As I watched the national championship game last night, I found myself watching a tale of two halves. In the first half the Kentucky Wildcats were playing to win; they were loose, fast-paced, and decisive. In the second half they were playing not to lose; they were tight, indecisive, and struggled to prevail. It is often times the case that the team that plays with the goal of not losing winds up with exactly the outcome they sought to avoid. This happens because playing in this way is playing out of fear; it is the fear of a negative outcome instead of the desire for a positive one.
Spiritually speaking, the same lesson is applicable. There is a vast difference between an individual who is living life to get to Heaven and one who is living so as not to go to Hell. The individual who lives trying not to go to Hell often finds himself depressed, in constant worry, and many times fitting Jesus’ description of “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (Mat. 23:24 – ESV). For that person, the Christian life is not a joy, it is a burden; not something that he wants to do, but something he feels he has to do. Similarly, like the team that plays not to lose often does, the person who lives not to go to hell often winds up being lost. Many times they give up and quit their pursuit of the Christian life because it is considered too hard, tiresome, and intimidating. There is the feeling that no matter what is done, it will never be enough. The fear and depression overwhelm and eventually the fearful party succumbs to his fear and falls away.
Thankfully, life does not have to be that way. Instead of living our lives as if we have so much to lose, the Bible teaches the importance of living a life that recognizes we have so much to gain. The Scriptures emphasize the perspective of working to obtain the eternal reward of Heaven and on many occasions equates it to athletic pursuits. Consider Paul’s words: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible” (1 Cor. 9:24-25). He would also write, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phi. 3:13-14). At the conclusion of his life he wrote to his son in the faith, Timothy, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
How are we living our lives as Christians: as those who are running scared to stay out of hell, or as those who are running with the purpose and desire of receiving Heaven as the prize? Though both groups may be running the same race and heading the same direction, they are not equal paths emotionally, physically, or psychologically. There is a reason the New Testament focuses far more on what we have to gain with obedience to Christ than it does what we have to lose without it. The impact of positive assertion and reinforcement in our ability to live the Christian life is enormous.
Play to win.