They were the crowd favourites, with a track record that other countries can only dream to attain, with more playmakers than other teams. Yet, the All Blacks, after two consecutive Rugby World Cup wins, lost in the semi-finals to England. It was a defeat no one could have foreseen. My hands covered my face during the relentless English phases against the AB and the slippery-finger syndrome that had befallen the all-star team. After the second half began, my hopes soared as new players, different playmakers took to the field and the speed of the All Blacks offense picked up.
When the full time whistle was blown, England had undoubtedly proven that they were the better team. The All Blacks were out of the running for the world cup, and the post-match interviews proved too difficult for me to watch so I went back to my room with sadness.
I mean, I don’t even watch sports regularly. I watch the Rugby World Cup (which happens once every four years), or maybe the Olympics. I most definitely watched the 100m butterfly swimming event in 2016 in support of national pride Joseph Schooling at 8am in the morning at Mcdonald’s after an overnight prayer session, shouting loudly and flailing my arms wildly to the disdain of customers desiring a quiet Saturday morning breakfast.
I was surprised I felt this much sadness (to be fair it wasn’t a lot, I’m over it now) when I had not actually invested much into the All Blacks. I mean, I made it a point to wear black on days they were playing in the quarter/semi-finals (which adds up to a total of two Saturdays). It wasn’t much of an effort either because the predominant colour of my clothing is black. I also once spent $100 on an All Blacks jumper in 2007, but that was more as a souvenir of my trip to NZ with my family than an act of a real All Blacks fan.
My point is, defeat is a natural phenomenon in our lives and is something we need to learn to deal with. It’s simple when the defeat is something inconsequential – as proven by my total lack of real investment in the All Blacks.
But there are some defeats in life that can really rock our entire foundations.
Some defeats make us question our existence and worth. They make us doubt our abilities and gifts. They can even cause us to question God’s goodness.
I don’t know about you but there’s sometimes an undercurrent, a sense that I work hard in life so I don’t lose. However you want to use that verb phrase, I don’t want to lose out to, lose to, or just lose anything. I work hard at my job sometimes so I don’t lose my sense of worth. I studied hard at school and university so I didn’t lose out to my classmates. I exercised hard (used to anyway) so I didn’t lose my fitness, or lose to the new girl who just joined the gym.
Of course I don’t do everything just so I don’t lose, because I don’t see everything as a competition. Yet it can so easily become an unconscious reality in our ‘kiasu’ & ‘kiasi’ culture.
But not all defeats are bad. In fact, as those who have been set free from slavery to the world through Christ, defeats often bring us to the valley where God can speak to us.
It is necessary to deal with our defeats. Otherwise, the disappointment can become bitterness and resentment, and rock our foundations in the wrong way, leading us to draw negative conclusions and forget the character of God and our worth in Him. While the generic approach to defeat and disappointment is a ‘just toughen up’ mentality, before getting to that point of standing up again, we need to process the disappointment.
I turn to a very prominent passage of defeat in the bible in 1 Kings 19. Elijah experienced a season of defeat after a supernatural victory over the prophets of Baal. In the chapter before, Elijah faced off with the prophets of Baal, challenging them to a battle to prove whose god was true . The false prophets called down fire but nothing happened to the sacrifice. Elijah, in quite a dramatic set up (including pouring water over the wood for effect), called down the fire of God to burn up the sacrifices. And He did. Everyone who watched fell on their faces. Elijah victoriously demonstrated who the real God of Israel was. Every false prophet of Baal that day was seized and slaughtered.
But in a turn of events, Jezebel wanted revenge and demanded for Elijah’s life and he fled in defeat.
Defeat exposes the wrong foundations we have built upon.
Sometimes in the eagerness to achieve a goal (even God-given ones), we may lose sight of the Creator and His larger plan for His kingdom. We begin to build on false foundations of self-worth and achievement.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
1 Kings 19:4
Elijah, at this moment, had despaired because he felt he had failed. He believed that he would lose his life, and like his fathers and other prophets before him, be killed and fail to turn the people of God back to their Redeemer.
Elijah, under the threat of death, suffered a huge defeat after an astounding supernatural breakthrough in the chapter just before. Elijah lost sight of the powerful God he had just shown so many was the one true God.
And who would blame him? His mountaintop success became a threat to his very life. He bent under the pressure and his spirit was defeated.
Defeat can show us the wrong foundations we have built our lives upon. Certain fundamental beliefs through which we had operated innately and out of habit. Perhaps it is the belief that we have to earn our worth through achievements, or that God is a judgemental god, or that I am unworthy of God’s love, or I am only loved if I am useful.
What are some wrong foundations you have built your dreams upon? What is God revealing to you about certain beliefs you have? What is He showing you about the way you are responding to defeat?
Defeat helps us hear God.
The shame and disappointment of defeat bring us to a place where we are looking for answers, desperate for God, helpless in our circumstances. It is deeply humbling to go through defeat, but sometimes in my brash reckless prideful nature, it’s the only way that God can break through and make me stop and hear him.
There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
2 Kings 19: 11-14
Elijah fled to the wilderness. The wilderness in the Bible is often a place where God moulds and grows and disciplines his people. The Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years because of their disobedience. In Hosea, the imagery of the wilderness is a place where God draws His people in so that they might grow in intimacy with Him. Jesus began his ministry in the wilderness.
The life of a believer often involves seasons of the wilderness, yet I often find myself doing all I can to avoid it. I love seasons of obvious fruitfulness and growth and conquest. But the seasons of wilderness, desert and seeming barrenness often throw my faith into disarray and confusion.
Defeat does that. It pushes us into the wilderness. It forces us into the cave that Elijah hid in, and brings us to our knees in humility to hear and see God.
In this dramatic unfolding of God’s glory and power, the wind, the earthquake, the fire, God revealed to Elijah that He is not just in the spectacular, He is in the stillness, smallness and quiet too. He speaks softly, to draw us closer to Him. Elijah, upon hearing the still voice of God, is drawn out of the cave, into the presence of God.
I find that as humans, we love the dramatic. The spectacle. The big stuff that God does. I mean, just assign your own meaning to the metaphors of ‘wind, earthquake & fire’ (not to be confused with the band Earth, Wind, Fire). Maybe it’s that miraculous sudden gangster turned pastor, or the salvation of your entire family, or the unprecedented favour to shape and disciple a social issue through your company.
But the small, still, quiet, gentle moments of God’s pursuit of us that occur through the difficult times are more difficult to pay attention to. I ask “God, why isn’t there breakthrough?” but God says to me “Hi love, I’m here waiting to speak to you in the secret place”.
When Elijah stands in the stillness of God’s presence, he hears God clearly. He receives new direction, clarity of what God wants. He is now aligned again with God’s plans for him.
Perhaps in the wilderness and valleys of defeat, we can hear God’s heart for us again. His love for His people, His plans for the salvation of man, His beautiful heart that endlessly pursues His people.
Defeat reminds us of God’s grace
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.
1 Kings 19: 4 – 8
Tim Keller preached about this passage, and pointed out the lovingkindness of God in Elijah’s despair. God did not jump in and ask Elijah “What are you doing here?!” first. He sent an angel to take care of Elijah. God saw Elijah’s brokenness, and His first response was to satisfy his physical needs for food and water. To provide him strength.
In some strange warped christian way, we flagellate ourselves (not literally, of course. I hope.) when we encounter defeat or failure. We force ourselves into odd ‘self-discipline’ routines like reading the bible more, or throwing ourselves into some other christian ministry even more, working tirelessly. All in an attempt to deal with the defeat.
Yet, God’s response to us isn’t condemnation. It’s grace.
He sees our despair, our disappointment, our self-criticism. And He, first and foremost, wants to meet us with His grace.
Yes, the defeat could be because we got so caught up with achieving something that we forgot God. But that’s not deserving of punishment. Discipline yes, but God has the perfect solution for that. And that is pouring out His love and grace on you.
So if you feel defeated, don’t beat yourself up over it. Don’t starve yourself, or deny yourself happiness. God loves you, and He has more grace for you than you have for yourself. Take some time out, go on a short retreat to pray and seek God. Care for yourself.
As a community we can also love those who are feeling defeated. As Singaporeans we are so good at feeding people, we can literally be angels in disguise in the way we love others when they are feeling defeated. Not jumping in with the christianese criticism of ‘you shouldn’t have done that’, or ‘orh hor why you sin again?’
Jesus himself faced defeat. As He hung on the cross, chest heaving from asphyxiation, each breath excruciating as his wounds are dragged upon the rough wood of the cross and his entire weight pivoted on the nails in his bones. People mocked him, ‘Save yourself’, and He couldn’t.
Not when defeat could bring eternal victory over sin and grave. Not when defeat could bring freedom to those enslaved to the world. Not when defeat could completely and utterly fulfil what He wanted in the first place. To be in communion with His people without the barrier of sin.
Defeat, in this life, is not the final verdict. It does not define our existence or our worth. It points us to the ultimate victory we have in Christ. He has won the victory, death is defeated, we are children of God, co-heirs with Christ. We are set free from slavery to sin, and new creations through the cross.
What are defeats in this life except God’s grace, to remind us of the real battle. The real fight. The fight that has already been won.
What freedom we have when we receive this! If today you are suffering a humiliating defeat, or that you still feel like you are living under the banner of defeat, I pray that you will allow God to work in you, to let Him uncover the wrong foundations we have built our lives on. He will speak with us and draw us close to Him. And most importantly, I pray that you will receive the freedom that comes from believing that the victory has already been won. The ultimate battle has already been won.
“If I was going to make Betsy happy, I’d have to trust that my flaws were the ways through which I would receive grace. We don’t think of our flaws as the glue that binds us to the people we love, but they are. Grace only sticks to our imperfections. Those who can’t accept their imperfections can’t accept grace either.”
Donald Miller, ‘Scary Close’