The Struggle for Purpose
And to the man he said, “Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat, the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains. By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”
These kinds of weeks are coming more frequently. Somebody out there in the world lays some hate. People, without discrimination, are killed. News feeds roll a repetitious cycle for hours until new information merges with the old. Who? What? Where? When? -- and the all-important, yet elusive, Why? Experts are summoned. Politics start weighing in. Nothing really changes. Las Vegas is our most recent reminder.
As I type this, I’m listening to some old Tom Petty songs. Petty, who was a classic American music icon, died this week after succumbing to a heart attack. He sang about the plight of normal Americans, particularly the lives of angst experienced in our teenage years. You could hear the experience in his voice and through the lyrics. I always felt like Tom was a guy who never dated the cheerleader but became famous anyway. His lyrics speak of personal rejections, heartbreaks, and the drive to push on. He became the patron saint of every guy who didn’t date the cheerleader but found love anyway. Quite ironically, Tom’s band was called “The Heartbreakers.” One line from his song “You Wreck Me” kind of captures his life before fame: “Now and again I get the feeling, if I don’t win I’m gonna break even.” Life was hard, and success didn’t come easy. He let all of us know, who could identify with his experience, that he never forgot us. He stuck with me anyway, and I’m going to miss him.
Within minutes of learning of Petty’s death, Doug Yates let us know that his father, racing legend, Robert Yates had also died after a brief battle with liver cancer. He was 74. Robert was a huge reason I went to NASCAR as a chaplain in the first place. He was brilliant and was as hard-working of a person as I’d ever encountered. For years he was the underdog to pull for, and most Sunday afternoons you could find my family on the couch doing just that. Like Tom Petty, Robert stands as an icon, an inspiration to everyone who finds life uneasy. He knew what it was like to be wrecked and not back down.
He finally won the championship he had fought so hard to win in 1999, my first year in the sport. I stood in Victory Lane with him as he and the team accepted the trophy. It still doesn’t seem real to me. Last year was given an amazing honor when he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
One of the lessons Robert taught me came from the text of Genesis 3 that you read above. Like most of us, Robert Yates needed to figure out the nature and purpose of competition in our lives. Is competition “evil” in its very nature, or do we as humans end up making it evil? Robert looked at Genesis 3 as the answer to that question. “I believe the world turns on competition,” he often said. “The whole good and evil thing, there is a winner ultimately, we believe. At least I do.” I thought about that conversation with Robert. We spoke together about it on a few occasions just so I could make sure I didn’t miss anything from his understanding. I had thought of competition, in general, as mostly bad. Not Robert, he saw it as the necessary consequence of the fall of man. Normal life.
“It’s pretty simple to me, actually. God is over all of it, but life for us is a struggle here. Without competition, things don’t grow.” Look at the word of God, “All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains.” God takes the effects of the curse and brings redemption out of the rebellion and following chaos. We will struggle, but things will grow. We weep at our broken condition, but we hope because God decrees good to come even from the biggest wrecks in life.
“If I won all the time (and I love to win) there would be little passion to improve.” Robert Yates knew this. Do you? You may find yourself in the dregs of God’s curse. Sin not only brought death—it also brought thorns and weeds to struggle through. Are you despairing in the weeds? Do you find competition with the curse as an unwinnable event? Take hope. Remember the object of your faith. By the sweat of your brow, through the struggle, great things will happen. You will be fed. And you will grow.