I was once listening to a a sporting event where the broadcaster said something to the effect that at least they weren’t “throwing in the towel” yet. He meant that they hadn’t given up and were still trying. Two other expressions that get across a similar idea are “they hadn’t been taken to the cleaners” or “met their Waterloo.”

Have you ever felt like “throwing in the towel”? It is an idiom that comes from boxing, when a losing fighter’s manager indicated defeat by throwing a towel into the ring. After losing an election, politicians often throw in the towel and try some other kind of career.

If you “take someone to the cleaners” you are swindling them in some way. You are taking advantage of them and relieving them of their money or possessions. Some etymologists suggest the phrase came from dry cleaners who examined the customers clothes for money and kept any they found. It seems more likely that if you take someone to the cleaners, you are the deceiver and robber and not simply the merchant who is cleaning the clothes. Perhaps you are a partner in crime (we all know what that means.) 

The phrase “meeting one’s Waterloo” is a bit more obscure. It refers to the 1815 battle outside the Belgian town of Waterloo in which Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated by forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington. The term Waterloo has therefore become synonymous with anything difficult to master. For example, one can refer to Armenian as having a “Waterloo of an Alphabet.”

I thought of times when I wanted to “throw in the towel” and quit—not pleasant reminders for me but true nonetheless. I have met my Waterloo at various stages of my life and, occasionally, I have been taken to the cleaners.

I was the Director of the Wycliffe and SIL International work in Papua New Guinea for several years, commanding a force of hundreds of missionaries and employees. Missionaries are determined, with strong-minded opinions, or they wouldn’t be working overseas in difficult situations. It follows that a few had negative feelings about the way I handled some issues. I became discouraged at such times, but never wanted to throw in the towel. Part of the reason was because Joice was always there with one hand on my shoulder to stop any such action. She encouraged me even if I met a “Waterloo.” We all need that kind of help.

Some of the disciples met their Waterloo when Jesus reminded them of what it meant to follow him. It was after he told them that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood. “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’” (John 6:60). Those who “turned away” seemed to think Jesus was asking them to be cannibals and literally eat flesh and drink blood. Instead, Jesus was asking his disciples (and us) to figuratively eat and drink of him to such an extent that we need nothing else to sustain us spiritually. It is a “hard saying” but it is also the way to be “fed.”

I have been “taken to the cleaners” a few times, mainly by buying something that I had believed was an excellent product and of course necessary, but which turned out to be not worth my time or money.

One such instance happened right here in Waco. Our small lawn needed help and a lawncare “specialist” said he would take care of it for me. He charged me over $200 for installing a section of grass that was about six feet square. I was annoyed and tried to get him to reduce the cost or install more grass. However, he wasn’t interested and I was not going to “fly off the handle” or “blow a fuse” about the matter. 

There are many idioms to express how I felt and you can probably identify with some of them:

“to flip out,” be “mad as a hornet,” or “mad as a wet hen.” We can also “get hot under the collar,” or “blow a gasket.” Expressing thanks and kindness is the opposite and we don’t feel that way when we think someone has taken advantage of us.

In today’s idiom, I suppose we “loose our cool” but, regardless of how we express our emotions, they can betray our understanding of the Scriptures and keep us from loving God with all our heart, mind and strength. We might then legitimately want to “throw in the towel” instead of asking God for forgiveness and fortitude. Paul reminds us in Romans 7:24-25 of how we can get help: “What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death? Thanks be to God who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Perhaps it is then OK to throw in the towel, if it is at the feet of Jesus.