I grew up swimming competitively. I still have the evidence stuffed in an old box in the back corner our storage closet. The cardboard keepsake-holder is filled to the brim with years of team photos and multi-colored ribbons from hundreds of swim meets. I appreciated each one, but of all the colored ribbons I earned, I was most proud to bring home the blue ones. They were the ones with the gleaming golden words that validated my time and efforts. The blue ribbons read, “First Place”.
Sadly, the satin-shimmering red second-place ribbons didn’t command an equal allure or prominence. Neither when they represented finishes that were only a hundredth-of-a-second behind first place, nor when they marked a new, personal-best race time. I was a competitor, and I swam for the blue. Victory was the prize I fought for and focused on with each breath, stroke and kick that cut through the water to the finish.
I clung to this mentality through all of elementary, middle and high school, until I “retired” from the sport to focus on academics in college. But then, throughout college and into my adult life, I began to see how prevalent a “blue ribbon mindset” is throughout all parts of life – it’s not just limited to competitive sports. Our culture is abounding in superlatives. We’re all about the “-est”. We want to be the smartest, cutest, richest, fastest, best-est of the best in our society. Media and advertising constantly pitch the notion that we can be first, have the most, do it all and do it better and faster than anyone. Everything around us shouts at us to go for the gold and the blue ribbon: Triumph and be the victor! We can achieve if we just believe! The crowds could (and should) be cheering your name! You’re number one!
But is that truly what’s best?
The Bible speaks multiple times about humbling ourselves, and it’s important to understand that biblical humility has more depth than the secular definition of the word. While the dictionary would point to a lack of pride and arrogance, the Bible goes further, clarifying our right position in relation to God. We come second. He deserves all the glory, and our purpose, plans and priorities are all best when coming from Him, our Sovereign King.
For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
Our lives weren’t meant to be prioritized ahead of God. They are precious and valued, yes. But our very existence is a gift that comes with meaning and purpose assigned by our Creator. And we get the most fulfillment in life (the true victory!) when we submit to Him in every way. He alone gives us life’s biggest win.
He Goes Before Us
Even when it feels like we’re in unchartered waters, we can remind ourselves that it’s wise to have God in first place. Why on earth would we want to push ourselves ahead of a loving God who knows the water conditions ahead? He wants to navigate us through the oceans of obstacles and choppiness.
By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (Exodus 13:20-21)
God clearly demonstrates His character and faithfulness in Exodus, as He kept His promise and led His people out of generations of slavery in Egypt. It was such a long and frightening journey to the Promised Land, and it was filled with uncertainty. The Israelites were afraid of the battles ahead. But God led them every step of the way – by day and night. He never left his position ahead of them to light the way for their journey. Can you imagine how much they would have clung to the sight of Him ahead; how it must have brought them such hope to follow His lead, versus racing ahead into the vast unknown?
And yet, a generation later, Moses had to remind the Israelites as they continued their journey to finally take possession of the land. How human of them (and us) to forget the goodness of God. We need to be reminded often, as Moses did here:
The Lord your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the wilderness. There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” (Deuteronomy 1:30-31)
Oh, how good it is not to race ahead! Our God, who adores us so much, leads us, fights for us and carries us. Is that not motivation to come in second behind Him? Take the win, Lord!
He Declares (and Shares) Victory
Because of the Bible, we know the ultimate outcome of the race. The Lord proclaims in the final book, “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). Not only is He the victor, but His great love for us overflows through every mile of our course to the finish line. It’s His desire to be in relationship with us and to share that victory every day of our lives and for all eternity.
If we again look back at the Israelites on their treacherous journey, we are reminded of the truth of His love:
For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” (Deuteronomy 20:4)
Romans 8:37 also offers a beautiful reminder centuries after the Israelites’ exodus. Romans was written by Paul, who would undergo tremendous suffering and a horrific death for his faith in Christ. He wrote (referring to trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness or danger): No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Yes, in Him, we get to be conquerers! Victors! Winners! True “Blue Ribbon” holders in this race called life. But only when we decide not to be first.
Lord, God, we humbly come before you with hearts that want to submit to You and Your plans for our lives. May our victory be in You and not ourselves, because only through You can we rightly claim to win in life. Help us to lift the burdens of the “race” off of ourselves and onto Your capable and loving shoulders. Remind our forgetful memories of your faithfulness, Lord, and help us to daily see the victory we have in You. The race has already been won, and we praise you for carrying us with you to the Promised Land! In Jesus’ name, Amen.
An afterthought…or perhaps a few questions for pondering…how do we keep God first? How do we battle against our human desire to glorify ourselves, stand on the thrones of our accomplishments and run ahead of God?
For me, I can only do it by constantly reminding myself of who God is. I have to dig into the Word daily. Reading scripture paints a clear picture of God’s greatness and sovereignty. Nothing can compare (certainly not me). If I don’t remind myself every day, the noise of the world creeps in…and it’s loud.
What do you do?