“You better believe that Johnson is working harder than you are right now!” my wrestling coach shouted in my ear as I climbed the stairs with my 155-pound teammate on my back. “You earn everything you get in this sport!”
It was high school, my senior year. The heart of wrestling season.
I was getting an intense review on the lesson that every athlete learns.
Work = reward.
Earn your prize.
As an accomplished high school, and eventually, college athlete, I would learn and apply the laws of sowing and reaping to every sport. Put in, get a return. Up early, up late. In the gym. Embrace the grind. Driven to compete, I would endure the “blood, sweat, and tears” required to achieve and win.
Now that I’m a coach, I find the same stuff coming out of my mouth. “No pain, no gain!” I even spiritualize it in our faith-based wrestling club by having our kids memorize Proverbs 12:24, which says, “The diligent hands will rule.”
But here’s the thing. The kingdom of God doesn’t work like that. What works in sports doesn’t work as the operating principle in the Christian faith.
If you bring the “work = reward” mentality into the Christian faith, you destroy the essence of what it is.
Grace. Undeserved, unmerited favor.
Perhaps this is why so many athletes struggle to embrace and comprehend grace. We’re conditioned to achieve, perform, and accomplish. Then this scandalous gospel comes along and says, “For it is by grace you’ve been saved through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
It’s a gift, not a reward or payment. We can only believe and receive it, or what it is crumbles in our hands. For years I based my relationship with God on my performance, and in the end I found myself in a dark place of brokenness, disorientation, and depression. I might have walked away, had it not been for God’s faithfulness to preserve my smoldering wick.
It’s human nature to perform in every sphere: work, sports, academics, politics, farming, music, marketing, and the list goes on. But the gospel is scandalous and creates a paradox for the human soul—that we come with empty hands, helpless, with nothing but faith, and rest in the finished work of our Savior.
That Jesus carried the 155-pounds on his back up to Golgotha.
That it was Jesus’ blood sweat and tears that won the prize.
Here we begin to experience life, peace, joy, and confidence unlike anything this world has to offer.
Dead, man-made, ritualistic religion falls away in light of this grace, as we realize that we begin our day loved and accepted; we don’t end our day with it after striving in a spiritual gym.
Such rest is sweet. Such rest is life-giving. And yet it is so unnatural to our “work = reward” human natures, so hard to believe, so scandalous to our consciences, that we find a new place to strive—we strive to rest.
Here is our work. We strive to stay in the place of relying on grace; of depending on the finished work of Jesus on the cross to save us and keep saving us. We depend on it; we trust in it; we forsake all other hopes.
The standard by which God accepts us will never switch from Christ’s work to our work. And this is where the paradox deepens and widens. We might be tempted to think, “I entered by grace, now I will find what I must do.” But, troubled heart, it will never be about your doing. It will always be about Christ’s doing. Paul said, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). The grace that gave us the new birth will also give us the new life we need to live it out. Let us remain under grace and not go back to our old nature of being under law.
Here we rest. His work = my reward.