David Boudia tells the story of his journey from failure to hope at I Am Second. The title and the caption for the picture there give the impression that you’re going to read an all-too-familiar story: athlete hopes he’ll win; athlete loses; athlete tries harder; athlete eventually wins. Our culture seems to love those kinds of stories. I’ve come to believe that if you’re seeking hope, those stories are ultimately not very helpful for us. Those stories are part of the problem. But David Boudia’s story points to the solution.

David Boudia had an embarrassing Olympic debut as a 10-meter platform diver in Beijing. Because he came back to win gold in London four years later, you might think that his story is mainly about overcoming the obstacles to achieve his goal. It isn’t. Many people have told those kinds of stories already and we love to read them. The danger in them though is that they never force us to examine our hope. They never cause us to ask whether our hope is rooted in goals worth hoping for.

 Image courtesy of Tasnim News Agency

Image courtesy of Tasnim News Agency

For Boudia, aiming for gold in Beijing, involved a gruelling training schedule that he had pursued from a young age. He sacrificed everything to be number one. The problem is that all of the other top athletes did, also. His Olympic ‘glory’ in the 10-metre platform diving event in Beijing consisted of six dives lasting a total of just 8.5 seconds. His two previous dives had put him out of contention, so he resolved to enjoy the moment of his final dive and take in all that he had worked toward. The result was the worst dive he had ever done in competition. He experienced embarrassment, hopelessness and despair. He felt abandoned, alone and unsatisfied. As painful as those feelings must have been, I believe they were helpful in his life.

The painful feelings that Boudia experienced in the face of his loss, made him re-evaluate his hope. The failure and dissatisfaction drove him to reconsider what he was living for. And in the disillusionment that loss had brought, his coach shared with him the good news about Jesus Christ. He began to realize that he was treating his dream of Olympic gold like a “god,” and in so doing had turned his back on the living God who offered forgiveness and invited him to relationship. He came to reject the false hope that his life would have meaning and satisfaction as long as he achieved gold, and instead embraced the sure hope of Jesus and God’s purposes for his life.

When we face disappointment, failure, and hopelessness, it’s an opportunity to learn something. Our “never give up” mentality often ignores this and invites us to double down and cling to our hope all the more. But we hold to a lot of false hope. And hopelessness may be a signal to us that it’s time for re-examination. Have I hoped in something worth hoping for? Has my goal taken on a prominence that it doesn’t deserve? Have I made a “god” of things that shouldn’t be worshipped? Has my hope ignored the God who offers me a more secure hope?

Sometimes, re-evaluation in the face of hopelessness can be misunderstood. Hearing the process that Boudia went through might lead someone to think that he abandoned Olympic diving. What he instead realized was that diving was something God created him to do. What he needed to reject however was the idea that diving defined him. He said, “Once I better understood my purpose, I learned to keep perspective. Diving is just a sport, it’s not who I am and not what defines me; my faith is what defines me. I don’t dive for myself; I dive to bring God glory” (ref: Beyond the Ultimate)

As I reflect on his story, it makes me want to reflect on my purpose. Stunning failure and hopelessness aren’t conditions for asking whether you’ve put your trust in false hope or made “gods” out of your goals. The Bible speaks of the greater hope that God calls us to and He promises that this “hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts” (Romans 5:5). May we all rest in God’s greater hope that doesn’t disappoint.

In awe of Him,

Paul