It Isn't How You Played the Game

Gary B. Swanson

It Isn’t How You Played the Game

In December 2017, the Íbis Sport Club, a professional soccer team from northeastern Brazil, finally turned a corner. Taking the field in their red and black, the Íbis, as they are popularly called, were, until then, also dubbed in the world of sport “the worst team in the world.” They had not won a match for three years. They were so consistently bad that their fans had become proud of their reputation as losers. Then, as if out of nowhere, the team won three straight matches.

The fans of team Íbis were furious. They burst into a bar where the team members were wildly celebrating their success and demanded that they stop scoring goals. “They are just another winning team,” the fans groused to reporters. “It’s the coach’s fault!”1

In a backward kind of way, this brings up the old sports adage: “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” This, according to the internet, is a variation on lines in a 1908 poem, “Alumnus Football,” by a widely read sportswriter of that time, Grantland Rice:

“For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes—not that you won or lost—

But HOW you played the Game.”2

It’s sometimes interesting to trace the evolution of thought in a proverb or a saying. To go back to Rice’s original expression “when the One Great Scorer comes” suggests an allusion to God’s coming in judgment at the end of life on this earth. He seems to be suggesting that whether you’ve been successful in the game of life is not as important as how you’ve played in it—how you’ve conducted yourself in it.

The apostle Paul, drawing on the world of sport in his own day, said something similar as he appeared to be nearing the end of his life: “I have fought the good fight,” he wrote, “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7, NIV).3 It sounds almost as if he is looking back with satisfaction on the way he has played the game, as if he expects a victory for his heroic effort “when the One Great Scorer comes / To mark against [his] name.”

This is a man, we may be reminded, who participated in the grisly murder of one of the original seven deacons of the church and killed and persecuted many other followers of Christ. The first recorded martyrdom of the Christian Church occurred before his eyes. A mob “dragged [Stephen] out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58, NLT).

Surely, for the rest of his life, this was a scene that brought great regret to the man who became the apostle Paul. But just as surely there must have been the heart-melting memory of Stephen’s forgiveness, even when it was not sought for. “Falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ And having said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60, NASB).

This is the power of forgiveness at the street level. “There can be no doubt that the death scene of Stephen was one of the things that turned Paul to Christ. As Augustine said, ‘The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen.’”4

Through his years of mission service thereafter, as Paul experienced the scourgings and the shipwrecks, the persecution and the imprisonment, the doubt and the regret, the ultimate expression of the forgiveness of Stephen as it reflected God’s mercy and grace grew for Paul into the assurance of his victory. “There is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8, NIV).

Those who long for His appearing are “the waiting ones,” writes Ellen G. White, “who are to be crowned with glory, honor, and immortality. You need not talk . . . of the honors of the world, or the praise of its great ones. They are all vanity. Let but the finger of God touch them, and they would soon go back to dust again.”5

It could have been only too human for Paul to conclude that he had achieved greatness, that somehow, through all his persecution and suffering and near-death experiences, he had earned his place in the kingdom. He had personally known singular miracles in his life, clear indications of God’s leading and approval of his international mission work. Is this what he could have meant when he exulted, “I have finished the race”?

If we had today only that one statement of the apostle Paul, there could be little doubt of his self-approval. But throughout his epistles to Christian churches all over the Roman Empire, it is plain that he was truly the apostle of grace.

“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith” he wrote to the members of the Christian church in Ephesus, “and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8, NIV). He recognized openly that his actions throughout his life—though he had been converted to Christ—were still fraught with sin, having no merit whatever that could atone for it. In fact, he acknowledged that he was completely unable, in himself, to overcome sin. “I do not understand what I do,” he wrote to the Romans. “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (7:15, NIV).

Truly, the apostle Paul realized that, like the Íbis Sport Club, his record as a loser was manifest. But he also recognized, that by God’s grace, the outcome of his life didn’t have to depend on how he played the game. Through faith, his life could be saved. He would be a winner after all. And what a celebration it will surely be when Stephen opens his arms to embrace Paul as they meet for the first time in the coming kingdom!


1.  “It Must Be True . . . The Best of the Tabloids in 2017,” The Week (December 22, 2017).

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3. Scripture texts in this editorial marked NIV are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.

4. William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 168.

5. Maranatha, 309.