why watching basketball made me thankful of the cross
I love sports. I love basketball. I love watching the Los Angeles Lakers lose. And so, last night when they choked to the Dallas Mavericks to go down in the best of seven series 0-3, I was overjoyed. In fact, I was giddy. Very little in that moment could have made me happier than watching the Lakers team stomp off the court in disappointment.
But as I was getting ready to go to bed, I started thinking about my feelings of happiness. After all, all of our glorying is to be in the cross (Gal 6:14), right? What is happening when I glory in something other than the cross like a basketball game or my family or a good book or my job or a fun time with friends? Clearly it is not wrong to enjoy non-spiritual things in life – this defies both logic and the direct teaching of Scripture (Eccl. 5:18-20; 1 Tim. 6:17b). But what do these seemingly worldly pleasures have to do with the cross, from which all our glory is to come?
The answer, rooted in the gospel, is both simple and profound – without the cross, I can have no worldly pleasure. The cross, the gospel is what enables me to enjoy the world, for it satisfies and squelches those things in life that prevent true and lasting happiness and provides a joyful foundation upon which all other happiness can be built.
Of course, there is a very obvious objection here: non-Christians can enjoy things in life too, and if a non-Christian is able to experience happiness without the cross, doesn’t that mean that the cross really has nothing to do with it? The short answer to that question is: yes, a non-Christian can experience happiness, but this happiness is only because God originally created the world as a good place for man to enjoy. As a result, there is some enjoyment to be had, regardless of whether or not you’re a Christian, that is a natural byproduct of living in the world God created.
To put it another way, the world isn’t a bad/miserable place to live in that somehow becomes a good/enjoyable place only for Christians. On the contrary, the world is a good place created by a good God, but when sin came, it corrupted the world so that was once totally good is now good* [with an asterisk]. Sin didn’t eradicate life completely, but it made life, which was intended to be eternal, something that is temporary. Sin didn’t destroy pleasure, but it instituted pain as the default human experience, making pleasure difficult to find and transient. Sin didn’t destroy relationships, but it fraught them with frustration, pain, and heartache. Yes, there is still good and happiness in this world that any man can experience regardless of whether or not he is a Christian, but that good is fleeting, incomplete, and difficult to find and keep. Only the cross can neutralize the effects of sin and restore man’s soul to give him lasting joy and happiness.
But again, we must bring this back down to reality, to the practical realm, otherwise it is nothing but idle philosophy. So consider: if a stranger put a gun to your head and sat you in front of your favorite TV show or movie, how much would you be able to enjoy the show? Or if you were given an exquisite meal at a five star restaurant but had heard that some of their food had recently been found to have E. coli, how much would you enjoy the meal? Or if you were given a newly built beach house that was right in the path of a massive hurricane, how much would you be able to enjoy your new property?
There are two possible responses to these questions. On the one hand you may say, “There is a significant element of risk to all of those scenarios, but I would be able to put it in the back of mind and enjoy what I was given without worrying about the possibility of pain, suffering, or death.” Or you may say, “I would not be able to enjoy any of those scenarios because I would not be able to get over the fact that I have something much more significant and dangerous hanging over my head, threatening to replace my pleasure with instant pain or death.” Very few honest people, if any, would be able to give the first response. The vast majority of us – probably all of us – would have to agree with the latter of the two.
Whereas these scenarios of trying to be happy while your life is at risk might seem ridiculous, in reality the non-Christian faces something very similar everyday. There is certain pleasure to be found in entertainment, in food, in relationships, etc., but the pleasure will be lost in a heartbeat if only the stock market crashes or he has a stroke during the basketball game or chokes on his food at the restaurant or his loved one is permanently disabled in a car accident. He must spend his life protecting his assets from disaster and his health from decline, for if he loses any of the things in his life (or life itself), then he has nothing. He has no control over any freak accident that could suddenly bring his kingdom crashing down on his head, and he can only do his best to preserve what he has, enjoy the fleeting moments of pleasure those things bring, and try to ignore the inevitable great loss that he will suffer when he loses it all at death (or some sooner event). Life is a merciless ticking time bomb set to explode at the most inopportune time with no bias for anyone based on their race, sex, education, or wealth.
However, in addition to the inevitability of losing everything, there is yet one more problem that prevents the non-Christian from finding complete, lasting happiness: the afterlife. The best case scenario for him is that he views the afterlife as a big unknown over which he has very little control and for which he will have very little preparation prior to getting there. Maybe his loved ones will be there; maybe they won’t. Maybe there will be pain; maybe there won’t. Maybe he’ll be able to come and go as he pleases; maybe he won’t. The sheer enormity of possibilities is both staggering and terrifying. It’s like running off a cliff with your eyes closed, not knowing if the drop on the other side is a few inches or half a mile, overrun by ravenous wolves or harmless sheep, made of jagged rocks or filled with water. From a non-Christian perspective, that is the best scenario for the afterlife, and it’s fearful.
The worst case scenario is that he recognizes and/or fears that there is a final judgment in the afterlife and that there is a good possibility he will face hell for eternity. It’s a dreaded reality that he’s continually forced to shove into the back of his mind, hoping that it’s not true, trying to convince himself that maybe all those religions and churches and preachers and apostles got it wrong.
And so, here’s his predicament: he tries to enjoy life and find happiness all the while recognizing that in a second it could all be taken away from him, and that, after it is taken from him, it will be replaced with something unknown and uncontrollable – possibly an eternity of separation from all things good in hell. It really isn’t much of a stretch to compare it to trying to have fun while a loaded gun is pointed at your head or while standing in the path of a killer hurricane. There may be moments of happiness but these moments are built on a foundation of gloom and fear of the uncontrollable future, for no matter how much happiness you heap up, you can die at any moment, and when you do, you will not be able to bring with you the things from this life into the next. Death and loss may come at any moment.
This is where the cross comes in. As a Christian, the gospel teaches me that this world is not a random assortment of events that could turn on me at any moment, but that God has orchestrated a story of redemption from the very beginning and that my life is just a very small piece of that much greater work of salvation that God accomplished on the cross. It teaches me that, even though difficult circumstances may arise and I may suffer great loss, nothing can ever separate me from the love of God. It teaches me that because God has forgiven my sin and I’m not under wrath, I do not have to fear death or the coming judgment, for I will serve my Lord in heaven forever.
Yes, the cross working through the power of the gospel has liberated my soul to enjoy life, for I know that my future is in the hands of the loving God who sent His Son to save me! What then do I have to fear? Loss of possessions? No, because God is in control and has promised me a hundredfold in the next life. Death? No, because Christ has already conquered death and will raise my body from the grave to live eternally. The afterlife? No, because that simply means that I will be absent from this body of pain and present with my great Savior.
And so, as I watch a basketball game, eat good food, enjoy time with family, or do anything else that brings happiness, there is nothing to hold me back from enjoying those things supremely, because Christ on the cross has settled the score with heaven once and for all. My future, in Christ, is secure. I have no fear, no doubt, no dread in my mind, because to live is Christ and to die is gain. True and lasting love, joy, and peace is there for me to experience every day as I live knowing that Christ on the cross has saved my sinful soul eternally.