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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.
And no matter how long or how hard you play the game of life, you are going to be successful only three out of a hundred times at executing it well. But still, every time you step up to the ball of life, you're going to strive to make the perfect golf swing—strong grip, slow back swing, right position at the top, release with the hips, accelerate after impact, finish high (and a thousand details in between, like how your waist is bent, your swing plane unbroken, your hands releasing at the right moment, and so on). You know rationally it's not likely to happen perfectly, but you hope against hope. And when it happens, you are elated—which, in addition to forgiveness, is another gift of grace, albeit more intermittent. But alas, you will most likely fail in one way or another, and may curse (yes, even if you are a Christian). But as you walk toward your ball down the fairway, within a couple of steps you are already imagining how you're going to hit the next shot perfectly.
We are in the bad habit of thinking that ethics is a REAL SERIOUS BUSINESS, that our welfare and the welfare of the world depend on its proper execution. Not quite. The gospel is the end of ethics in this sense. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. The welfare of the world is a settled issue. Someone has already won the Masters. The key question for believers is not "What are you going to do to earn God's blessing, or to attain a good life, or to thank God for all he has done for you, or to make the world a better place?" No, it's "What are you going to do now that you don't have to do anything?"
The wonderful thing about the gospel is that it takes ethics away as duty and gives it back as joy—precisely because we don't have to do it anymore but get to do it in freedom. We golfers don't look forward to spending four or five hours on a course hoping that, if we play perfectly, we'll finally enjoy ourselves. No, we step onto the course with a sense of joy because we already love the game, even though we're going to fail 97 out of a hundred times over the next few hours! Similarly, we don't try to live the perfect life because, once we do, then we'll be able to relax and enjoy life. No, it's because we now can relax and enjoy life—thanks to grace—that we try to live the perfect life. Ethics is the golf swing of life.
Some say, "But look at those professionals, who really do improve, and beat par all the time." And I say, talk to those professionals and ask any one of them if they are satisfied with their game. You're likely to hear the golfer version of "I am the foremost of sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15). Yes, there are Christians who appear to have mastered the game of ethics, but talk to them, I dare you, and ask them how they see things. And what they'll say is not only "I am the greatest of sinners," but also "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Phil. 3:12, ESV).
For "world-class Christians" see the perfect holiness of God—and therefore the perfect image into which we are called to live—and they see it more clearly than we mere "amateurs" can imagine. They recognize that even though they may be able to play ethics at a world-class level, they don't for a minute mistake that for an accomplishment they can bask in. There is always something to fine-tune, and it is the fine tuning that is all the fun.
The game of life is not about some relative idea of perfection, but about unattainable perfection, transcendent perfection, absolute perfection—and that's what makes it so infuriating and fascinating and addicting. We take Jesus' statement literally that we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, and we know, rationally speaking, that we will never even come close. And yet we cannot think of any better way to spend our days on this planet than to roam the beautiful fairways of life, trying to play the game as the designer intended it to be played, in freedom and joy.
Mark Galli is—in order of importance—an amateur golfer and senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is also the author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Power of the Holy Spirit (Baker).