I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.
2 Timothy 4.6-8
Winners and Losers
For most Christians, today marks the last Sunday in Ordinary Time before Lent. For the film industry, however, it’s the most extraordinary Sunday of all—the day when awards season culminates with the Oscars. While the rest of us prepare for worship, in Los Angeles people are preoccupied with the moment when someone cracks open an envelope and says, “And the winner is…” Actually, these days, they say, “And the Oscar goes to…”—a weak stab at political correctness suggesting it’s improper to label non-winning nominees “losers,” as if La-La Land were a sandbox full of easily offended children, which it probably is. But when Monday morning rolls around, the chatter will be about winners and losers. Some careers will surge to new heights. Others will be left hoping their day will come.
Casual Oscar observers take consolation its quest for the best is confounded by popularity, sentimentality, and campaign ads. For example, this year’s finest performance in any category comes from Richard Jenkins in The Visitor, an unforgettable yet little-seen deportation drama that shouldn’t be missed. He won’t win. In all likelihood, Mickey Rourke’s comeback stint in The Wrestler or Sean Penn’s “courageous” impersonation of gay activist Harvey Milk will carry the day. Both are notable, but neither is “the best,” again indicating how superfluous factors slant the Academy’s judgment. In 2 Timothy, Paul writes of another awards ceremony. This competition has no casual observers. Its Judge is immune to factors beyond actual performance. He has no sentimental favorites. We’re all nominated. And Paul succinctly lays out criteria to ensure each of us will win when our day comes.
Fighting, Finishing, and Faith
While scholars dispute the authorship of 2 Timothy—which, along with 1 Timothy and Titus (collectively, “the pastoral epistles”), didn’t surface until the second century—those attributing it to Paul believe he wrote it during his final Roman imprisonment. The letter reads as a valedictory, a personal farewell to his most devoted colleague. Either facing execution or banishment to Spain (these details are also fuzzy), Paul assures Timothy he’s at peace with his fate. “The time has come for my departure,” he says (2 Timothy 4.6), going on to reflect, “I’ve fought the good fight, I’ve finished the race, and I’ve kept the faith.” Whether or not Paul wrote these lines, they ring true for a believer whose long journey with Christ ends with a frank distillation of where following Jesus finally leads.
Paul’s character flaws readily secure his title as the least likable apostle. He’s combative, impetuous, tactless, closed-minded, dismissive, self-confident, condescending, and shamefully chauvinistic. More than anything, he’s fiercely competitive. He shoves his way to the top ranks of leadership and mows down opposition to his apostolic claim without having known Jesus in the flesh as a technicality. Yet Paul’s one-sentence autobiography reveals he’s ultimately convinced it’s not about winning or losing, but fighting and finishing. He says he’s fought “the good fight,” staying true to Christ’s teaching and example, outlasting inner struggles and outer adversity. And he never gave up, despite doubt, fatigue, missteps, pitfalls, and setbacks on the way. Most important, it’s about faith—holding to unnatural hope in defiance of naturally logical contradictions. In honor of his performance, Paul expects to receive a “crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.”
As people of faith, we emulate Paul by setting our sights beyond winning or losing momentary skirmishes and sprints. Confrontations enticing us to prove we’re right—especially those challenging our right to follow Jesus—are “bad fights” we must resist. We have nothing to prove, because we’re driven by beliefs and values we can’t logically explain or defend. We fight “the good fight.” There’s no need to enter races fraudulently offering God’s acceptance at the finish. Christ won God’s love and mercy for us on Calvary. Why waste energy trying to qualify for a prize we already possess? We don’t worry about winning the race. We finish it.
All contests—from Oscars to religious debates—are subject to superfluous factors. Ecclesiastes 9.11 says, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” Consequently, like Paul, we fight and finish in hope of “that day,” when God, our eternally just and wise Judge, will reward our belief. We keep the faith. That alone decides if we win in the end. Hebrews 11.6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” As we fight to the finish, we put our trust in two things. God is and God rewards. If we believe that, we can’t possibly lose.
While Oscar nominees sit on pins and needles as someone opens an envelope, we fight the good fight and finish the race with confidence our performance will be justly rewarded.
(Tomorrow: Better Than Sacrifice)