Sports commentators often discuss how teams need to decide to “play to win” instead of simply “playing to not lose.” In football, it’s the difference between going for a field goal or a touchdown. In a high school cross country race, it’s about racing the course and other competitors instead of focusing on running how you feel.
The difference between playing to win instead of playing to not lose? Usually, a mediocre and a winning record.
A playing-to-not-lose mindset involves being driven by fears and protecting what you have. It means reacting to others, essentially letting them decide your game plan, and not taking risks.
As Christians, playing to not lose looks like John’s description of the Laodicean church in Revelation as “lukewarm.” It’s the third worker in Matthew’s parable of the bags of gold. And it’s the person who refrains from the “don’ts” but neglects the “do’s” on Paul’s many lists in the New Testament.
Playing to not lose as a Christian involves just getting by. It strives to simply avoid any bad results. Eventually, the surrounding culture consumes such a person until no one can tell he is even a Christian.
Playing to Win
Scripture directly addresses the idea of playing to win and connects it with our pursuit of righteousness.
“Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Many habits exist with the playing-to-win mindset. Three jump out as foundational.
Over his high school cross country career, my oldest son learned to race smart. His coach taught him how to put himself in the best position to take advantage of opportunity. The result? My son reached most of his goals, including winning a race and receiving All County and All Region honors.
“Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16)
Christians put themselves in the best position to seize opportunity when they first make sure the opportunity is God-ordained. Similar to training for a runner, this comes through daily habits. Prayer, Scripture and being Spirit-led set us up to know when God-ordained opportunity approaches and allows us to make the most of them without hesitation.
Also, we need to make sure not to miss God-ordained opportunity because we’re so focused on the forest we don’t see the trees. In other words, we too often miss everyday, small opportunities because we only look for the monumental ones.
Take a look at your daily habits and at whether or not you’ve set your vision too broad. If opportunity seems to regularly miss you, adjust your vision and your habits accordingly.
Work Hard & Stay Humble
A significant aspect of working hard, which sets us up to take advantage of God-ordained opportunity, involves humility. Without both hard work and humility, we’re likely to either not be ready for opportunity or be too self-focused to see it.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:3-5)
Successful teams – the ones that win championships, not just games – consist of humble players. The victory is all that matters. Credit doesn’t. Who gets the ball doesn’t. At the same time, these humble players work hard to make sure the team as a whole wins. It’s the same as the “All In” mentality that won the New York Giants the 2012 Super Bowl.
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” (Colossians 3:23)
As Christians, working hard and staying humble means pleasing God over men. It means preferring others and pointing them to Christ. And it means rejoicing when others win victories over sin and Satan. That mentality involves whole-hearted service and valuing relationship.
Inherent within every element involved in playing to win is focus.
“Always remember, your focus determines your reality.” (Qui Gon-Jinn, The Phantom Menace)
In sports, commentators and analysts regularly talk about the importance of focus, whether because of its absence or its role in victory. In everyday life, focus plays an essential role as well, but we often don’t realize it until it’s absent. Simply consider The Toxic Impact of Multitasking to understand how significant loss of focus has become for most people.
The Old Testament as a whole gives us a poignant picture of focus too. It shows a steady and passionate God juxtaposed with wandering and fickle men. Story after story shows men losing focus and God drawing them back to Him.
As Christians, we are either God focused, or we’re not. There is no gray area. No other options.
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
Choosing simplicity helps us regain our focus. When we let go of the things of this life and focus on the eternal God, we gain a laser focus on that which lasts forever.
These three foundation habits – sizing opportunity, working hard and staying humble, and focusing – found in every person who plays to win, create A Higher Standard that sets a person apart.