Finding Joy: On Golf and the Sermon on the Mount

I'd just finished reading the entire Sermon on the Mount--the Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapters five through seven. After finishing, one the inmates raises his hand.

"Is this attainable?" he asks.

The question gave me pause because just the day before we had been talking about the Sermon on the Mount in our Sunday School class. The argument the teacher made in our class was that the Sermon was unattainable. He made the argument Martin Luther popularized, that the Sermon is intended to humble us, to show us how salvation by works is impossible.

So, is the Sermon on the Mount attainable?

I guess it all depends upon what we mean by "attainable." When I look at various parts of the sermon, even the hardest parts like turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, I am pretty certain people have attained these standards. Christian history is full of biographies of saints who have loved enemies and turned the other cheek.

The point being, in any given moment of any given day I think the Sermon on the Mount is attainable.

Given that assessment, the question might move on to issues of sustainability and maintenance. Is it possible to sustain, decade after decade, a faultless adherence to the Sermon on the Mount?

I think the Sermon on the Mount contains the answer to that question in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our sins."

So we are walking a fine line here. On the one hand, you don't want to say that the Sermon is unattainable because clearly it is attainable. We really should try to attain to the ideals set out in the Sermon. And, with the help of God, we actually can attain these things.

But on the other hand, the Sermon is so imposing we know we are surely going to fail. A lot.

So how are we to thread the needle?

Well, this might be the worst metaphor you'll ever hear, but I'd like to compare the Sermon on the Mount to golf.

I don't golf a lot. But when I'm visiting my family I golf with my Dad. He's very good. I'm...less good.

If you don't know anything about golf all you need to know for our purposes is this: Golf is hard. It's a frustrating and infuriating game. Hence Mark Twain's quip: "Golf is a good walk spoiled." If you've ever played golf you know exactly what Twain was talking about.

There were times, particularly in my early years with the game, where I felt that golf was a form of Calvinistic self-loathing or Catholic self-mortification. That you could either whip yourself for your sins or go golfing. The two seemed equivalent, spiritually speaking. And there have been times on the golf course when I would have preferred whipping myself rather than looking for another lost ball because I keep slicing my drives into the woods.

The point here is that golf is attainable on any given shot but, due to its difficulty, not sustainable. Even the pros make double bogeys. Rory McIlroy, the young man who just won the US Open, had been leading the Masters just a few weeks before going into the final round. He shot an 80. Watching Rory on the 10th hole I thought, "Hey, that's where I end up on golf courses! In someone's backyard."

The point is, golf is so hard even the pros melt down. But look what happened to Rory. After his meltdown at the Masters he set the scoring record at the US Open.

In this, I think golf is kind of like the Sermon on the Mount. Attainable on any given shot, any given hole, any given round. But too hard to be sustainable. There will be bogeys and double bogeys. (Or, if you're me, a whole lot worse.)

And given this degree of difficulty and likelihood of failure you often see golfers come unglued on the course. I've seen golfers curse, throw clubs, break clubs, throw clubs into ponds. Or just give up and drive off the course. Some, out of frustration, give up the game.

Similar things, I think, can happen with the Sermon on the Mount. It's so hard we can become demoralized and self-loathing. And this can lead to quitting and giving up.

I've wrestled with these sorts of reactions in my golf game and in my Christian walk. In my early years with golf I got angry a lot. But as I've matured I've learned to keep my cool, even when I get an eight on a par three (this happened last week). I've learned to focus on the process rather than the outcome. And because of this I've improved a lot over the years.

In short, despite its difficulty and my repeated failures I've found joy in the game of golf. I'm happy on a golf course. Even when my score is bad.

I'm looking for something similar in my relationship with the Sermon on the Mount. If I approach the Sermon with a grim Puritan rigor I don't think I'm going to be very pleasant to be around. I'll wind up wrapping a Beatitude, like a seven iron, around a pine tree. But if I can find joy in the climb then I think I can make progress over time. The key to becoming a skilled Christian is to practice the faith with joy. Even in failure. The alternative is guilt, shame, and anger. Which leads to giving up on the game. The journey of faith becomes a good walk spoiled.

So pick up your clubs. Take up the Beatitudes. And be prepared to succeed. You can actually, on any given hole, in any given interaction, attain the state of perfection. Be that par or Christlikeness. The Sermon or a drive in the fairway really is attainable. Mere mortals can pull it off. Still, you're going to fail a lot. So be prepared for that. Because how you react to the failure will in large part determine if you keep coming back and if you'll get better and more skilled as time goes on.

So, blessed are the merciful and this putt breaks a little to the left.

Either way. Have fun out there.

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12 thoughts on “Finding Joy: On Golf and the Sermon on the Mount”

  1. it's truly freaking me out, the synchrocities of the Spirit in my life right now.
    a good friend spoke just yesterday of how some mistakenly treat Jesus' words as they treat the law, nice ideas but never meant to be lived - only meant (like the law) to show us how we fall short.
    AND your book Unclean is AMAZING - pondering THAT then my reading for today is Matthew 9 (completely unrelated "coincidence"). 
    so grateful for the various pathways Wisdom is using to get to me these days.
    take care.

  2. What an excellent analogy - even though I've never played a game of golf in my life!

    And yes, "Unclean" is also very well worth reading. It was one of the first books I downloaded onto my new Kindle.

  3. My Methodist self cannot resist pointing out that you have just given a contemporary take on John Wesley's admonition to "go on to perfection." Wesley believed that perfection was/is attainable in this life ... although I believe he made the distinction between perfection in intent and perfection in execution (it's the intention part that is do-able).

    As for golf, blech. Once when my oldest son was a toddler, I walked with my husband while he played a round. Never again. It not only was a good walk spoiled, it was a whole Mother's Day Out spoiled. 

  4. As someone who was innoculated against golf more than twenty years ago, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that you have managed something that even P.G. Wodehouse couldn't do, which is to make it seem in any sensen meaningful to me.

    It's a nice analogy, though given that it's a Scottish game -- indeed, I generally prefer to it as 'The Scottish Game' rather than sullying my tongue by naming it -- I reckon it's more akin to Calvinistic self-loathing than Catholic self-mortification. Ireland provides its own sports for the latter.

  5. Universalism is completely changing my response to passages like the Sermon on the Mount.

    I applaud your shift from outcomes to process, Richard.  In my experience, the worst way to achieve an outcome is to make it into a target.

    May I be so bold as to suggest a next step?

    When we are clear about our purpose and get our process in line with that, the outcomes stop being targets and start being 'outcomes' again.

    This gets us back to Universalism.

    If we really believe that perfection is our inexorable future, then the Sermon on the Mount makes perfect sense.  It could perhaps be summarised thus:

    "Blessed are all whose purpose is perfection.  (Psst: that's all of you.)  Since you're heading for that destination, your best bet is to get your lifestyle in line with this purpose.  Don't get hung up on success rates: that's missing the point."

    Or is Jesus' version better?

  6. > I'll wind up wrapping a Beatitude, like a seven iron, around a pine tree.

    Nicely put.

  7. Something about not over-analyzing. The Author of the sermon is the Judge of the Sermon who after the fact says ... "well done" (Matt 25:21). Looking at the leader board – of my imagination – is not the same as playing.

  8. Hello Dr. Beck,

    Golf - interesting analogy.  Would you agree that Jesus shoots the unattainable 18 (18 holes per round) every time he sets foot on any golf course, never needing a putter - in other words, is THAT the standard He conveys in the sermon (I would assume it's this perfect)?     Matthew 5:28 alone disqualifies me from the tournament during the opening round every time.  

    Common/popular soteriology appears to grade on a curve and not the perfect standard set in the sermon. The winner of any tournament never shoots an 18 - the winner just needs to out-perform the field over that given weekend.  That very winner of a major one week may not even make the first cut the next - you spelled that possibily out.

    I think you see what I'm "driving" at, but my question - is God/Jesus pleased with one shooting 10 under par while being very condemningly displeased with one who shoots an 80?

    I'm not disagreeing with you - I'm just asking if you might extend your thoughts on what might be considered ACCEPTABLY "attainable", if there is such a thing in Jesus' eyes.  Thanks once again!
    Gary Y.

  9. Sorry for my inefficiency - is there such thing as an acceptable "PAR" in the Sermon on the Mount?
    Gary Y.

  10. Richard,

    The golf illustration works well enough but with these two reservations: (1) a shank looks fine for the first ten yards and (2) an annoying partner or opponent is the equivalent of a four-shank round.  Baseball or dance work much better--as in Satchel Page's famous line about "dance like nobody's watchin'."


  11. Kim T., it's been interesting, reading your frequently they resonate with my own experiences and views.  A fellow United Methodist, commenting on the UM idea of perfection/holiness, shared what I believe is a quote either by John Wesley himself or another historically prominent figure in Methodism.  In response to the question of whether perfect holiness is ever possible in this life, and is this, therefore, even a valid aspiration, the quoted reply was:  "If you're not moving toward perfection, what are you moving toward?"  Practice makes perfect?

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