Have you ever felt like you needed to repay someone for their kindness?
The idea that we should show kindness back to those who have been kind to us sounds nice enough. After all, no one likes an ungrateful snob who just takes advantage of people’s kindness. However, should we really think of it as “repaying” someone? Does an act of kindness hold a debt over us that must be repaid? If someone were to be so kind as to be our friend, is there a “friendship fee” that we must pay to keep them as our friend? What would happen if we did not pay that fee?
This week, I will be taking another look at Scorching Ping Pong Girls, a highly enjoyable show from the end of 2016 about middle school girls playing table tennis. Last time I wrote a column post on this show, I focused on the early episodes’ story arc centered around the main characters and their rivalry. This time, I will be going further into the show, looking at its major competitive arc about a training match between the main characters’ club and another school’s club that had previously reached the Nationals. Specifically, I will be looking at episode 10, quite possibly my favorite episode of all of 2016, which features the final match between main character Koyori and, more importantly here, her opponent Kururi. Be warned that there are major spoilers for the show here on out.
Kururi is the vice president of rival school Mozuyama Junior High’s table tennis club. Having grown up with intensive training in the sport, she immediately established herself as the top player at the club. However, when she tried to train the other members the same way she was trained, most of those other members left because her training was too hard. One person stayed, though: Zakuro, who would eventually become the club captain. Zakuro accepted Kururi’s intense training and eventually helped bring back the club, and as far as Kururi is concerned, Zakuro is her savior, so she devotes her playing entirely to her.
Kururi also has a gothic theme to her and an obsession with death, shown by her frequent emphasis on the Japanese sentence ending “-desu” so that it sounds like the English word “death”. As amusing as this is, it also reflects her view of table tennis as a life-or-death matter. Kururi devotes her table tennis play to Zakuro because she feels that is the “friendship fee” she must pay to Zakuro for staying by her side; failing and losing that friendship would be like death to her. Normally this is not an issue for Kururi, thanks to her powerful curve drives that are near impossible to return, such that Kururi turns away from her opponent in complete confidence that they cannot return the ball to her. However, in her match with Koyori, Koyori starts to figure out her curve drives and returns them to her, causing her to panic. Some encouragement from Zakuro allows her to recover late in the match, but ultimately Koyori defeats her.
At first, Kururi is worried that Zakuro would be upset at her for losing, but then Zakuro just expresses how happy she is to have seen Kururi play her style of table tennis at her best. At that point, Kururi finally realizes that Zakuro’s friendship did not require her to “pay” her anything. Quite simply, this is a simple yet emotionally resonant example of grace, shown through girls playing ping pong together.
Grace is the simple idea that one does not and cannot “earn” someone else’s love; instead, it is given to them freely. It is at the very core of the Easter story: Jesus died for our sins and came back to life so that we did not have to live sin-free lives to be deserving of a relationship with God. Without Christ, following God’s law is a life-or-death matter. Break a law even once and your relationship with God is dead, with no hope of resurrection, with your only possible fate being eternal separation from Him—the very basis of Hell. It is quite fitting that Kururi had a similar life-or-death view of her relationship with Zakuro, one where a loss would mean separation from Zakuro, equivalent to death. She portrays quite well the alternative to grace—slavery to “law”—which Zakuro then frees her. Similarly but on an even greater level, Jesus frees us from our slavery to law by taking the death we deserve for our sins upon himself, and then comes back to life to establish the resurrected relationship we can now have with God.
However, grace is not a very natural concept for us to grasp; we are instead frequently conditioned into the idea that we have to earn things. And while there are certainly many things in life that must or should be earned, trouble starts to happen when we think we have to earn God’s love, or that others have to earn our love. So, in light of these days after Easter and these ping pong girls who can now play at their fullest without worrying about losing their closest friends, I will end this post with two challenges.
The first challenge is to live fearlessly and to our fullest for God, without fear of failure. After all, though we cannot earn God’s love, we can still find great joy in serving God with all our hearts; in fact, it is because serving God is not a “salvation fee” we need to pay that it can instead be a source of joy. So rather than look at God’s grace as license to just do whatever we think we want, we can look at it as the opportunity to serve God and discover how He is what we truly want.
The second challenge is to share grace with our friends, by not requiring any “friendship fees” from them. Unfortunately, we cannot control how others treat us, and we will likely find “friends” who will require we earn their friendship. However, we can definitely avoid being that kind of friend ourselves. The world may have a hard time understanding grace, but we can be the ones to show the world what grace is, and how liberating it is.