The other day, a dear friend posted a photo on Instagram that piqued my interest immediately. It showed her son, wearing a gi, proudly holding up a broken board. Her caption said “Joel the white belt.” Now, as proud as I am about my dear friend’s kid’s achievements, this wasn’t what drew my attention. The thing I noticed immediately was the the board, though split down the middle, had “Good job!” written on it. It also had Joel’s name, the date, and the name of the Grand Master who, I assume, oversaw the accomplishment. Here’s the fascinating thing, though: the words were written across the break. In other words, the Grand Master had written “Good job!” on the board before Joel successfully broke it!

My mind immediately went to God, because this is exactly how he operates. Consider the story of Gideon.

Gideon is the judge chosen by God to defeat the oppressive Midianites (Judges 6-7), but God has some work to do on Gideon’s army before he sends it into battle. Midian is a formidable nation, and it will take everything the Israelites have to defeat them. The Israelite army, though, as it turns out, is too big for God’s liking, not too small. So he reduces Gideon’s fighting force from 32,000 to…wait for it…300! And it’s not even as if the 300 who remained were 300 highly-trained secret-operative Jason Bourne-types who were drafted according to their prowess in combat. The 300 Spartans they were not. The criterion used to isolate the final 300 was the methodology a soldier preferred for drinking water from a spring; some lapped like a dog and some knelt down. The Bible says that the lappers “prevailed.”  If, that is, you define prevailing as being selected to fight in a numerically lopsided battle against your ruthless oppressors.  Oh, and if you define “fighting” as carrying trumpets and torches versus your sword-wielding enemies.

Isn’t less always more, though, in the economy of the Gospel?  St. Paul said that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” and that “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). And now God had made the Israelites both weak (by reducing their numbers) and foolish (by taking away their weapons and giving them musical instruments). And there’s no mystery to God’s rationale; he states it plainly: “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’” God is putting the people into a situation that will force them to acknowledge their need for a savior. It seems, then, that God is making this as hard on Gideon and the Israelites as possible.

But God’s not done yet. The real Grand Master has one more surprising revelation for Gideon, and it comes in Judges 7:9: “That same night the Lord said to him, ‘Arise, go down against the camp, for I have given it into your hand.'” Notice the tense of that announcement; God is telling Gideon to begin the fight against the Midianites and is–at the same time–telling him that the battle is already won! He’s not merely promising victory (“and I will give it into your hand”), he’s telling him that the fight is actually over.

The Grand Master has written “Good job!” on the board before he asks the child to break it. This is how the grace of God works, accomplishing a thing and then attributing it to the undeserving. In Romans 5, Paul tells us that God comes to people while they are sinners, before they are righteous, and yes, even while they are his enemies. God calls the children that he has adopted in Christ righteous before they become so. This is the beauty of imputation: “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). God calls a sinner righteous on account of Christ, and the sinner is made righteous, outside of any earning, deserving, or achievement.

Ordinary human life doesn’t work this way. In our economy, you get what you earn. You hoist the trophy after you win the championship. The Marine Corps sword is “always earned, never given.” The Bachelor contestant gets the rose after she impresses the man on the date. You get the promotion at work after you’ve shown your earning power. The Grand Master gives you the “good job” after you break the board.

But not in God’s dojo.

God comes to us first. He comes to the weak, to the foolish, to the powerless. He comes to the sinner, to the rebel…in fact, he comes to the dead. It’s not just that we’re too weak to break the board on our own…we are actually “dead in trespasses and sin” (Ephesians 2:1), unable to lift our arms at all.

God’s first work is to show us our true state. We are loathe to admit weakness, much less death, so sometimes, he lets us whack away at the board for a while. It hurts. We hit the board hard, because we’d love to be able to say what God knew the Israelites would say: “My own hand has saved me.” So God takes us down a notch. Or a couple. Or the number of notches equivalent of 31,700 warriors. Gideon’s tiny army would have felt like dead men as they walked down to Midian’s encampment. There weren’t enough of them to win, and they didn’t even have weapons. But they’d heard the good news…God had already fought and won this battle! The bad news is tough to take: you can’t win this fight. But the good news is great: this fight has been won. We Christians know the Good News, that the victory is already won, but we all too often forget it. We forget, as we bloody our knuckles on that board, that Jesus hung on the cross and shouted, “It is finished!” Sin and death have been defeated; Christ’s righteousness has been given to you.

In God’s economy, the trophy is presented before the competition and the rose is given before the date. “Good job”–or “Well done, good and faithful servant”–is already written on our board. The pressure’s off; the victory is won. The victor, Jesus Christ, has given his victory to us.

The board is already broken. God’s love is never earned, and is always given.