I settled down on Saturday night to watch the Liverpool v West Brom FA Cup fixture. Things started well enough. Five minutes in, a major mistake from West Brom’s most prized asset – Jonny Evans – meant the keeper had to come charging out, clearing the ball to the waiting Liverpool forward who nonchalantly lobbed the out of position goalie in that way only a Brazillian could. 1-0 and we were laughing.
Only, of course, no sooner had the TV coverage stopped showing replays, West Brom pulled level, waltzing through the Liverpool defence and Jay Rodriguez smashing the ball into the top corner of the net. To make matters worse, West Brom pulled ahead a few minutes later through the same play. Worse again, it appeared West Brom had made it 3-1 but the goal was ruled out using the new Video Assistant Referee (VAR). This same VAR was used to award Liverpool a penalty shortly afterwards, which was belted into the crossbar. Our fate was sealed when, just before halftime, one of the Liverpool defenders clattered in an own-goal from a West Brom cross. Though the score was pulled back to 2-3 late on in the game, it was an uphill struggle and one fought to no avail.
The problem with Liverpool is their infuriating inconsistency. No sooner had the team sealed a scintillating 4-3 victory against top of the table, heretofore unbeaten, Manchester City, they immediately lose 1-0 to bottom of the table Swansea. Meeting second-from-bottom West Brom in the FA Cup and losing was an embarrassment all day long and yet, were we to play Arsenal, Man Utd or Chelsea next week there is every possibility we would give them an absolute pasting. The team is mercurial and schizophrenic, always threatening to blast more goals in than any other team whilst, simultaneously, gifting as many to the opposition. Our leaky defence has generally been more than compensated by a blistering attack. But it means we are the kind of team that will bludgeon top-class opposition 5-0 one week (OK, dodgy defence, 5-2) and then lose 4-0 the next against a club battling relegation. It is fantastic if you are a neutral spectator; infuriating if you are a fan.
If you don’t follow Liverpool or know anything about football, it is like watching Wimbledon as a Brit before Andy Murray won anything. Because Fred Perry won it once, we assumed a level of greatness belonged to our players that they simply didn’t possess. We assumed, every year, our guy would win it and every year they let us down. Despite our great hope, they just weren’t as good as we thought (or hoped) they were.
Following Liverpool is like this. For several decades up to the 90s, Liverpool was the major footballing power in the UK. We won everything at home and abroad. Liverpool fans have a sense that we should still be winning everything despite the fact that we haven’t won a league title for 27 years (you can even watch this helpful timer, no doubt set up by a Manchester United fan, to see exactly how long it has been, to the second). Despite a shock win in the Champions League in 2005, we haven’t won much. The bottom line is that we are just not as good as we like to think we are.
Of course, I’m not sharing this to give you an insight into the frustrations of a Liverpool fan. I share it because they offer a helpful parallel to the Christian life. Like Liverpool, we are not as good as we think we are and our Christian walk has a tendency to be a bit schizophrenic.
If you’re anything like me, you could go away on a mission and come back absolutely buzzing. You have spent most of your time sharing the gospel boldly with unbelievers, having amazing quiet times every morning, enjoying wonderful fellowship with other godly people. You come back and, not necessarily with any great pride, look back on the week and think, ‘yes, I have done something for the Lord because I love him and I am sure he is pleased with my desire to serve him this way’. We feel elated; we sense we are doing what Christian people are called to do.
But that was last week. You got back on the Saturday and, by Sunday morning, your quiet time has already gone out the window because you had children to get up before you desperately attempt to make it to church on time. Once there, you are frustrated by all the people around you who just don’t seem anywhere near as godly and self-sacrificial as the guys you just saw last week. Monday rolls round and the boldness that attended your mission suddenly deserts you as your colleague asks, ‘what did you do on the weekend?’ Things continue like this until Friday, at which point you look back at your service for the Lord the week before and wonder where your joy has gone and why this week could not have looked any more different had you tried.
The problem is that you and I are Liverpool football club. We may knock our Christian service out the park one week and, the next, feel like we’ve done nothing of value and may even feel like we let the Lord down altogether. We think we’re top of the Christian holiness rankings one week and, just a few short days later, realise we haven’t even broken into the top 4 and we stand little chance of doing so. We’re simply not as good as we think we are and it takes those humbling, faltering, shoddy weeks for us to realise it.
The great joy of the Christin life, however, is that we are not judged according to the standard of our performance. The reason our performance is moot is that Christ has already won the victory on our behalf. We may belong to his team, but we never come off the subs bench. He is the one playing for us, he is the one that wins the game and we, simply by being on his team, share in the victory that he alone wins on our behalf.
What, then, of our faltering ups and downs during our Christian life? These don’t take place on the field of play; they happen on the training pitch. We may blast the training one week; we may fall flat on our faces during the training exercises the next. But whether we perform well or we fail miserably, each of these things is used to make us better Christians who look increasingly like Jesus Christ. But we never really step onto the field of play; Christ is the only one playing the matches. We win when he wins; we train so that we might be as good as him until one day – when we get to glory – we are made just like him.
So, frustrating as it is to watch Liverpool at times, I am grateful for the reminder that it is Christ’s consistent performance – not my erratic efforts – that win my salvation. As we seek to become increasingly like the one who wins the victory on our behalf, we realise that our ups and downs, successes and failures, are all God’s means of making us more like him so that we may glorify him and enjoy him forever.