Magic Johnson’s Smile, John Calvin’s Selfless Christian Life, and God’s Grace

During the NBA season, you’ll see an extremely chipper analyst on ESPN: Earvin “Magic” Johnson. […]

Matt Patrick / 10.9.13


During the NBA season, you’ll see an extremely chipper analyst on ESPN: Earvin “Magic” Johnson. I’ve always had a great respect for Magic, not only for the way in which he played the sport he loves, but for the ways in which he has spoken about those he loves. I still remember watching old–and incredible–VHS tapes like NBA Superstars and Michael Jordan’s Playground and seeing Magic contagiously smile as he described just how great Michael Jordan was. It seems as though Magic’s first inclination has always been to point out the good of those around him, be it his contemporaries like Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas or the stars of today like LeBron James or Derrick Rose. Here’s a wonderful quote (from a wonderful book on the history of pro basketball) describing Magic’s selflessness on the court, which can certainly be said for his his rhetoric off the court:

But what elevated Magic beyond even superstardom was the way his personality showed itself in his play. Magic’s near-permanent smile underscored the genuine delight he felt when a teammate scored off one of his passes..

A few weeks ago, I was skimming through John Calvin‘s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and came upon a passage that made me react the same way I did watching those old tapes when I was a kid. In section 7 of book 3, Calvin describes what he believed the Christian life is: a life marked by “self-denial” (and not in the medieval sense of that word). Calvin exhorts Christians to be charitable, generous and selfless–a life that is first and foremost concerned with the benefit of others. One quote most succinctly and adequately expresses Calvin’s thesis:

We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours.

Calvin’s words–affirming the idea that a Christian’s life should be self-giving and self-denying–and Magic’s chipper, selfless words run contrary to our natural inclinations. Naval gazing and self-justification are just a few phrases we’ve used to describe some of the proclivities that make up the human situation. I think my initial push back against Calvin was a result of how far-fetched his words seem on the surface, similar to the Apostle Paul or any other biblical writer who gave such exhortations. Or maybe my anthropology is just too low. Nevertheless, my reaction is often “Are you serious?” As is anyone’s whose fallen flat on their face or has been wronged by someone they care about, or is the least bit self-reflective. Indeed, if were honest, we’ll admit that our inner-dispositions aren’t exactly a place in which charity/generosity is found. This notion of thinking and living outwardly, as opposed to naval-gazing is altogether foreign–at least on the surface. There are many factors that weigh into why a selfless life is simply uninteresting and/or too risky. We don’t want to talk interact with our boss anymore than we have to, and we will absolutely be taking the stairs instead of the elevator with the socially awkward co-worker.

Magic has always loved to celebrate with others, no matter who it is. It could have been his teammates, rival team, or the up-and-coming talent. If they played well, Magic celebrated the talent to which he witnessed. Perhaps Magic’s endorsement of Michael Jordan is most ironic. After all, Jordan was known as the player to whom everyone knew would take Magic and Bird’s place as the best player in the NBA. This (amazing) video captures Magic’s absolute giddiness when it came to Michael Jordan and his greatness:


So why say all of this? As I’ve said, both Magic’s demeanor and Calvin’s Christian life contrast humanity’s natural tendencies. But God’s grace makes sense of Magic and Calvin. Someone whom unconditional love has touched can’t get over it. Think of Jean Valjean in Les MiserablesValjean’s selfless life isn’t beautiful because it’s an example as to how one should live, necessarily. Valjean’s appeal is directly linked to the grace by which he was captivated.

Take the elevator with Mr. Awkward at work? Sure, why not?