a true princess and daughter of God, with riches and kingdoms and everything. Well, I was ready to fire up the forges and get started. My only question was how exactly to become the One Who Conquers. I mean, there’s a lot of pretty kooky imagery in Revelation, and while I didn’t have a strong averseness to literally battling beasts in the streets of Brunswick, Maine, I had to imagine that there were some other instructions beyond just that.
This is where I should have caught on sooner to what being the One Who Conquers truly means. If he who overcomes is indeed a human who lives as close to Jesus’ example as possible, then swords and armor and well-muscled war equines aren’t exactly right. Think carpentry tools, sandals, and donkeys instead. But the correct line of thinking doesn’t end with Jesus’ humble beginnings. It ends with the end.
No boldly colored banners flapping in the wind; no victorious army returning home to flower-strewn streets.
From an earthly point of view, Jesus, and therefore the One Who Conquers, doesn’t look like a conqueror at all. In fact, it looks as though he’s lost just about everything. But. Stay with me. Many of us have heard the verse from Matthew (and Mark and Luke and John) stating that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). This plays a large role in Revelation. I kept asking how to win the eternal battle, and how to be the One Who Conquers, but I was ignoring the answer because it was one I didn’t like. Until, that is, Revelation 14:12 made it so clear that even a scrappy kid who always had to prove she was the toughest one on the playground (Yes, that would be me) couldn’t miss it: “This calls for the patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.”
God doesn’t need our help in saving the world from the Devil. Even if every Christian picked up a sword and charged straight into Hell with no fear, it would be nothing compared to the awesome power of God, and completely unnecessary besides. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a job to do and a part to play in the apocalypse. It’s simply a very different one than what I always imagined. Patient endurance. In Ephesians 6, the armor of God is neatly documented for us: a belt, a breastplate, readiness, a shield, a helmet, and a sword, our only offensive weapon, and in fact further defined as the word of God. Thus our offense is not ever truly our own, but coming directly from the mouth of the Lord. Naturally, we have to be careful where we point that thing, so as to not parry and be dubbed a Bible thumper or lunge and sacrifice tact. However, the point (no pun intended) is that we ourselves stand no chance without God. The hands-on grappling and wrestling with Evil, in the end, is really left up to Him, while our job is of a different sort.
This “different sort” is perhaps even more challenging to our human nature than charging into the fray like Mel Gibson and his band of kilted warriors in Braveheart. It may be crazy and painful and brutal, but at least it’s short. Patient endurance speaks of another sort of assignment. In Revelation 18, the great city of Babylon is facing its judgment, and destruction of the original sin city is underway. Merchants mourn for their lost ships and goods, which include spices, building material, textiles, foods, “cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men” (18:13). In many other versions, the verse includes an explanation for the “bodies and souls,” deeming them slaves. However, the Greek word for servant and slave are the same – doulos, meaning that these people could also be servants, as in servants of God. In other words, the saints who are patiently enduring are potentially getting sold off with the livestock. Not a knight in shining armor moment at all.
The most obvious contrast between what the human idea of conquest and God’s idea of conquest is the comparison between Psalm 2 and Isaiah 53. Psalm 2 outlines the folly of earthly kings, who conspire against God and are punished when the Lord scoffs and sends His son to “rule them with an iron scepter” and “dash them to pieces like pottery” (Psalm 2:9). Pretty intense stuff. I know I want to be on the same side as the guy doing the ruling and the dashing. Better yet, let me be the guy who rules and dashes. But Isaiah tells a different story. There is no end to the Servant’s suffering in Isaiah 53. Phrases like “he was despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3),“he was oppressed and afflicted” (53:7) and “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him” (53:2) abound. But there is also this: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:5-6). The Servant is Jesus: the ultimate winner despite, or rather because of, his suffering. To truly be the Conqueror in a Godly sense, we must be conquered in an earthly one.
Now, I am not, in any way, suggesting that to be Godly is to welcome abuse. Hurting yourself is never a good idea; God doesn’t want anyone destroying His image, even if the destroyer and the image are one in the same. Additionally, being hurt by others or being thrust into a miserable situation doesn’t mean you’re “being a good Christian,” although it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being a bad one either. The contrast between earthly and Godly ideas of winning is simply this: as Christians in what often feels like a hostile world, we need to remember to play our own game our way. Actually, forget our way, which is human and flawed. Let’s play God’s way instead. The other team may play dirty, but we don’t, even if that means losing on the scoreboard. While earthly winning requires athleticism and physical skill (still not bad traits in and of themselves), Godly winning requires true sacrifice and suffering. The other team may kick us or taunt us, and our friends may even suggest that we kick or taunt back. But the most important thing to remember is that we play God’s game, and we play by the rules set by our Father in Heaven. And if we play that way, we will win in the only way that matters.
Cubby Arvin-DiBlasio, Bowdoin Class of 2019. German. Manchester VT.
Cubby’s preparations for the end of the world include a little swing dance here and there, and baking the perfect pie crust.