Triumphs of the Human Spirit

My wife and I watched a wonderful movie tonight, The Greatest Game Ever Played. We are both suckers for a movie about an underdog who makes good, especially when it is true story. This movie, whose climax happens in 1913, tells the unlikely story of Francis Ouimet, a former caddy at the country club located across the street (what today we would call across the tracks) from his working-class home, who wins the 1913 U. S. Open at that very golf course.

The story revolves around the class distinctions that embroiled golf just after the turn of the century. The sport was tenaciously trying to hold on to its tradition as a game reserved for well-bred gentlemen, despite becoming upset by the rise of successful professional golfers, many of whom like Harry Vardon, the greatest English champion ever (won six British opens), came from working class roots.

Vardon and a strong English contingent come over to take the US Open cup back to England, another trophy for Rule, Britannia. The USGA president, in an effort to add some local amateur color to the tournament, offers the 20-year-old Francis Ouimet a chance to play. After not playing golf for almost two years, despite being a former state amateur champion, he takes up his clubs 10 days before the tournament in an effort to compete. As unlikely as it might seem, he won, defeating his idol Vardon in an 18 hole playoff and the modern era of golf was born. From this event forward, anyone could compete and become a champion. No one would be prevented from competing because of their station in life. Both Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet were from poor working-class families and at this point in the history of the links represented the best golfers on both sides of the Atlantic.

These are the kind of stories that are often labeled as “triumphs of the human spirit” and other similar aphorisms that celebrate becoming the very best you can be at something, prevailing against tremendous, and often unfair, odds. I enjoy these types of stories, but as uplifting as they can be, they are a type of insidious trap. They celebrate the individual who rises on their essential worth, often well-deserved value born out of talent and hard work. The problem is, all of this triumph, all of this well-deserved success will get you nowhere when it comes to the Kingdom of God.

These overcomers are the “good” people that make so many believe that they deserve a break from God in the heavenly sweepstakes. History celebrates heroes. Biblical history even has the epitome of heroes, the shepherd boy David, who kills Goliath and becomes King of Israel. What is often forgotten, however, in David’s story is that Samuel, directed by God, chose him before he became a hero for Israel to rally around. It was not David’s heroism that resulted in his choice but his choice that resulted in his heroism.

So, we walk a fine line. We strive for excellence, to do justice to the gifts God has given us–not burying them, but investing our effort to bring them to fruition. However, in doing that, we cannot forget the starting point, midpoint, and end point is God, not us. He is the potter; we are the clay. We work out with utmost effort our salvation because it is God who is at work in us, bringing all things in conformity with his will.

This really sticks in the craw of the secularists and the legions of works religionists. They do not want to share their triumphs, their successes or have them diminished in the eternal scale of significance. Yet it matters not one wit to God whether or not I have triumphed up the mountains of life, unless those mountains are the spiritual battles used by him to mold my soul. Believe me, I am happy when good men come to God, but at the point of our new birth, the old passes away and we bring nothing forward into the kingdom.

So while I can enjoy and celebrate the triumph in a story like The Greatest Game Ever Played, I must keep it in its proper perspective. It shows the common grace of God that enlightens every man that comes into the world, that makes him strive for the good, the best, the noble in what he does. That I can celebrate and thank God for.