We find ourselves basking in the season of golf majors. We just watched the Masters (won by evangelical Bubba Watson), and U.S. Open (won by evangelical Webb Simpson), and in another couple of weeks, we'll get to enjoy the British Open (to be won by another evangelical?). We're getting to watch professional golfers at the top of their game hit perfect shot after perfect shot in the most challenging contests.
Except, if you talk to a PGA professional on tour after they've stepped off the 18th green with a score of, let's say, two-under-par 70, they'll tell you that they probably hit two shots exactly as they intended to hit them. Two out of seventy. Doesn't sound like they are very good. But they are the world's best. How can these things be?
Of course, having spent years honing their skills at hitting a golf ball, they have also learned, at a level you and I cannot comprehend, what it means to swing a golf club and hit a golf ball exactly as they intend and as the laws of physics demand in any given situation. What is also true is that even though they "fail" 68 out of 70 times, they aren't particularly discouraged. They recognize that this pattern of failure is more or less—excuse the pun—par for the course. This is the way, the truth, and the life of golf. And the sooner you come to grips with incessant failure, the more you can enjoy the game.
This rule of thumb roughly holds for amateurs, though our definition of perfect is more liberal, and more uninformed, than that of pros. Most amateurs will not hit more than three "decent" shots out of 100 in any given round. What's amazing is how little this discourages most of us. And how much we still believe that during the next round, we're probably going to hit somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of our shots the way we intend! And when we talk about our last game, we'll mostly talk about those three "perfect" shots.
This strikes me as a close approximation to the rhythms of sanctification. As readers of this column know, I'm pretty pessimistic when it comes to claims that we can be "radically transformed" by the gospel in this life. I believe most of the transformation language in the New Testament is spoken in hope; that is, it refers to our life with Christ at the end of history, when everything will be transformed, root and branch (see Philippians 3:21, for example). In the meantime, we muddle along mired in sin, but not without hope. We know that it is not our sin that defines us, but our forgiveness in Christ. That we sin over and over is not news, and it's no even longer even particularly bad news; it's just old news. The truly amazing thing—the good news—is that this old news does not define who we are, which is beloved of God despite our sin, forgiven in grace!
But, as some friends ask, what about all those verses that speak of "striving" to live a life worthy of the gospel (Rom. 15:30, 12 Cor. 14:12, etc.), of "putting on" virtues (Col. 3:12, etc.), and so on and so forth? Do not these ethical injunctions suggest we can make some real progress in this life? Do they not suggest we are called to do more than "muddle along," resting in grace? Otherwise, why bother? Why not just throw in the towel—or to go back to our golfing analogy, why not just walk off the course in the middle of the round?
"Why bother?" is the question at the heart of the matter. Here is where many of my friends are mistaken, if I may say so: We are not given ethical injunctions because we can in fact fulfill them. No, we are given ethical injunctions because they lay out the physics of the spiritual life, what is required to play the game of life. You can no more play the game of life without ethics than you can play the game of golf without learning the physics of the golf swing.