There’s a well-established myth out there. It’s woven into the American imagination: Underdogs can come out of nowhere and win. This narrative is fed by a story from the Hebrew Scriptures: David and Goliath. It is common to say, “We are David, and they are Goliath.”
This trope is memorialized in movies like Rocky, Kung-Fu Panda, and Rudy. Christ followers pile on to the fun, building on statements from the Apostle Paul “he chose the foolish of this world to shame the wise” and “his grace is made perfect in our weakness.” Some seem to use these statements as a replacement for hard work, competence, and an honest assessment of their God-given abilities.
In truth, being the underdog is highly overrated. The underdog narrative, like many overrated ideas, contains a kernel of truth but is only partially accurate. More often than not, apparent underdogs are really not underdogs at all–their capabilities are just unknown.
The fantasy is that an untrained, unpracticed, poorly motivated individual or team can suddenly go through a short, intense season of inspiration, learning, and drills, and then “win” is not reality. More often than not, those with no natural ability, training, or practice do poorly, causing some form of suffering for themselves and those around them. The idea that God will miraculously make up for our lack of talent and discipline and suddenly bless us with everything we want is a delusion.
The Anchor Story
Let’s go back to the David and Goliath story, to see how one comes out of nowhere to win. You can read the whole original story in 1 Samuel chapter 17.
The Context: The Israelites were facing their perennial nemesis, the coastal Philistines. In this stage of the conflict, the Philistines have a champion, a huge warrior named Goliath, who is about 8 feet tall. Goliath comes out and challenges them to a contest. One warrior representing each side. No one from the side of the Hebrews was interested until David came along. This meant from the King down, they were shaking in their sandals, paralyzed with fear.
The Hero: David had been sent to the front lines to bring food to his older brothers and gifts to their commanders. He was a teenage boy. He was a shepherd, responsible for caring for a flock of sheep, leading, providing, and defending them from danger. David is incredulous that no one will fight the Philistine, so he begins to ask why. And this gets him an appointment with the King.
The Pitch: David makes the following pitch to King Saul (who should have been fighting Goliath) (Verses 32-37).
David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”
Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”
But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”
David says God will give the victory. But he also notes that he has been successful in fighting and killing lions and bears. While not conventional combat, he was still seasoned in lethal contests.
The Skill: David didn’t go for the conventional dueling weapons of a spear or sword but he was not unarmed. We read:
He took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
Sling throwers were the snipers of ancient armies. Soldiers in the Roman Legions would use them with deadly accuracy, unleashing projectiles at speeds of 100 miles per hour. Skilled sling throwers could hit small targets at a distance. David was armed and dangerous.
The Match Up: So the trope goes that David didn’t have a prayer and Goliath was clearly the favorite. The truth is that David was an experienced killer with a very lethal weapon at his disposal.
In a close hand-to-hand situation, Goliath was the favorite. At a distance, David had an advantage. Both were dangerous and both were vulnerable.
The Victory: Goliath is not impressed with David and lumbers out to battle, cursing him as he goes. David is not impressed with Goliath. Claiming victory in God’s name, he runs toward the giant and sinks a stone in his forehead. Goliath comes crashing down. He loses his head and the Philistines lose the day. Game of Thrones gore in the pages of Scripture.
Analysis Part 1
The God Dynamic: David gives God the credit for the victory. Why? It was clearly not because he had no experience fighting for his life. It was not because he was unarmed or at an extreme disadvantage and hoping God would rescue him. So if he had skill and a weapon, why give God the credit?
Courage: What David did took extreme courage–courage to stand up in front of his whole nation and a close-combat killing machine named Goliath. Perhaps he was giving God the credit for courage.
What Can Go Wrong: David may also have been recognizing that even with his skills and the killing power of a sling-stone, a lot could go wrong. He could miss. He could get too close and Goliath could throw his spear or slice with his sword. David had one chance, one moment where he had the advantage. He was trusting in the providential hand of God to allow him to capitalize on this.
Providence: David also may have been thinking of the ways God had shaped his life, giving him the skills, and delivering him from lions and bears. David was part of a humble way of thinking–whenever one is in peril, it is God who saves. No matter what the means of rescue, God deserves the credit. He did not take the providential hand of God lightly.
Perhaps David was mindful of the following words from the Torah:
You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. (Deuteronomy 8:17-18)
The Lesson: David was only an underdog in perception. Competence was always there, it was just unknown to the army. David is like a well-armed and piloted Ukrainian drone dropping a bomb that takes out an “invincible” Russian tank. Not really an underdog in the truest sense, but a powerful and underestimated adversary.
How do we apply this to our work?
Your best career contributions are built on your competency, not solely on your hopes or prayers. It is your faith life that 1) releases that competency from limiting beliefs and 2) directs you regarding how to put that competency into play.
We need to guard against sloth, a pious passivity that says training, practice, and diligent focus are unnecessary because God will provide, as much as we need to guard against overconfidence in our capabilities (this is called pride).
David shows a third way: thank God for your competencies and trust him to give you the opportunities, strength, and fortune to use them. Then run to meet the battle before you, confident that God will bless the use of your skills for good.
Develop your competencies to face any battle with VOCA Coaching. Talk with our team to see how you can maximize your gifts, find work that's right for you, and make an impact with your work.
Listen to our podcast episode on this topic, "Underdog is Overrated: A Very Particular Set of Skills":