Last night the Denver Broncos' defense shut down the best quarterback (further, the best player) in the entire National Football League, probably in the whole world. They did it with a quarterback who, those wise and experienced at managing the game, contributed almost nothing else to the victory. Manning had zero touchdowns, one interception and one fumble. He threw for only 141 yards. If you don't speak football, this is not the kind of quarterbacking that usually wins games. And of course it didn't. The defense won the game.
This happens more than you might think. Accustomed as we are to glorifying quarterbacks and wide receivers and running backs, we generally believe scoring is what wins games and, as defenses have much fewer opportunities to score, they can't be all that important to the bottom line. Football is about which team scores more points. And that's sort of true, but not.
You could also say football is about keeping the other team from scoring points. And, as we know from watching last night's game, sometimes (I'd wager to say oftentimes) a game is won by point prevention.
Nobody likes prevention. It's just not as exciting as watching a quarterback throw a pass thirty yards downfield or watching a wide receiver jump five feet into the air to catch an uncatchable ball. If a defense is doing its job, a game will look something like a guy running into a wall again and again and again. It's not exactly entertainment.
Well, for me it is.
In high school, I had the great privilege of playing linebacker and cornerback, serving as defensive captain for the Dunedin High School girls' varsity flag football team. Due to a lawsuit against the school district for inequality in girls' and boys' sports, our county decided in my junior year to create a district playoff system for girls' flag football, using the schools' powder puff teams to fill the rosters. I'd played powder puff every year on a team of serious-minded football players. These girls knew what they were doing, and playing with them was a delight.
I loved playing defense. I loved sacking the quarterback. I loved interceptions. And I loved a good tackle. More than I should have, really, since the game we were playing didn't include them. Oops.
In the four year history of my time in powder puff, my defense gave up only one touchdown. We weren't as good at the varsity level, but I'm going to intentionally leave that out. ;)
The thing I love about defense is the freedom it offers to the offense. When you're consistently preventing the other team from scoring, you enable the offense to be creative, to take their time, to make mistakes. The defense gives the offense space and grace.
And don't we all need some space and grace? I do. Cause I'm not Cam Newton. I'm not even Peyton Manning--though I am younger than he is.
And here is where I stop talking football and get all metaphorical...
In church world, it's common to hear a lot about serving God in dramatic and big ways, about alleviating poverty and adopting all the orphans around the globe and stopping slavery and ending racism. All of these things are absolutely kingdom goals and just what we should be about. We need an offensive attack against the Prince of Darkness and his hold on this world.
ALSO, it's really important to remember that defense has a role to play--a very, very big role. "Defense" looks like prevention, and just like in football, it's not glamorous and may seem boring. Defense keeps us out of trouble. Defense enables us to step into good works with courage and confidence. Defense sets us up for an easier win.
Consider the words of Paul in Ephesians chapter 6:
"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."
Did you happen to notice how much of what Paul suggests we do in our stand against the devil is defensive? The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet fitted with readiness rooted in peace, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation--all defensive. Only the sword of the Spirit is an offensive weapon.
Here's how this plays out in the Christian life: Christians who attempt to step onto the field with only a sword, eager to slay the devil but unprotected by the whole armor, will inevitably fall or burn out. They'll find themselves unable to keep up with the devil's tremendous strength and persistence. Christians who are armed with the whole armor, however, find themselves prepared for battle, given space and grace by their defense. They don't have to block every assault with their sword, because peace sustains them through the blows. They don't get discouraged when things don't work out exactly as they'd hoped because faith prevents the devil from getting inside their heads. And they don't have to put in a perfect show, because righteousness keeps the devil from running up the score.
Christians who commit themselves to growing in righteousness, cultivating peace, dwelling in truth, building faith and anchoring themselves in the salvation already manifesting in victorious living are the only people capable of both thwarting the devil AND stepping out into the world as conquerors in Christ.
I attended a conference this weekend full of people doing amazing things for Christ, advancing the kingdom in inspiring ways. We talked a lot about what we can do to live courageous lives, a lot about loving other people in sacrificial, world-changing ways. And I loved it. But as I sat there, I hoped everyone around me, the thousands of people hearing these messages, remembered that the people on stage weren't just armed with swords. They'd also invested years behind the scenes strengthening their defense, letting God equip them with the full armor, following Him into persevering faith, anxiety-dispelling peace, and dark-defying righteousness. Because they'd done the hard work of letting God strengthen their defense, they were given the space and grace to do amazing things.
Faith can seem boring. Peace and truth, too. Righteousness will never be glamorous here on this earth. But that doesn't mean they aren't the exact forces we need to overcome the world.
Lean into your defense, ladies and gentlemen. Defenses win games.