The Location of Victory

by the Rev. Paul Zacharias
retired Swedenborgian minister
in the July, 1994 Issue of Our Daily Bread

There are things we say in jest, or half in jest, which come very close to representing or expressing our real feelings. Such, I think, is true of this short sentence: "You can't win." How many times have you heard someone say this? How many times have you said it yourself?

To say this in all seriousness would be pessimistic, perhaps cynical, and certainly lacking in the faith we should expect of a Christian in God's world. I guess that is why these words are so often said in a joking tone of voice - with a slight laugh. Should a true Christian really feel there is no chance of winning in this world? Or - to ask a twin question - should a true Christian believe that he is guaranteed victory and success in proportion to his faith? I have heard radio and TV evangelists who seem to think so. They may have in mind such Scripture passages as Philippians 4:13, where St. Paul writes, "I can do all things through Christ which strengthen me," or Mark 9:23 where Jesus says, "All things are possible to him that believeth." Yet I'm sure the experience of most of us belies this Christian optimism.

There is a verse in chapter 16 of John's Gospel which I would place alongside the two verses I have just quoted as a representing more adequately the full Christian truth. In the last verse of that chapter we read, "In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." He addresses these words to all, both to the person of no faith and to the person of perfect faith, if there by such. They suggest a basis for what I would call Christian realism, as opposed to either simple pessimism or wholesale optimism.

We all live in two worlds all the time. We live in an inner word and an outer world. We live in a mental or spiritual world and we live in a material or natural world, closely related by separate. The possibilities for winning and losing are different in these different worlds.

When Jesus said, "In this world you shall have tribulation..." I believe he was speaking of the material or natural world. He was speaking realistically without necessarily being pessimistic. He did not say there would be nothing but tribulation, but he did want to let the person of faith understand that he or she had no special exemption. It has often been assumed that God has guaranteed to the good person material security, physical immunity, and safety from harm. The book of Job should have permanently laid to rest this unjustified assumption.

In reference to the material natural world Jesus never said, "You can't win." Nor did He promise, "You can win." Instead he predicted tribulations which nevertheless need not defeat us.

It is in the inner, spiritual realm where it is fundamentally unchristian for a person to say, "I can't win." For that is to say, "I am beyond redemption. I can never become the kind of person the Lord wants me to become. Even with the Lord's help I will  let this world defeat me, in spite of the fact that He overcame the world for my sake." The inner, spiritual realm is the realm of promised victory, It is there that with God's help all things are possible.

I am reminded of the Gestalt therapist who says to his patient, "Don't say you can't change. That's an excuse. That's self-justification for staying as you are. Say what is the truth, 'you won't change.'" If he is correct, then to say "I can't win" is tantamount to saying, "I won't won." And unfortunately that is what some people want to say.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "They conquer who believe they can." The Lord's life on earth in human nature was - among other things - to give us such a belief. Because He overcame the world, we, too, with His help can also overcome the world; we can win within.

The next time you are tempted to say, "You can't win," may I suggest that you pause and reflect: Is this saying something about me? And what is the reality?

In the natural, material plane I am suggesting that the reality is something like this:

     NOT - You can't win
     NOT - You can win
     BUT - You can't win them all

On the spiritual plane:

     NOT - You will win them all
     BUT CERTAINLY - You can win the war, even if there are occasional
                                 defeats. Final victory is always possible.

I'd like to close this sermon with a short poem from the Swedenborgian poet, Edwin Markham, entitled "Victory in Defeat":

Defeat may serve as well as victory
To shake the soul and let the glory out
When the great oak is straining in the wind,
The boughs drink in new beauty, and the trunk
Sends down a deeper root on the windward side.
Only the soul that knows the mighty grief
Can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come
To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.


"I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the worlds; again I am leaving the world and am going to the Father."

His disciples said, "Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God." Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!"

John 16:25-33

Reading from Swedenborg:

He who is steadfast in the genuine affection of truth to the end of his life in the world, shall come into the new heaven. This is evident form the signification of "overcoming." as being in reference to those who long for the knowledge of truth and good from the Word, to be steadfast in the genuine affection of truth, even to the end of life in the world. It is said "he that overcometh," because those are meant who endure spiritual temptation, which is from evils and falsities, and who fight: and "to overcome" is to resist evils and falsities, and to tame and subdue them as one's enemies. But no one overcomes unless he is steadfast in the spiritual affections of truth, even to the end of this life in the worlds; then the work is finished; for one remains to eternity such as one then is, namely, such as one's life has been up to that point: death is what completes it. But no one is able to overcome except the Lord only. The person who supposes that he overcomes of himself, and not that it is the Lord with him that overcomes, does not overcome but succumbs; for it is spiritual faith that overcomes, and there is nothing of spiritual faith from man, but the whole of it is from the Lord.

Apocalypse Explained #128


Music: On A Distant Shore
1999 Bruce DeBoer