Posted on September 5, 2012


I would love to see MMA fights resolved with compliments.

There’s no reason why this can’t work.  Granted, nothing about most mixed martial artists says “My love language is words of affirmation.”  But it’s not impossible.  I would never suggest that people with flawless takedown techniques and jiu-jitsu skills do not also deeply crave verbal encouragement and praise.  And I certainly would never say it right to their faces.  I would put it on their Facebook page like the most sophisticated fighters of our generation, middle-school girls.

The only hang-up is that one doesn’t get the vibe of MMA fighters as super-affirming individuals, unless one means it in the sense of “I affirmed that guy’s jaw pretty hard,” or “He had me affirmed around the neck and so I started blacking out.”  That’s understandable, given that body language experts agree that smiling in animals is interpreted as a gesture of submission, which would be bad in a sport where the goal is to stop a violent opponent by subduing him with greater violence.  This explains why no UFC fighter has never been sponsored by Crest WhiteStrips.

Still, I think this is an idea whose time has come, not unlike my idea for a movie about an expert team of Dickens-era street kids who break into Buckingham Palace.**  Compliment-submissions would open up a whole new market for mixed martial arts, that being “people who are sort of turned off by pure, unadulterated violence that does not involve Jason Statham.”  With compliment-submissions, fighters would brawl, not just for physical dominance, but also for the right to minister to the other with words of validation—just like the New Testament church!  Finally, a pay-per-view for the whole family.                    

**– Working title:  Orphans Eleven.

Compliment-submissions also solve the other issue with MMA fights, which is that they all kind of end the same way.  Whatever variety the actual fighting involves, MMA fights are like Thanksgiving dinners—they always end with at least one person huddled on the floor in agonizing pain.  I’m imagining a better way.

Fighter 1 is raining down blows on Fighter 2, who is pinned and covering up, but helpless.

Announcer:  This fight is really out of hand, folks!  A stunning reversal—the champ is down and the challenger is in full control now.  Only one thing is keeping this bout going now.  The champ’s covered his ears. 

Fighter 1:  Come on, man, just listen!  I want to stop punching you!  My arms are getting tired and I have cello practice later.


Announcer:  He needs to get in three affirmations in order to win this fight!  By rule there cannot be any visible obstruction to the ears, and there must be one second of mandatory eye contact!


Fighter 1:  My favorite song- don’t ruin it!

Fighter 1 lands a vicious punch and Fighter 2’s hands reflexively twitch down.

Announcer:  There’s an opening!  The challenger pins the champ’s arms to the ground, makes eye contact and unleashes his final barrage!

Fighter 1:  I looked at your Tumblr today and your meal photos are a delight.  Your cheekbones make you look like a grittier Ryan Reynolds.  I think you’ve done excellent work dealing with your father wound.

Announcer:  A finish for the ages!  This fight is over! 

Fighter 1:  I love you, Carly Rae Jepsen!

See what I mean?  It’s a surf board of fisticuffs riding a wave of warm fuzzies along an ocean shore of emotional health.  If every MMA fight finished that way, I think I speak for all of America when I say:  our PIN numbers are our children’s birthdays. 

I’ve never been in an MMA fight—unless one counts my brief tae kwon do career—so my credibility for making wholesale changes to the sport is on the flimsy side.  But that doesn’t mean the idea of compliment-submissions isn’t a good one—if not for UFC pugilists, then at least for followers of Christ.

One of the best things about being a Christian is knowing that God loves us.  1 John 3:1 says “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God—and that is what we are.”  Zephaniah 3:7 says that “…[God] will rejoice over you with gladness, he will quiet you by his love, and rejoice over you with singing.”  And Romans 8:37-39 says that nothing can separate us from that love—not “life or death, angels or rulers, things present or to come…or anything else in all creation.”  Thanks God! 

One of the biblical pictures for this love is that of a marriage.  The Bible repeatedly compares God’s love for us to that of a bridegroom for his bride.  The power of metaphor is in its slipperiness.  Meanings slide between the compared objects- God’s love is like a marriage, marriages look like God’s love for us- and our understanding of each grows more robust from the association.

Marriages are covenants, and like their biblical counterparts, they begin with vows.  Two people stand in front of each other and make promises, inviting God to be a part of those promises as they speak them to each other.  To love and to cherish.  Sickness and health.  Forsaking all others.  ‘Til death do them part.  Forever-ness and faithfulness.            

What is most fascinating to me about promises is the implied submission of the person being promised to.  Marriage vows begin with one person saying some variant of, “I, so and so, promise to love and to cherish…” or “Do you promise to forsake all others…?”  But while that’s happening, something else is also happening, a kind of Newton’s Third Law of Love.  The object of the promise, simply by accepting the promise, gives an equal, if non-verbal one in response: “I promise to let myself be loved and cherished,” and “I promise to allow myself to be the only one.” 

That acquiescence communicates something profound.  Each party is not only promising to love the other forever.  They are also promising to submit to being loved.

Sounds easier than it is, right?  Submit to love?  Do Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan look like they’re doing that?  To us, love is mostly something we simply give and receive.  We enjoy it when we have it and seek it when we don’t.  It’s a free-floating emotion, something spectral and phantasmic in the universe.  Submit?  Is that even possible?  We might as easily submit to love as submit to a color.     

Being loved is hard.  Love is a physical force, like gravity, one which exerts a pressure that can touch sensitive and wounded parts of us.  When a friend we’ve wronged responds with forgiveness, it stings.  When a spouse touches one of our insecurities with their affirmation, it burns.  Adam and Eve set the template in Genesis when, ashamed of their sin, they hid in the bushes as God walked through the garden.  The implication is clear:  When love meets brokenness, the first instinct is not submission.  It’s to hide.

Everyone has their own unique hiding move for avoiding God’s love, you included.  Mine is legalism and self-anger.  I’ve received an invitation to the Mercy Banquet with disbelief, since both Jesus and I know what I’ll do once I get there.  I may be at the feast of grace, but I’ve got my track shoes on, a handful of caviar, and a plan to run for one of the doors marked “I’ll Be Good, Just Leave Me Alone!” once nobody’s looking.  I won’t stay because I’m sick.  I can’t stay because I’m certain my invitation is a mistake. 

But covenant love is inescapable.  Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Mosaic Law is not only fulfilled but made subject to a new, greater Law (Gal. 3:19-22).  There is now One Rule, a rule so dazzling to the eye that the Golden Rule looks like cheap copper in comparison: submit to love.  At the final Wedding Supper of the Lamb, my knee will bow in worship—a worship borne of submission to love so great that it held every person of faith by the shoulders—whether struggling or spitting, slumping or sobbing—until they collapsed into the arms of the Lord.

At the end of the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the son returns home with a deal for his father:  to re-enter the family as a hired servant.  The father won’t even listen: 

Quick!  Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him.  Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet.  And kill the calf we have been fattening—we must celebrate with a feast….

‘We must celebrate.’  There is nothing optional here, no negotiation, no other terms of the deal.  The son isn’t even allowed to speak his proposal.  The father has spoken in no uncertain terms.  There will be a feast.  This son will be loved.    

Likewise, you will be loved.  There are no other terms of the deal.  No matter how hard your heart or how depraved your life, whether you made an honest mistake or knew exactly what you were doing, no matter how far you run or deep you hide or how much it feels like a branding iron on your heart and you want it to stop, you will be loved.  God’s promises are steadfast.  His covenant love is inescapable.     

Your only option is submission—to lie there, like a beaten MMA fighter, as God rains down everlasting love, everlasting love, and everlasting love until you’re afraid you’ll drown, only he doesn’t care.  He’s the only one who knows you can breathe underwater.

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