As the iron bars thunder upward, you’re deafened by the roar of the drunken crowd. Alcohol sloshes from their cups, greasy meat clinging to the corners of lips placing bets on which of your family members will die first. Music. Cheering. Heckling. Flirting. Time slows to a crawl, and you notice how Rome’s breeze scratches against your exposed skin. Guards push you forward with the end of their spears, a mixture of boredom and disgust in their voices, and after weeks of being chained in the dark, the sun’s heat washes you white when you step out into that holy circus where so many have gone ahead. “Jesus,” you whisper, “make me brave. Don’t let me fail You now.” Then the gate across the arena trembles, beginning its agonizingly slow ascent toward the freedom of lions starved for days. Your last breath is a hymn.
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
(1 Corinthians 15:51-58)
I’m afraid my concept of victory in Christ has fallen woefully short of its intended measure. Growing up in the buckle of the Bible belt, I envisioned a kind of heavenly star chart with shiny stickers added for my good behavior. “Angels, look! Kassie could have thrown two shoes at her little brother, but she showed restraint and only lobbed one,” God would cry proudly as trumpets blared and another marker was added of my goodness. (What can I say? I was an angry kid. Sorry, Jared.) A couple of decades later, having read some good books and taken some good classes, my perceived star chart looks a bit more refined: Kassie listened well to a hurting woman, Kassie did her workout for the day, Kassie didn’t even throw one shoe at a human being in the last 24 hours.
And if ever I doubt my standing, I can unfurl that poster and get an eyeful of my own worthiness. This was victory in Christ, the evidence and fruit of my salvation.
Riley and I are leading a small group through basic Christian discipleship, and part of this week’s lesson is our victorious identity in Jesus. As we prepared for it, God gently but strongly invited me to see how skewed my portrayal of what living as a conqueror has become.
How am I going to encounter those blood-stained brothers and sisters one day in glory, swapping tales of victory, and hear about how they stood firm amidst unspeakable evil and overcame? What good will my star chart be when it comes face-to-face with the thousands of martyrs from across the millennia? “I’m so glad you triumphed in that torture chamber! Behold how many times I didn’t cuss! And look at this flawless Sunday school attendance!”
If I don’t become disenchanted with my own record of rightness, the victory Jesus bought for me, longs for me to grasp, will be a gorgeous engagement ring kept locked in a drawer for safety—beautiful, meaningful, but not getting much use.
The truth is, we will tell stories for eternity. But they won’t be about us and our goodness. They’ll be about God and His goodness. About how He set us free from fear or shame or guilt or anger or perfectionism or lust or hatred. About how He conquered our own hearts and brought us into a new arena, one where the roar of the crowd is angels singing “Holy!” at what the Lord has done for His people. About how unlikely and perfect our place at this undeserved table is. He will be the song in our mouths. And I suspect there will be a whole heap of star charts sitting just outside the gates of heaven, abandoned forever at the first sight of Christ and His victory.