AND THIS IS THE VICTORY THAT HAS OVERCOME the world-our faith" (1 John 5:4).
How often I've wanted to fix that sentence. Must be an ellipsis, I'm thinking, the apostle in his exuberance omitting a couple of words. My mind wants to mentally correct it toward greater precision: "And this is the means to the victory that has overcome the world-our faith." Thus we give "victory" another referent, as yet undetermined.
Still, the verse is what it is, no getting around it ("What I have written I have written"), a grammatical construction having "victory" as a predicate nominative, thus equating "faith" to "victory." Not faith as means to the end; not an instrument but victory itself.
To be sure, faith also gives victory. Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel had what we call "victories." They "conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight," (Hebrews 11), all victories they gained "through faith."
And that is a good point but evidently it is not John's point. The beloved apostle maintains that faith is the victory, the gold standard, the highest object of a wise man's desire, and not some stepping stone to other goods.
And come to think of it, if faith itself is not the victory, what is? If a heart made constant in dependence on God is not the victory par excellence, what other achievement is more worthy of the name? Is it getting all your housework done? Is it losing that five pounds? Is it becoming better organized? Is it achieving your career objectives? Is it filling the church coffers? Is it a magazine circulation that tops 500,000? What victory is more to be prized than a heart anchored in faith no matter what the hand of providence brings?
Mothers in suburbia want "victory" for their daughters. So in Moorestown, N.J., one has filed a suit against the district, feeling that her daughter should be sole valedictorian and not just one of three co-valedictorians. You see, valedictorian status is a victory that sets you up for the right college-which is a victory that sets you up for the right career, which is a victory that sets you up for security and enjoyment of life, which is (presumably) the mother of all victories.
The great Scottish preacher Alexander Maclaren muses on the common views of victory: "Our notion of being victorious in life is when each man, according to his own ideal of what is best, manages to wring that ideal out of a reluctant world." But such victories may as well enslave as help us. At what cost are they wrought? How many murders and little deaths along the way-of integrity, of honesty, of humanity? Tragic Macbeth saw the crown as victory but lost his soul in the securing of it: "I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er." Early 20th-century Manhattan city planner Robert Moses, who never saw a neighborhood he wouldn't mow down if it stood in the path of his putsch for personal victory, had this cynical quip for those who confronted him with the moral costs of victory: "If the ends don't justify the means, what does?"
Jesus did not a bruised reed break, nor did He boast a square of earth where He could rest His head, and yet He said, in words that echo John's, "I have overcome the world." What if we used the world as He did, its buffeting and temptations as means to tone up the muscle of faith? Could we not make the same victory cry? "The one victory over the world is to bend it to serve me in the highest things-the attainment of a clearer vision of the Divine nature.... That is the victory-when you can make the world a ladder to lift you to God. That is its right use.... Rule the world by making it help you to be wiser, gentler, nobler, more Christ-like" (Maclaren).
We put aside our pauper's view of victory then-valedictorianship and all the rest. To believe in Christ, this moment, in this perplexity, in this frustration, in these setbacks, in this present agony, is victory of the highest order. And it is available to all and not to those alone with high SATs or mothers with attitude. You are dealt your own hand, and you play the hand you're dealt. And in the playing of it, faith's the thing-a victory in itself, and an earnest of a victory not yet imagined.