When the most interesting statistic in a football match is “fouls suffered” you know things are bad. That was my experience watching Valencia vs Man U on Wednesday. And Utrecht vs Liverpool on Thursday come to think of it. A waste of 90 minutes? Arguable! Intending to switch my brain off, I was bored so I began to think. Isn’t that an interesting thing to count. And interesting language. Are fouls suffered? Or received, experienced, taken?
Players have different attitudes to suffering fouls. For some, the slightest touch is enough to bring them diving majestically to the floor sporting toddler-style tantrums. Think Drogba. Or it brings an angry retaliation. Think Rooney. Other players are built of stronger stuff and suffer fouls more gladly. You get knocked down, and you get up again. You are, after all, playing a contact sport. Think John Terry (on a good day!). How they respond to those fouls will often define them as players.
Following Jesus brings up some similar issues, for leaders yes, but for everyone else too. We know we will be fouled, sometimes badly, sometimes innocuously. It is how we respond to those fouls that define us as followers of Jesus.
There’s much biblical precedent for expecting to be fouled, on purpose or not. Prophets, preachers and ordinary people are repeatedly ignored, mocked, confused, disheartened; and more seriously beaten, imprisoned, executed. So the odd (or frequent) argument, hurtful comment, draining conversation, thoughtless remark, conflicting vision, broken window, verbal abuse or black dog of lingering depression are to be expected. Anticipated. But, I hasten to add, not yearned for to earn “bruise badges” to show how tough or effective we are, nor milked to gain attention or sympathy we feel we deserve.
Sometimes we will need to take time out and rest. Sometimes get straight back up and run it off. Sometimes we will have the wind knocked out of us. Sometimes we will be tempted to make more of it than we need to – for a rest, for some attention, because we’re irritable, or because there’s been so many small fouls we’ve ignored that we’re darn well gonna milk this one.
Maybe we could follow the lead of the Psalmists, whose God led them through the valley of the shadow of death towards green pastures. Fouls come, knocks come, bruises come. But by the grace of God we can carry on, learning, parrying, sometimes weeping and sometimes not seeing a way through but always hoping there is one. Because how we suffer the fouls will define us.
And if we really need to be things put in perspective, watch this: