Remember when President Kennedy said that we were going to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard? Okay, I don’t either, but I’ve seen it on TV a bunch of times. That sentiment, though rousing, always seemed strange to me…I mean, why not do easy things? That way, we might avoid things like Gus Grissom (and crew) blowing up on the Apollo 1 launching pad. I thought of this upon reading a new piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Do Sports Build Character or Damage It?” The article is a lengthy (and very good) read, but one sentiment jumped out at me above any other. Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, recalling his days as a high school football player, says:

I liked the transforming aspect of the game: I came to the field one thing—a diffident guy with a slack body—and worked like a dog and so became something else—a guy with some physical prowess and more faith in himself. Mostly, I liked the whole process because it was so damned hard. I didn’t think I could make it, and no one I knew did either. My parents were ready to console me if I came home bruised and dead weary and said that I was quitting. In time, one of the coaches confessed to me that he was sure I’d be gone in a few days. I had not succeeded in anything for a long time: I was a crappy student; socially I was close to a wash; my part-time job was scrubbing pans in a hospital kitchen; the first girl I liked in high school didn’t like me; the second and the third followed her lead. But football was something I could do, though I was never going to be anything like a star. It was hard, it took some strength of will, and—clumsily, passionately—I could do it.

The sentence that stands out to me is this:  “I liked the whole process because it was so damned hard.” It also put me in mind of the story of Naaman from 2 Kings. Naaman is an Aramean army commander sent by his King to Israel to be cured of his leprosy. Elisha hears of his plight and tells Naaman to wash in the Jordan and he’ll be made clean. Naaman has brought money and beautiful clothing to give in exchange for his cleansing, and he’s outraged that he’s told to simply go wash in the river:

Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean (2 Kings 5:11-14).

Edmundson seems to be a Naamanite in his recollection of his athletic experience. He liked it because it was hard. If it was easy, it would have been wholly unsatisfying! Ultimately, Edmundson suggests that sports both build character and destroy it, saying that

Sports can do great good: build the body, create a stronger, more resilient will, impart confidence, stimulate bravery, foment daring. But at the same time, sports often brutalize the player—they make him more aggressive, more violent. They make him intolerant of gentleness; they help turn him into a member of the pack, which defines itself by maltreating others—the weak, the tender, the differently made.

The good things that he claims come from sport, though, are all derivations of the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” thesis of Kennedy’s lunar vision. We do things that are hard because we cherish the acclaim that comes with success. No one will sing our praises if we accomplish something simple. Naaman is furious that neither his riches nor his intricate obedience are required to cleanse him of his ailment. Athletes, in a potentially stretched metaphor, similarly bristle when someone does something with a great supporting cast. LeBron James has been excoriated for joining forces (the pathetic easy way) with Dwyane Wade in an attempt to win a championship. How much more honorable to win one by yourself.

Christians are the same way. We can’t handle being given something for free. We are like Naaman, incensed that our riches (our spiritual quality) and obedience are not only not required but, we are told, actually an impediment to our healing. We struggle to retroactively purchase our salvation by becoming people for whom substitutionary atonement is not such a scandal. We want to do something hard. We want to earn God’s favor. We fear something easy, both because we don’t understand it and because we’ve been convinced that something easy isn’t worth anything. Athletics has helped teach us this. Naaman’s servants have it right, though: Having prepared ourselves to do something hard, shouldn’t we be grateful that we’ve been asked to do something easy? Having convinced ourselves that a righteous life (or a rigorous workout) is the path to God’s (or the fans’) love, shouldn’t we be overjoyed to learn that God’s love has been given to us for free? Our resistance to our no-cost salvation belies an ignorance of the most crucial tenant of our faith: While “no pain, no gain” is quite true, the pain was suffered by another, and need not continue.