Are You a Good Loser?
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But
I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may
be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the
good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
--Matthew 5:42-44 NRSV
In the Peeples’ household, my wife and I have taught our sons from a young age to be a good sport when they lose a game. After board games, tossing bean bags in cornhole games and countless hours of video games, we have insisted our sons shake hands. The winner must tell the loser “good game” and the loser must tell the winner “congratulations.” In that simple exchange, our hope is that these two brothers might remember there are things greater at stake than who won or lost a game—their own integrity and their relationship.
I can remember a decade ago when then KC Chiefs head coach Todd Haley refused to shake the hand of then Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels after the Broncos utterly destroyed the Chiefs by a score of 49-29. My sons who were 7 and 4 at the time pointed at the screen and were horrified an adult—coach of their favorite team no less—refused to shake hands as they had been taught to do. Haley was not known for his self-control, and in his defense it was Josh McDaniels who was on staff with the Patriots before and after this event. Haley made a general apology to the media the next day and said if he had it to do over, he would shake McDaniels’ hand. I have no idea if he ever apologized to McDaniels in person. It was a teaching moment for my sons that they still remember. How one reacts when you lose reveals one’s character.
I have been thinking about what it means to be a good loser this week as I have watched the events surrounding the inauguration of a new president. As has been well-documented by now, President Trump did not stay for the inauguration of now President Biden, choosing instead to fly to Florida the morning of Inauguration Day. It should be noted that Trump is in both good and bad company. Three other presidents chose not to attend the inauguration of the men who beat them in what were bitter elections. He is joined by the admirable presidents John Adams, who refused to attend the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams, who refused to attend the inauguration of Andrew Jackson, and the not-so-admirable Andrew Johnson, who refused to attend the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant. Yet, most U.S. presidents have chosen to attend the inaugurations of successors, even presidents who only served one term and had to watch the person to whom they lost the election take the oath of office. The reason this is important is that something greater than a single election is at stake—the symbolism of a peaceful transfer of power in our republic, a thing not to be taken for granted of which we were reminded by the insurrectionist riot that took place two weeks ago.
To his credit, Trump apparently did continue a tradition begun by Ronald Reagan and continued in recent decades by succeeding presidents—leaving a personal letter for the incoming president on the Oval Office desk. Trump’s letter to Biden hasn’t been made public yet, but previous letters have been made known. My favorite one is the letter George H. W. Bush left for the man who defeated him in the 1992 election, Bill Clinton. In that letter, the senior President Bush wrote, “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.” What a classy thing to write! After a bitter election, the defeated president was able to remember that there was something greater at stake—the success of our nation, the fate of the United States and the nation’s influence throughout the world. He understood the moment was about far more than himself.
There is a lot more I could write about my own opinions about President Trump and the policies of his administration, just as I could write about my criticisms of particular policies and actions of each of the preceding presidents in my lifetime, but I’m particularly thinking about what this moment says to me and you. When you and I lose, how do we respond? Maybe we aren’t a defeated president, but many of us know what it is to lose out on a promotion, a job we were going for, a position in a volunteer organization we hoped to hold like the PTA or some other civic group or even in a game of golf or pick up basketball. How we act when we lose says a lot about our character.
Do we allow the stakes of the moment to become the exaggerated stakes of life and death? Do we allow our own feelings of low self-worth to spew out of us onto the other by demonizing them and belittling their accomplishments? Do we let jealousy, envy and covetousness twist our insides until we seek to undermine the one whom we lost out to? In short, do we forget the basic truth that each person involved—loser and winner—is a person created by God and therefore a person of worth? Do we forget there is more at stake than the loss itself—the success of an organization or place of business, the sustainability of relationships and the state of our own souls?
Our culture does not reward losers. A quick internet search for quotations about losers will turn up all kind of responses from Vince Lombardi, Knut Rockne, Paul Newman and every other kind of star in sports, business and entertainment declaring there is no such thing as a good loser. Yet, from a certain point of view, Jesus Christ was a loser. During his ministry, he faced constant opposition, was continually misunderstood, his closest followers ended up abandoning him, and he was killed with common criminals. Sure, we know how the story ends with the resurrection and exaltation of Christ, but by everyday earthly standards Christ first a loser.
As Christians, we trust that the end of our stories is also known. Whatever failures and losses we face in this life do not have the last word on our value or on the fulfillment of God’s purposes for each of us and for all of creation. This truth is why Jesus taught us to love our enemies—not just our moral enemies or enemies who seek to do us harm, but also the people we view as enemies because they won something that we wished to win. There are greater things at stake than the accomplishments of this life, than our trophies, awards, promotions and elections. Our relationships, the common good of all people, and the character of our very souls all matter much more to God than our defeats.
Muhammad Ali wasn’t a Christian, but I believe he understood this truth. He is quoted as saying after the first time he lost a bout, “I never thought of losing, but now that it's happened, the only thing is to do it right. That's my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.” May we live out the words of Jesus and the words of Muhammed Ali, for the sake of ourselves and all the people who believe in us, because no less than the God of all creation also believes in you and me.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.