A friend of mine went to Washington State University and has been a fan of their historically terrible football team ever since. This year, they’re having a remarkably successful season, but that hasn’t been the case for a very long time.
Steve was telling me about alumni gatherings he’s been to where year after year he’d hear long-time alumni telling stories about the incredibly cold weather they endured as they watched the Cougars lose to this team and that team. “Who did we lose to that time?” one would ask. “How much did we lose by?” another would query.
What I was hearing Steve say was Cougar fans are a fellowship of hardy souls who are well-acquainted with suffering. In fact, it is their shared suffering that has cemented their bond to one another and to the football program.
And with the Chicago Cubs’ come-from-behind World Series win, ending 108 years of futility, I’m reminded of when I lived near Chicago in 1989. The World Series drought was only 81 years long back then. I was assistant editor for a magazine there and had an employee named Doris Gillespie who came in twice a week to update our subscriptions database. Doris was well into her 70s and listened to Cubs games as she updated addresses of subscribers who’d moved. And I kept thinking, this woman has been a Cubs fan her entire life and they’ve rarely had winning seasons, much less a chance at the sport’s top honor, and yet she is relentlessly faithful and hopeful.
These are true fans. These are fans who feel all the pain of adversity and yet remain faithful. Suffering is felt deeply, but it’s not rejected out of hand. Rather, it is expected and endured with persistent hope.
The opposite of these are the bandwagon fans who show up during banner years and find other favorite teams during slumps. And then there are Alabama fans whose team always wins, because coach Nick Saban is obviously a time traveler who knows what other teams are going to do before they do it. They’re not real fans either.
Real disciples are similar to real sports fans. Their commitment is determined not by current circumstances, but by a last loyalty that is deepened and strengthened by the fires of suffering.
This doesn’t mean that suffering isn’t felt and struggled through. It is. All of it. And painfully so.
Knowing this long-suffering faith from the inside out, Peter writes:
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:6-8).
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:12-13).
Cold nights out on the Palouse of eastern Washington, watching the Cougars lose yet again, revealed the depth of love those WSU alumni have for their team and for one another. The same is true for followers of Jesus.
We were not promised an easy ride or a winning season. On the contrary, we follow a crucified Messiah who calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. In other words, we were promised suffering. We were told to expect many losing seasons followed by the greatest and sweetest win of all at the end.
When the Cubs finally won, Doris is the first person I thought of, knowing that she had lived a long life and yet hadn’t lived long enough to see the Cubs pull it off. She had lived with what’s called an eschatological perspective — she lived through season after season of defeat, knowing that victory would someday come, even if she didn’t live to see it.
Hebrews 11:13-16 puts it this way:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
This is true discipleship. We are to be the community of those who live faithfully and missionally through adversity in light of what God has done before and what he promises to do in the future.