A central tenet in New Testament proclamation is that Jesus Christ has won a victory for his people, the famous Christus Victor theme of the atonement, where sin, death, and the devil have been defeated. You find this view beautifully enunciated by Paul in Col 2:13-14:
13 When you were dead because of the things you had done wrong and because your body wasn’t circumcised, God made you alive with Christ and forgave all the things you had done wrong. 14 He destroyed the record of the debt we owed, with its requirements that worked against us. He canceled it by nailing it to the cross.
However, I’ve been wondering of late, how does this express itself in practice? What does it mean to live a victorious Christian life? Does it mean having sin conquered, success in your ministries, a fruitful spiritual life, healthy relationships, onward and upward all the time? What is it? What does victory look like when worked out in the daily exercise of ministry or even in the ordinary plane of human existence? In my mind, it is none of those.
If we think the cross is the means and model of victory, then, victory looks like defeat, it feels like despair, and it smells like death. I think this is precisely what Paul meant when he recounted the various trials he had faced in his apostolic career:
9 I suppose that God has shown that we apostles are at the end of the line. We are like prisoners sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle in the world, both to angels and to humans. 10 We are fools for Christ, but you are wise through Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, but we are dishonored! 11 Up to this very moment we are hungry, thirsty, wearing rags, abused, and homeless.12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are insulted, we respond with a blessing; when we are harassed, we put up with it; 13 when our reputation is attacked, we are encouraging. We have become the scum of the earth, the waste that runs off everything, up to the present time.
This is what I think the victorious Christian life looks like: it is the pain, frustration, and misery of the faithful.
It is thankless service and sacrifice till you can bear it no more.
It is loss and lament, it is brokenness and anxiety, it is feeling defeated and destroyed, it is fear and failure, it is the debris of despair and doubt, it is hope sapped, joyless drudgery, it is looking in the mirror and seeing futility.It is what you do when you realize the cavalry is not coming to help you, you’ve been abandoned, maybe even betrayed.
Victory is crawling and crying all alone in the silence and the darkness, wondering if anyone, even God, cares.
Victory is a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.
Yet in the midst of trial and tragedy, somehow, God wins his victory in you and through you, so his power is exercised in your weakness, and his glory shines even at your lowest ebb. This is why Paul could also write:
14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.
It is there, in your sad and wretched state, far away from the celebrations, when all your good is forgotten, when your name is a ripple in a sea of anonymity, that God plants the banner of his triumph in your broken body and places a crown of victory on your bloody and tear-stained head and says, “This man, this woman, was my champion. When all the men were too lazy or too afraid, the boy fought the fight. When everyone else gave up, she ran the race, on her own, with no man at her side to help her. And it is the joy of heaven to give them the crown of glory.”
If we take the words of Jesus in Revelation 2 seriously, the victory is not the crown you get later, the reward for all you endured, no, victory is what you did to get the crown. Your faith –however small – in the midst of despair, that’s victory. Your love for others – when you felt unloved – that was the victory. Your service, when you were burdened with depression or anxiety – that was victory.
But it doesn’t look like victory, it doesn’t feel like victory, it doesn’t smell like victory, but God brings triumph all the same.
Remember, when Jesus hung upon that cross, he did not feel victorious, he felt abandoned, he felt betrayed, he experienced the full extent of human misery. And yet that is where we are told God has won his victory, his triumph, where he conquered the world, the flesh, and the devil.
If you think victory looks like a ticker-tape parade, steady success, your best life now, then I do not hold high hopes for the longevity of your spiritual journey.
But if you believe that victory looks like the cross, that it feels like defeat, that resembles being downtrodden, then you know that when you are wounded, despairing, and powerlessness, that God is still bringing his victory.
God’s victory is his power in the midst of your weakness.
Jesus says I have overcome the world: He does that for us, in us, through us, and more often than not, despite us.
You want a life or a ministry of victory, I suggest you pray that your back is strong enough to bear it.