“For a difficult journey, minimal benefits, bitter cold, long months of darkness, constant fatigue and hardship. Most will quit. Honor and recognition in case of success.”
These were the words inscribed on a University of Washington men’s rowing crew advertisement I spotted recently while walking on the university campus. For those who know the history of the men’s crew at U of W, this advertisement will not come as a surprise. The team’s history is replete with times of dramatic struggle and monumental triumph. Perhaps most notable is the story of their quest for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics: an eight oar crew who were not expected to compete against even the East Coast American teams at the time showed astonishing strength to provide a winning story that would not be forgotten.
When I first came across the full-page advert for the men’s crew, I read it at least ten times over. It struck me that of all the ways in which the rowing department would choose to draw first year students to their sport, this was the way they chose to do it: not by enticing students with reward, but with the cost. Yes, there might be glory, the advert hinted, but that was not the compelling point. There would be no guarantee of glory to woo potential recruits. What was promised was pain and sacrifice; this was the U of W crew’s appeal.
This impassioned cry of the rowing crew made me think of certain aspects of the Christian faith that are not often mentioned, but still very real: times of felt darkness, a difficult journey throughout life, fatigue and hardship with the ever-present challenge to quit. Jesus Christ’s message to his friends and to those who would follow him shares similarities to the U of W men’s crew. At one point, Christ looked to his closest friends and told them that in the world they would experience trouble and suffering. Those are not exactly the cheery words one wants to hear from the leader of their movement.
Sometimes, as I imaginatively read between the lines of the gospels, I wonder whether any of Christ’s friends offered to help him with public relations. Maybe Peter advised Jesus to change his tact. I can imagine Peter taking Jesus aside and saying, “Okay, Jesus. This isn’t a bad marketing angle, but it isn’t a good one either! How about you try something like, ‘Okay everyone, ahem, as I was saying earlier, in the world you will experience trouble and suffering. But once you come to me, everything will be okay. You won’t face any trouble or suffering.'”
The problem with that imagined scenario is that it actually cheapens the truth of the gospel as good news. Yes, none of us want to face the pain and suffering that will come to us in living our lives. Part of us might wish that we never had to face pain or suffering. But what should not be missed is how Jesus spoke to a fundamental reality of this world and said that he was doing something about it. He validated everyone’s observations and experiences of pain, but he did not stop there. He continued: “But have courage—I have conquered the world.”
Jesus cited the grim truth of life that we indeed will experience pain and hardship and trouble. But have courage, he said. There is pain, darkness, weariness, and the real temptation to give in. Jesus didn’t try to erase this reality. But he answered it with the remarkable thought that somehow the Son of God joins us within it all. He also made it clear that pain did not have the last say. His life, death, and resurrection would change everything. And then he closed with a triumphant reminder, as if to say, ‘When things seem the bleakest, don’t forget that I have conquered even this.’
The University of Washington’s marketing also did not stop with pain. It closed with the hope that honor and recognition would come with success. And what was that success? Was it simply winning? Or was persevering through the hardships—long practices, total darkness, and pain—its own reward? The same could be said of those who answer the call to follow Christ.
For those who persevere, for those who remain with him, though pain and darkness threaten all around, there will be honor and recognition. We will hear those words from the Father, as if speaking to his own Son: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Nathan Betts is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.