Barely a week goes by that we don’t hear these familiar words: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
Whether this famous quotation is from the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi or the sports writer Henry “Red” Sanders, it has become a national mantra, not only on the playing fields but also in politics, business, education, and even religion.
However, when being number one is our sole priority, winning can become a harmful and dangerous obsession. Such a goal implies that any outcome other than domination is a failure of sorts and unworthy of praise. It leads us to judge each other and ourselves by unrealistic, external standards. Our relationships often become more competitive than cooperative, making community sometimes almost impossible to achieve.
When “winning is the only thing” it becomes more likely that corners will be cut, truth will be trampled, people will be used as pawns, absurd amounts of money will be spent to crush the opposition, and whatever means necessary to ensure victory will be justified. Such behavior increases the possibility that, like the aged fisherman in Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea,” our big catch will be reduced to a skeleton by the sharks before we can get it home.
Even Jesus struggled with our temptation to make winning “the only thing.” In the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry, Satan offered him the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship him. But Jesus countered with his own priority: “Go away, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” And three years later when even his closest followers were wavering in the darkness of Gethsemane, his resolve was still the same, “Not my will but Yours be done.”
The danger of making winning the only thing that matters in our lives is illustrated by one of my favorite stories: One morning on the Mississippi River south of Vicksburg, two river boats bound for New Orleans found themselves side by side and began to race. Each captain was determined to win and ordered “full speed ahead.” Late in the afternoon one of the captains was notified by his engineer that they were running short on wood to fire the boilers. Their cargo happened to be bacon so the captain ordered him to use the meat as fuel. Because the bacon made for a hotter fire than the wood, they won the race. But in the process they burned up their cargo.
Lord, in our quest to win the race, help us not to burn up our bacon. Amen.
John Paul Carter’s “Notes from the Journey” appear in the Democrat on the second and fourth Fridays of each month. Carter is an ordained minister who attends Central Christian Church.