George Foreman grew up with a stomach starved for food and a heart fattened with anger. Ashamed of revealing his poverty in the cafeteria, he'd carry a brown paper lunch bag to school. It was empty. He gave vent to his rage through his fists, first in the streets and later in the boxing ring. Opponent after opponent crumbled to the mat as six-foot-four Foreman rose through the ranks undefeated. This giant with an iron fist seemed unstoppable.
In 1974, legendary Muhammad Ali challenged Foreman to a championship match. All bets were on Foreman, who, at twenty-five, was seven years younger than Ali. Round after round, Ali took all that Foreman could dish out. Punch after punch landed but Ali remained on his feet, even taunting his opponent. Foreman gradually weakened. In the eighth round, Ali hit him with a lightning fast right hand that sent Foreman tumbling. He stumbled back to his feet at the count of nine but the judges wouldn't let the fight continue. Ali was declared the winner. And Foreman swallowed the bitter pill of defeat for the first time.
Three years later, in Puerto Rico, he reentered the ring to face another fighter, Jimmy Young. If he won this match, he'd have a chance to go after Ali again and retrieve his title. The two pounded away at each other, but neither gained the upper hand. Until the ninth round. Foreman took a blow that knocked him to his knees. He managed to get up but it was all over. In the end, once more, the judges put his opponent on top. Foreman had failed again, only this time the pain was far deeper.
After the fight, in his dressing room, Foreman paced the floor, still in a daze. He thought he was going to die. He said he "could literally smell death in the room." He began to pray that God would spare his life. Suddenly, he collapsed, feeling like he was in a "deep, dark junkyard of nothing." Moments later, prostrate on a table, he said to himself, "I don't care if this is death. I still believe there's a God." No sooner had he said that when "a gigantic hand reached in and held" him. He "jumped off the table and started screaming, 'Jesus Christ has come alive in me! . . . I got to save the world!'" Foreman said, "That experience changed me forever."
Those two failures, and the near-death experience after the second one, were watershed moments for Foreman. He walked away from his boxing career. In time he would become a pastor and devote time and resources to helping young people. Looking back, he said it was like his whole biography had "been turned upside down." The successes he'd enjoyed early in his career he now considered the real failure because he didn't appreciate them.
Foreman's experience of failure ruined him in the best possible way. It spoiled his vision of what he considered the good life. Pre-failure, his ambition was fueled by the desire for conquest, victory, looking down at the opponent he had overcome. The goal of his life was to be extraordinary, a champion. In other words, Foreman's view of the good life was a life all about him. His desires. His dreams. His will being done. Not until he swallowed that bitter pill of defeat did he begin to taste the sweet hope of something radically new, something better. As much as it hurt, as much as it was contrary to everything Foreman wanted, failure was God's gift to him.
When God sends the gift of failure to us, we often take a magic marker and write on the package, "Return to sender!" Thanks, but no thanks. We don't want it. Obviously, the Lord mailed it to the wrong person. It's for that loser down the street who never mows his lawn and whose dogs bark all night. There's no way this is for us. I mean, it's not only what we don't want. It's also not what we've asked God for and prayed to receive. So he shows up on our front porch to hand it to us himself. Yes, this is for you.
Failures, big and small, are God's ways of prying open our eyes to see what we'd never see otherwise. Had Foreman gone on undefeated, winning every fight, he'd always have had a skewed image of what life is really all about. God uses singular failures to get us off the path we're on and back on the path he himself walks—the path where he continues to turn our world upside down.
On that path we begin to learn something strange. We come to grips with just how weird Christianity is, how uncool and unmainstream it is. Because from the perspective of the world, from the view of common sense, Jesus and his followers are an embarrassing band of failures. We fail to believe that life is all about us. We fail to follow our hearts. We fail to have the kind of marriages and be the kinds of parents the world thinks we should be. We even fail to be the kind of church that is socially acceptable and religiously smart according to common human standards. On God's path we learn, often the hard way, that anytime the world stands to its feet and applauds what we're doing, there's a high likelihood we're doing it all wrong. But to fail the world—that is to achieve the upside-down spiritual life.
Taken from Upside-Down Spirituality, the latest book from Chad Bird, published by Baker Books priced £9.99. Printed with permission.