“You can’t stop us.”
The now famous Nike ad stirred more than its share of controversy when it arrived on the scene last summer. It has been viewed over 59 million times on YouTube and has appeared in news outlets, online classroom materials, and practically everywhere in between. Dropping well into the pandemic and in the midst of socio-political upheaval, the ad paired stunning cinematography with a swelling soundtrack to offer one message loudly and clearly: we will overcome.
It’s a common theme among athletes and the sports industry. We would expect nothing less from a company named after the Greek goddess of victory. Who wouldn’t want to be declared the winner and be crowned with a laurel wreath? Most athletes will tell you that in order to win, you have to have more than physical strength. You have to have a winner’s mindset that perseveres no matter what, that rises to every challenge, and that comes back stronger after every setback. Winners are overcomers, and those who overcome will certainly win in the end.
Perhaps you’ve heard this mentality applied to the life of a believer. We recently completed another Lent, the forty days of quiet contemplation leading up to Easter. If you’re like me, it’s far too easy to view Lent as the good Christian life on steroids, a spiritual training camp one must conquer in order to be drafted into God’s army. Perhaps this mindset contributes to the inevitable melancholy that descends soon after the majesty of Easter morning, or, in some cases, pervades us all during one season or another. If I can just try a little harder, do a little better, I’ll get through the valley and make it to the top of the mountain in time to see a glorious sunrise.
If that’s the case, I certainly failed at Lent this year.
Typically it’s my favorite season of the church year. From Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, I long for the opportunity to reflect, meditate, and grapple with the weight of my Savior’s passion. The rhythmic, slower pace weaves a mystic melancholy of minor keys and quieter hymns, muted colors and evening prayers. If Advent is the expectation of joy, Lent is the examination of the price paid to receive it. Typically, I long for Lent more than I long for Advent, craving the slow burn of traditional Lenten disciplines. I look forward to fasting, adding new devotionals, and digging deeper into Scripture, relishing the opportunity to experience another round of gritty spiritual boot camp.
This year was different.
I suppose I could blame the pandemic or personal upheaval, but the truth is I didn’t have any blinding spiritual moments during these past 40 days. I didn’t get through the Lent devotional I was so excited to start. I’m miserably behind on my Scripture reading goals. My “Lenten resolutions” of complaining less and striving to reflect Christ-like love in certain challenging life situations were all royal busts. I didn’t reach Easter and feel I had grown in my walk with Christ, that I at last had reached the next level of being a believer. In short, if Lent is spring training for Christians, I should definitely be kicked off the team. I don’t think I could even qualify to be a benchwarmer this year.
Apparently I can be overcome, and no amount of inspirational film clips, spiritual resolutions, or good old fashioned grit can embolden me to become worthy of being on God’s team.
The thing is, we’re not drafted into God’s army based on our personal performance or potential. We are grafted into his kingdom based upon the overcoming power of God’s grace to us in Christ Jesus.
John 16 records many of the final words Jesus said to his disciples on Maundy Thursday. It also contains a well-loved verse: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). It’s a beautiful verse. It’s also one we almost always take out of context. We tend to view this verse as speaking only of tribulation from outside influences, imaging ourselves to be the innocent children who are mercilessly tossed into a cruel world instead of the bumbling, selfish, bewildered people we are.
The preceding verses reveal the disciples’ ignorance of what is to come (18), then the disciples’ well-meaning but arrogant-tinged “Oh, I got it now, Jesus! We’re totally on board,” (29-30), and then Jesus’ response, “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone” (32). In other words, this is no pep talk before the big game. This isn’t an affirmation that the disciples are perfect just the way they are, or that with a little bit more effort, they can be good enough to overcome anything.
Our own weaknesses and yes, our pathetic attempts at virtue-signaling betray that we are just like these disciples. Am I confessing my weaknesses in this article in order to relate experiences, or am I craving attention as a “true” and “relatable” Christian? Do we focus so much on not focusing on ourselves that we focus on ourselves even more when we stew over past sins? Don’t we, like the disciples, proudly respond to the proclamation of the gospel with “Yep, we got it, Jesus,” only to turn the message of the cross into something that fits our agenda and social aspirations?
We would expect Jesus to say to his disciples—and to us—that we’re just not cut out for the rigorous demands of being his followers. Maybe if we train a little harder and come back in a year or two, there’ll be an opening for us on his team. Until then, keep at it, sport, and remember that if you dig deep enough, you can be an overcomer, too!
Instead, Jesus proclaims to his disciples—and to us—the pure gospel, good news untinged by the law of “you must do better to be an overcomer.” While he recognizes their—our—earthly weaknesses, he bases none of the salvific power of his sacrifice upon them. Jesus simply says, “I have overcome the world.”
This word “overcome” comes from the word nike, meaning a conquest or a victory. Unlike the Greek goddess of Victory, the Savior of the Nations comes not to declare the winner of the athletic competition, but to be the victor of the battle against sin, death, and hell. He does this not to win a wreath of laurels but to willingly bear a crown of thorns so that he can bestow upon us the crown of eternal life. The cross is not some mystic metaphor for the change we must undergo before our self-realization, but the earth-shattering event that changed the course of eternity. The entire weight of the world’s sin, every evil action, misplaced thought, or selfish ambition, was placed upon Jesus Christ. The result was not a broken wing on a Grecian statue but the broken body of the Son of God.
If you want to see what victory looks like, look to the cross.
If you want to see the weight of your sin, look to the cross.
And if you want to see the sin that your father in heaven now sees when he looks at you, look to the empty tomb. For there the dead body of the Son of God was laid, and from there he rose three days later. Your sin is gone, your guilt removed. As the flood waters overcame the earth and brought death, so the blood of Christ shed on Calvary brings death to your sin and life to your soul. Because he lives, because he overcame, we too, will live forever.
Praise be to God that because death couldn’t stop Jesus we are certain that it can’t stop us. We who were overcome by a tree in the Garden of Eden as our first parents sinned are also overcome by the tree of the cross. Because Jesus has overcome the world, the devil, and our own sinful nature, we can be confident that the words of Revelation 2:7 are speaking to us: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God” (NKJV).