Underdogs, Upsets, and Undeserved Grace

Sometimes the slow win the race

Guest Contributor / 3.22.22

This article is by Chris Wachter:

One of the reasons many of us love sports is the surprise when the best team doesn’t come out on top. Everyone loves a good underdog story, but what we often don’t think about is how it runs counterintuitive to our effort-based understanding of human achievement. Usually, you get out what you put in: the harder you train, the more you earn your victory. As the Olympics slogan goes: citius, altius, fortius — swifter, higher, stronger! But, what if the tortoise beats the hare?

And even if the fastest wins the race, the reason for their victory is, well, complicated. I was recently watching Tiger Woods’ hall of fame induction speech and you could tell he struggled to clearly articulate how much of his success was due to his mother and father’s sacrifice and how much was due to his hard work. Between truisms about working more than everyone else and earning your way in this world, Woods fought off tears describing how much had been given to him by his parents. Malcolm Gladwell observes this phenomena in his book Outliers:

People don’t rise from nothing. We owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.

Success has many layers, and many inconsistencies. More is given (versus earned) than we sometimes like to admit.

In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, an old King Solomon seeks to disseminate all of this. He says: “I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent … There once was a city with a poor but wise man who in his wisdom saved the city from a powerful king who came against it.”

Ecclesiastes is more interested in how we relate to God than athletic competitions, but it isn’t disinterested in the latter either. Instead, it leads us to ask: what do these upsets and surprises teach us about spiritual truth – about reality itself? Solomon shows us in proverbial form the principle of being saved by something outside of us rather than a strength that gets pushed out from within. If we were made right before God by our hard work then we would expect to see that idea reflected in the world by the strongest always winning. But, we don’t. So there must be something else — other than karma, hard work, and tit-for-tat spirituality — that rules the universe.

As we approach the New Testament, we see that churches are, by God’s design, communities of impoverished losers to show that something other than our prowess must be the ultimate determiner of who is reconciled with God, namely the love and grace of Jesus Christ. In the end, it’s his nail-pierced hands that matter, not our calloused hands. In fact, that’s the final twist here. Jesus in his de facto “slowness” won the greatest race of all time. He’s the man in Ecclesiastes who in his cruciform poverty saved the town from the onslaught of the enemy. By his stripes we are healed.

Maybe this is truly why we all love watching a 15 seed beat a 2 seed (unless our team loses!), because whether we realize it or not we are cheering for the gospel. Though the law says “work harder or you’re out!”, grace upsets the score and tells us the last will be first. To use Gladwell’s term, it is the “hidden advantage” that we owe everything to, so that no one may boast in themselves, but that all might boast in the Lord.

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