Football is an endlessly fertile source of analogies, and one of the themes for which it is most useful is the comparison of offense and defense. The reflection seems especially pertinent in the wake of the 2011 college football season. Except for the championship game, most of the Bowl Championship Series games were high-scoring, offensive "shoot-outs." But in the championship game itself, between Alabama and Louisiana State, the defense ruled. Scoring was low and intermittent, if not as intermittent as in the two teams' regular-season game. The championship game seemed to validate the famous dictum of Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th-century Prussian philosopher of war, that "the defense is the stronger form of war."
Certainly a lot of football fans believe it did. Southeastern Conference (SEC) teams rarely develop "high-powered offenses" on the model of some of the other conferences. Developing strong, fast defenses has been a higher-payoff approach for the SEC. Fans like me may argue that since teams play most of their games within their conferences, this is a self-reinforcing pattern that is never consistently challenged. The same can be said of the offensive styles characteristic of different college football conferences.
But there are football fans—as there are people in general—for whom the strength of the defense is psychologically satisfying. There is safety in defense: it seeks not to establish something new or do something different, but to preserve the status quo. In football, this means preventing the other team from marching down the field and changing the score.
There can be great effort and artistry in defense. It requires as much study, preparation, and discipline as offense. It is not less important than offense, or less heroic or worthy. But it has a different purpose—and in football, as in war and politics, its purpose is to prevent the kinds of transformations to which the offense is dedicated.
The human spirit naturally finds it morally justifiable to defend the status quo. When the opinions of a people matter, for example, as they do in democracies contemplating war, large segments of the population will usually see national self-defense against an invader as a fully justifiable reason for fighting, while considering preemptive attacks abroad much more questionable. Even when there is no real disagreement on the existence of a threat, those who regard defense as the more unassailable posture—morally as well as strategically—will prefer to wait within a defined perimeter for the threat to approach.
We have no such natural moral affinity for the offense, however. Trying to precipitate change makes us feel vulnerable: exposed, untethered, subject to criticism and opposition. In football, we can play by rules that specify how change is to be made (e.g., score a touchdown or kick a field goal), but in our moral lives among our fellows, decisions about seeking change are not necessarily made by rule, or within a set of predefined options.
Given all this, it is worth pondering that in the terms of offense versus defense, the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ constitute the biggest, most audacious offensive move of all time. Sending Jesus to live among us and die for us was the opposite of "defense." The Old Testament law of prohibitions and rituals was defensive: it was a law of observance, enabling God's people to approach Him as they were. Nothing had to change fundamentally under that covenant. But the promise of Jesus is that nothing will remain the same. The act of approaching God and our means of approaching life are both transformed, through the transformation of ourselves.
Suppose we have weaknesses: substance abuse, gambling, overspending, pornography, gossip, envy, anorexia or bulimia. We know that these weaknesses induce us to sin. A defensive approach—using a football analogy—is to try to keep these weaknesses from gaining yardage against us: from making first downs and getting into our end zone.
Even on offense, we can have a defensive mindset about our weaknesses, anxious to adjust ourselves to the powerful defense they are playing against us. But the offensive approach is to concentrate instead on scoring. Rather than defining our lives by what our weaknesses and our sources of temptation do, we can define them by what we do: live victoriously in the presence of God, be joyful and content, have good marriages and good relationships with our children, be good friends, good neighbors, good bosses, good employees, and good brothers and sisters in Christ. We can run up the score against our weaknesses by getting lots of touchdowns, and going for two points after each one.