Sunday, February 28, 2010
Better off having never known?
I still remember that Saturday night in February of 1990.
Everyone else in our family had made their way to bed, but my Dad and I were still up in the living room, watching the TV news. (ESPN had not yet entered our lifestyle, but we made do. Oh, we made do.) I don't remember now, but I'm guessing we were planning to see the sports report before signing off for the night.
As a teaser before the commercial break, the local sportscaster caused the two of us veteran sports fans to audibly gasp in unison with these words:
"Big night in Tokyo...Mike Tyson has been knocked out..."
It was one of those moments when you really doubt you heard what you just heard. Twenty years later, it's hard not to think of a life-turned-trainwreck when you hear the name "Mike Tyson", but if you're old enough to put yourself back in the pre-facial-tattoo years between 1985 - 1990, you know just how unbelievable this was.
Literally, a matter of months before this night, a student in my speech class at school had given a presentation on the history of boxing, which concluded with these words: "Mike Tyson will be the heavyweight champ until he either dies or retires from boxing."
There was just no way this ever should have happened.
On my office wall hang my two diplomas, the one for my undergrad degree bearing a gold sticker with the words "Cum Laude". Something to be proud of? For sure. But, you don't know the whole story.
Every time I see that sticker, something inside of me cringes.
Rolling into the spring of 1995, I had maintained a sufficient GPA in college to earn the "Magna Cum Laude" distinction on my diploma. I was nearing the end of my undergraduate experience, and was eager to launch my career. Honestly, I was sick of my classes. Tired of pretending to be a school teacher; ready to do it for real.
That semester included a double-block class involving observation hours and several hands-on projects to be completed in order to demonstrate that I could do the kind of work a teacher does.
To put it mildly, I blew off the course. Turned in every single project late, and not "late" in terms of minutes, or even hours. I'm talking more like days or weeks. I deserved to fail the course, but a "C" appeared on my report card, a generous gift from the instructor. (Thank you, Mrs. Hatch!)
While a "C" might not have had a major impact on my status, in a double-block course, the grade counts twice, so my last report card was dotted with two "C"s, pulling my overall GPA down from "Magna Cum Laude" to "Cum Laude", a fact that stung badly on graduation night, and a fact I'm reminded of every time I see that diploma.
It just shouldn't have happened.
Less than a year after his historic upset of Tyson, barely-minted heavyweight champ Buster Douglas showed up overweight and out of shape to defend his new title against the formidable Evander Holyfield, who had himself been preparing to take on Tyson, before Douglas changed the world.
The Douglas-Holyfield bout was a short and shameful joke, and everyone was left grasping for some purpose or point in what Douglas had pulled off eight months before.
In a recent interview marking the 20th anniversary of his upset of Tyson, Douglas commented that he had been prepared to take the title from Tyson, but was not prepared to keep it, adding that "it p****s me off sometimes to think about it..."
Really? Just sometimes?
Y'know, in a small way, I relate every time I see that gold sticker.
While it's easy to shake your head at such a glib summation of such a colossal disappointment, Douglas has identified something common to everyone who has gained something of value only to foolishly squander it.
In my case, it's a bitter, nagging aftertaste that never completely goes away, even as I think about it less and less often as time goes by.
In Douglas's case, it's the entire public perception of who he is. To most, he's the guy who earned the world's respect by winning a rare and coveted title against all odds, only to immediately set about dumping it all by the side of the road, a road that can't be retraced, and a prize that can never be recovered.
II Peter 2:20-21
For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: "A dog returns to his own vomit," and, "a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire".
I've always wondered just what Peter meant by saying that a Christian who walks away from Christ would have been better off never having known Him. That essentially, a babe in Christ could end up being "better off if he hadn't ever been born". Worse off than a lost soul who never obeyed the gospel in the first place.
It's hard to say exactly what that could mean in eternity. Hotter flames? Darker darkness? A more remote separation from God? Harder weeping and gnashing of teeth? And for those who don't believe in a conscious eternal torment, it's even harder to speculate as to what could be worse for one lost soul as compared to another.
I guess we'll never really know. No one who experiences those things will be able to tell us about it.
But there is something to this.
Jesus Himself warned those intrigued by Him to consider what following Him would cost, His clear implication being that you shouldn't do it if you aren't ready for what that decision will mean for you later. Jesus' description of the disgrace of a partially-completed building (and the public judgment and mockery that go along with it) is not diplomatic.
Hard to say that Buster Douglas doesn't know a little bit about that.
While we'll never know if eternal loss is any worse for one soul over another, one thing is certain:
Salvation is more precious than any achievement, and to lose it after having lived in it would be a unique form of torment all its own, dwarfing Douglas's disappointment, as well as mine.
"Then He will say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and His angels.'"
It's hard to read. It's hard to imagine. I hope I don't have to see it happen. And I would never wish upon anyone to be in that crowd hearing those words.
But as painful as those words will be to all who hear them, you'll never convince me that they won't sting worse for those who spent some time in the other flock. Those who had known Jesus' love, given Him their souls, and had lived in His care for any amount of time.
Those for whom it just shouldn't have happened.