It’s annual World Snooker Championship time again. Years ago I used to play in two types of snooker league: the open league and the handicap league. In the open league both players start the game on zero, giving the best players the better chance of winning.
However, in the handicap league, based on a points system conditioned by past results, better players give inferior players a head start in order to narrow the gulf in ability and make matches more evenly contested.
The handicap league works because even though the points are differentiated at the start of play, both players are still incentivised to try hard to play to the best of their ability. But this also means that someone can play much better than his opponent yet still lose the match because of his opponent’s handicap.
This reminded me of one of my beefs with Christianity when I first explored the faith. Why can’t the lovely non-Christian Mrs Jones get to heaven, and yet the not-so-kind and lovely Christian Mr Smith can?
Years later I came to see that the situation was a little like the handicap snooker matches. Mrs Jones may have been the better snooker player (kinder and lovelier) but Mr Smith had the better handicap (God’s grace) and wins the victory – not because he’s relying on his own qualities, but because he’s relying on God’s gift of salvation and God’s help in becoming more Christ-like.
Even if on his own qualities he starts behind Mrs Jones, it’s the handicap points of God’s grace, not his own abilities, that will help him win the prize of salvation.
In snooker the worse you are as a player the higher your handicap points will be, which reminds me of what Paul says in Romans 5:20 that ‘where sin increased, grace increased all the more’. Amazingly, the further away our faults and failings distance us from God, the more his grace is at hand to bring us back, as the father’s welcome of his prodigal son showed.
On top of that, from a Christian perspective, even those kind and lovely qualities are not really Mrs Jones’s as much as they are God’s gifts to her. They are in her only because they are in God first, because all good gifts are from above, not from ourselves. As Ephesians 2:8 makes clear, the grace that saves is a gift from God.