Random Reflections on Work, Talent, Faith

The first Bank Holiday in May is always conveniently loaded with sporting events, so I always see it as a prime opportunity to think about sport and how faith might come into it. Personally, I see the conclusion of the World Snooker Championships as the highlight of the weekend – this year’s final was certainly most entertaining! – and last year I wrote some thoughts about that.[1]

This year, I share some thoughts on the relationship between hard work and talent, which is so important in sport and, indeed, most pursuits in life; and consider a parallel between the biblical perspective of faith and works, which features in the New Testament.

I can recall one cross-country season where in the bus on the way to races, our school team gained much motivation from “Remember the Name” by rapper, Fort Minor. The opening lyrics have always stuck with me:

This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill,

Fifteen percent concentrated power of will,

Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain,

And a hundred percent reason to remember the name!

The song is clearly about how to make in the rapping industry such that your name is fully (100%) remembered. There are many elements of hard work involved: especially the “concentrated power of will” and “pain” which Fort Minor deems to constitute 65% of the success equation! There is also some talent involved: albeit a comparatively paltry 20% on skill. The remaining 10% for luck and 5% pleasure are intriguing, and perhaps straddle both categories.

However arbitrary these percentage values may be, I highly doubt Fort Minor was ever inviting statistical analysis of his rap. Nevertheless, generally, a combination of hard work and talent, nature and nurture, or whatever you want to call it, are required to gain notoriety in something.

Yet, some disciplines perhaps require more hard work than talent.[2] Snooker is perhaps a case in point. There are few reasons why an aspiring twelve-year-old who wanted to be world champion in a decade or two’s time, who was prepared to devote themselves to purposeful practice in the optimal environment, should not achieve that goal. Some of the best snooker professionals have fabulous technique, but a lot of it comes down to mental strength and ability to cope with pressure. Conversely, if I had decided as a twelve-year-old that I wanted to be the world shot put champion, there would have been more limiting factors based on my physique, which I do not believe are as limiting in snooker.

Moreover, some people are blessed with a lot of natural ability, achieve a fair amount of initial success, but when they are required to put in the hard graft to reach the next desired level, simply don’t for a variety of reasons. Conversely, some of us – and here I would include myself! – might not have the greatest natural ability, but are prepared to work very hard, and then achieve some level of success.

There is a relationship between hard work and talent; if we want to succeed, we shall almost certainly have to work hard in addition to any innate ability which has been given to us. It is also worth remembering that a hard-working character is something which comes more naturally to others, although it can certainly be nurtured.

Recently, I have reflected a bit on the relationship between works and faith in Scripture. If we extend the parallel above, we might see works as represented by hard work, and faith as something gifted to us by God, even measured or distributed like talent, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 12:3: “to each as God has given the measure of faith”. In the following section (Romans 12:4-7), Paul goes on to write about different spiritual gifts that different believers might have. He states that every member of the body of Christ has an important function. These gifts have a purpose. Although (God-given) talent is different, both gifts and talents can be used purposefully to build up the body of Christ and to extend the Kingdom of God. And just as talent requires work and nurturing, spiritual gifts also need to be practiced and developed; some work on our part is also necessary, but in co-operation with God.

What about the passages in the New Testament that tackle the relationship between works and faith? The apparent contradiction between the Pauline passages (especially Galatians 3:6f. and Romans 4:3) that strongly imply that justification or righteousness comes by faith alone, and the later writing of James in the New Testament that works are an important sign of faith (James 2:18-23), is often noted. Yet, on closer inspection, we need not see a contradiction. In any case, the one thing James does not promote is works-based salvation or righteousness. The writer of James uses the ancient rhetorical technique of the diatribe throughout. In the diatribe,[3] a philosopher-teacher defended his own position by disproving other positions, which he placed into the mouth of a pupil who functioned as an interlocutor. This is precisely what happens in James 2:18: “But someone will say: you have faith, but I have works.” In what follows, the writer draws out the inconsistency of this position, and arrives at the conclusion in James 2:22 that faith and works co-operated in Abraham’s case: “you see that faith was working with his [Abraham’s] deeds, and from works, faith was made complete.” Indeed, far from contradicting this, in Galatians 5:6, Paul says something similar: “for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision[4] has any strength, but (only) faith working itself out through love.” Here, too, there is a relationship between faith and works, held together by love. Love straddles the perceived divide between works and faith, uniting both sides. The love of a Saviour who breaks down boundaries (racial, social, gender), invites us to share in his love, and to share his love with the world.

There are perhaps some parallels between works and faith in Scripture, and the hard work and talent in many human, as well as spiritual disciplines. In the Christian faith, however, works and faith are mediated by the love of Jesus Christ, which is to be the source of our love; and we believe that there is a 100% reason to remember His name.

[1] https://alexmuirblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/30/a-lot-can-change-in-twelve-months-snooker-and-grace/

[2] Not everyone I know rates him, but Matthew Syed’s Bounce: The Myth of Power and the Power of Practice is an accessible and informative starting point in this area.

[3] My understanding of the diatribe stems from my MTh dissertation on Paul’s Rhetoric in Romans 1:18-3:20, which drew on Stanley Stowers’ very informative work: The Diatribe and Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

[4] Or more literally, “foreskin”.

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