“Thank God that God loves Cleveland, Ohio.”
So said the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, when interviewed after his Cavaliers won the NBA championship.
I found myself wondering: Does that mean God does not love the city of Oakland, where the Golden State Warriors play?
Make no mistake, I do believe every good gift comes from above. There certainly is nothing wrong with thanking God for his many blessings. We can’t do that enough.
But is God ever “for” one team or its fans over another? Did God care who won the NBA championship?
Was the Cavaliers’ victory proof of God’s love for Cleveland? If it was, what about the last 52 years, during which the city went without a championship for any of its professional teams? Did Cleveland not have assurance of God’s love all those years?
The answers are obvious, but none speaks to the real issue: Why can’t I remember hearing an athlete or team owner give glory to God after a loss? Why is it we never hear, “I’d like to thank God for letting us lose. He’s got an important plan for our lives, and I look forward to learning what that is, even in defeat”?
Can God be given credit only when things go right? Does he not speak to the wrong? If not, can he have anything significant to say about the important things in our lives?
Those are important questions, because so much of our lives are full of suffering and sorrow, dare I say defeat. If God doesn’t speak to us in defeat, then he certainly doesn’t have anything to say to us in victory.
What good is it if he’s with us only when we’re up? If he can’t help us with the all-too-real times of sorrow, then God is nothing more than make-believe.
But God is real. The comfort he gives in his son, Jesus Christ, is real too. It’s the kind of comfort that enabled Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, to confidently pray, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59), even as he was being stoned to death.
The comfort of Jesus enabled St. Paul to accept hardship, and often defeat, not freeing him from his “thorn in the flesh” but leading him to say instead, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Jesus Christ enabled early Christians to stand tall in confession of him as Lord, even though that meant, in many cases, their death. The death of Jesus himself, together with his resurrection, changed the course of the world forever.
Yes, Jesus is the Lord of life. He didn’t stay dead, but rose again so all who believe in Him would rise to live forever on the day He comes again in glory. But that new life of resurrection involved Jesus’ first dying on a cross. The way of Jesus was through a cross, not around it. The way of those who follow Him is the same.
The way of those who follow Jesus Christ is the way of contrition and forgiveness. It’s the way of repentantly struggling with sin and, by faith in the crucified One, receiving freedom from it. St. Paul writes, “I am determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
The way of those who follow Jesus is the way of the cross, and the cross teaches that it’s as much in defeat as in victory that we see God’s blessing.
So the next time you hear an athlete give glory to God, be sure to give glory to God with them. But as you do, remember God is just as present with you in defeat as in victory. You can be assured of God’s love not only when you win, but also when you lose.
Or to tweak the sentiment expressed by Cleveland’s Gilbert: Thank God that, in his Son, God loves us all, win or lose.
The Rev. William Daniel O’Connor is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Greenfield. This
weekly column is written by local clergy members.