The buzzer sounded, our huddle broke, and my starting line up scurried onto the basketball court. I took my seat at the head of the bench and tried to look confident. My 5’9″ freshman center looked over at me, tears forming in her eyes, as she walked towards the circle at mid-court. You got this, I mouthed, my brow furrowed and my fist feigning a sign of strength. She entered the circle along with the center for the other team. They faced off – well, in theory anyway. In actuality their faces weren’t anywhere near each other. All my player could see was the number 24, emblazoned in green and yellow on her opponent’s jersey. Her opponent, on the other hand, had a clear view of the entire court, the stands, all the players, and the top of my center’s head.
So began the first girl’s high school basketball game I ever coached. Our team, a motley crew of scrappers, had come together about a month prior. Only a few of them had been teammates in years past. Some played in grade school. And for some, this was their very first competitive game ever. As for me, aside from playing the sport all through high school, and spending two years as a Team Manager for a national championship college team, I had zero coaching experience. Sadly, my lack of experience proved to be a far greater deficit than the height differential of the two teams on the court.
About halfway through the second quarter, after a rash of unanswered points by our opponents, I called a timeout. I watched as my most skilled players dragged themselves to the bench, some holding their sides, all of them profusely sweating and out of breath. As they collapsed onto the bench, my heart sunk.
Visions of our practices played on a loop in my head. I pictured these sweet girls standing on the baseline after a long, hard practice, dreading the sound of my whistle. I remembered how good it felt to surprise them by not making them run the 8 or 10 sets of “lines,” written in my practice plan, but instead stopping at just 4 or 5. What a hero I felt like to let them skip the tougher conditioning drills after they picked up a new offense or defense so quickly.
Now, as I stared into their beet red faces, I regretted every popular decision I had ever made. I searched my mind for ways to help them. But no offensive play, no defensive configuration, or cleverly devised inbounds play could atone for my failure on the practice floor. It was too late to go back to those practices of the past and insist they run until they looked like they did now.
I don’t recall the score of that game. I’m sure I’ve blocked it from my memory. What is forever seared in my mind however, is that first timeout. My failure staring back at me in the red, sweaty faces of these girls who had trusted me to prepare them, not just for victory, but for the competition, for the fight. I allowed my desire for popularity in the moment to outweigh their need for conditioning that would serve them in the long run. I missed the opportunity to be willing to lose for the sake of my team.
In the book of Galatians, Paul talks about his willingness to lose popularity contests for the sake of the teams he coached.
Christianity, still in its infancy at the time, was about to face off with a movement that claimed true salvation only came when believers adopted some of the ceremonies and practices of the Mosaic Law. Peddlers of this movement infiltrated some of the churches that Paul planted in Galatia, so he wrote his beloved brothers and sisters a letter. In this letter, he warned them that the confusion and perversion of this false gospel directly opposed the true gospel of grace they had received.
Paul pulled no punches in this letter. He called them foolish. He told them they were under the influence of an evil spell. He said that falling for this false gospel equaled turning their backs on Jesus. They were trying to make themselves right before God through their own actions, rather than relying solely on the work of Jesus on the cross. He reminded them that they had once been enslaved by sin and were set free. Now, they were falling for this legalism which was just another form of enslavement. Paul took these believers to task. It was one of his fiercest letters.
Seemingly aware of the harsh, emphatic tone of his letter, he wrote, “Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.” Galatians 1:10 (NLT)
Paul understood his role as an apostle, as a coach to these new believers. Popularity was never his goal. He looked into the faces of those believers and blew his whistle. God gave Paul to these men and women to keep them in shape, on track, and awash in the truth of the gospel. The grace they received from God gave them victory over their opponent. Paul gave them the tools and discipline they needed to compete, to fight against the false doctrines trying to influence them.
It was after reading this letter of Paul’s that I thought back to my first team and that first timeout. Instead of seeing the faces of young basketball players I thought of those in my life who do not yet know the gospel, the true gospel of Jesus Christ. I imagined seeing their faces at the moment they come face-to-face with their Creator. Would I see my own failure reflected back? Would memories of past opportunities to share the true gospel with them flash through my mind – times when I chose my own popularity over speaking truth to them?
God has entrusted us, His people, to bear the only Truth that saves mankind, Jesus. He gives us our very own team of people with whom we are to share this Truth. He alone will give them victory over the opponent by His grace. But, we are given the privilege to prepare them to compete, to fight against the false gospels that plague this world. Are we willing to do as Paul did? Will we be the coach who relentlessly tells them the truth of the gospel, willing to lose our popularity in the moment, for the sake of their souls being saved in the long run? That’s the kind of coach I want to be.
Father, thank you for the power of your grace. Thank you that we have been made right in your eyes by the work of your Son Jesus on the cross. Because of Him we have victory over our opponent. Lord, give us the courage to be unpopular. Lead us, by your Holy Spirit, to share the truth with those whom you’ve put on our team. Thank you for the example of Paul. May we be as relentless as he was in spreading the truth of your gospel to whomever you put in our path. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.