Ask a group of people to define the word “upset” and, based on their answers, you’ll know who the sports fans are. While “upset” refers to one’s countenance in relationship with another, it also refers to a particular kind of outcome in a sports competition. Specifically, an upset in the is an unexpected result: it’s when the favored team loses to an underdog. Proficiency is what makes sports beautiful; upsets are what make sports exciting.
The reality of upsets in sports is acknowledged in the Bible. Ecclesiastes 9:11 says, “I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift.” Even in fair competition, the winner was not always the one who was better. Sometimes, both wins and losses are unexplainable and not indicative of the actual abilities of the competitors. As a competitive tennis player, there have been times when I’ve beaten collegiate-level players ranked two or three levels above me (those matches where you feel like you spend half the time standing there watching balls fly by you…and somehow you end up winning). There have also been times when I’ve lost to club-players about two or three levels below me. The first makes you feel like Nadal; the second makes you feel like a nobody. Yet, I know that I’m neither a Nadal nor a nobody.
In sports, there are times when you’ll score a win over someone far better than you, but it doesn’t mean you’re that good. And there are times when you’ll lose to someone far worse than you, but it doesn’t mean you’re that bad. It’s important for an athlete to maintain perspective regarding both wins and losses, and never to find his identity in results—no matter how competitive he may be. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating wins and welling up over losses. But it is crucial to be sober-minded amidst both.
Both on the field and off the field, it’s important for Christians to be sober-minded through life’s ups and downs, and never to place our identity in temporary “results.” Ecclesiastes 7:14 instructs, “In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity consider—God has made one as well as the other.” While Christians are ultimately more than victorious in life through Christ (Rom 8:37), the truth is that we will experience temporary “wins” and “losses.”
There are times when our desires are more than realized, and we feel blessed beyond what we could have imagined. And there are times when sudden adversity strikes, our hopes are deferred, and our hearts become sick as a result (Prov 13:12). It’s easy to fall into arrogance during seasons of victory, and to fall into despair during seasons of disgrace. But wisdom embraces the fact that God has appointed each “win” and “loss” as appropriate in its time (Eccl 3:11).
Mature godliness refrains from self-boasting in times of victory (Jer 9:23-24), and fights against despondency in times of seeming loss (2 Cor 4:8-9; Job 13:15). The wise don’t think more highly of themselves when they win, nor do they think more lowly of themselves when they lose. Rather, they deem themselves in the same way regardless of circumstances—as undeserving sinners made righteous through the cross of Christ. Hence, says the apostle Paul, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).