I love sports. I grew up playing them. Throughout the years, I have played baseball, football, soccer, tennis, basketball, and volleyball. I haven’t played much in recent years as I haven’t had the regular opportunity to play with other people, sports has always been part of my life. I love watching sports too. Having been in Scotland the past two years, I haven’t been able to watch much of the sports I love in the United States, especially Mississippi State athletics.
So, what I am about to say isn’t a criticism of sports, per se. However, it is a real pitfall that comes from some of the intended consequences that occur when we blend Christian faith and sports. When sports and faith are combined, there is a real tendency for people to take faith to be some sort of guarantor of victory in the type of things that the wider world considers significant, both in sports and in the rest of life.
Consider, for instance, the oft-stated and oft-criticized ‘praise’ of those who won a championship: “I want to thank God for winning.” While this type of public proclamation hasn’t been as common in recent years, whenever it happens Christians in America looking for some sort of cultural recognition to hang their hat on cheer such public statements on television. Meanwhile, people criticize such prayers, thinking that God has more important things on his hands than deciding who wins a sports championship. Certainly, God is a bigger God than the critics, who can be concerned about everything in life, including sports. But beneath the somewhat false portrayal of God in the critics is something that is of deeper substance: is God out to give them a sports championship? Was that His real purpose?
Or look at how readily athletes appeal to Philippians 4.13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” including doing things such as marking it out in eye black, which Tim Tebow was especially known for. Once again, many of us Christians will celebrate when we see a figure use a Scripture reference like that. Sometimes the more sober minded among us will point out that the verse is used out of context. However, I would say that critique doesn’t get at the real point. Why? What does this action convey? While it is a mistake to reduce the meaning to one single thing as it can convey and be intended in many different ways, one implication of this message is often “I can win this game through Christ who strengthens me.” The problem isn’t simply that the Scripture is used out of context from the specific situation Paul’s writes about. In fact, I would suggest Paul’s statement has an aphoristic meaning to it that is meant to apply to a variety of circumstances, not the difficulties that come with not having enough. Rather, the problem is that the way it gets used in the context of athletic competitions with the goal of winning.
The risk in the fusion of faith and athletics is that athletics turns people faith into an expectation in competitive, social victories over one’s opponents, whether it be in sports, in one’s career, in one’s relationships, etc. This is the risk that is unique to athletics; it is a risk whenever we try to bridge faith too tightly with another occupation, hobby, career, goal, etc.: rather than letting Christian faith shed light on that activity, we instead define our faith in terms of the goals and purposes of that activity. Politics is a shining example of this, where rather than the light of the Gospel shedding light on politics, it becomes more often the case that politics tries to determine the shape and true importance of faith. Put more generally, when we apply the symbols of Christian faith to other forms of activities, there is the possibility that we define the symbols of Chrisitan faith by the goals of those activities, whether it be the goal of winning in sports and life or the goal of ideologically conformity and societal victory that is deeply entrenched in the practices of political power.
If the fusion of sports and faith were simply contained to the sports field, then the problems this would cause would be relatively contained. However, unfortunately, sports is often an avenue in which we learn, develop, and refine our social skills in how we discipline ourselves and socialize with others in teamwork and competition. It is also often used as a metaphor for life. Because sports are not contained off from the rest of life, the way we join sports and faith will also impact others parts of life that our involvement in sports will impact. This is where my real concern lay: not that we treat Christian faith as some sort of tool of our sports victory, but that we treat Christian faith as a tool we use in the broader, social spaces of our life and we seek to be victorious in those areas, without concern for the impacts upon others. When the Gospel, directly or indirectly, becomes a message about our success and victory in the social arenas of life, it becomes real easy for us to see people as potential roadblocks to our victory, as potential opponents that we need to find a way to overcome to win. Insofar as sports determines the shape of our faith, we can see others who stand in our way as something less than with the intentions of our loving God. Furthermore, since sports often teach us to never give up but to constantly strive to win, it can also create in us a resistance to repentance because that can entail an attitude of submission, which is what “losers” do.
But, the Gospel is not the story of the winners, but of the losers. For, God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble. As Jesus says, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. It is the poor in spirit who are blessed, not the rich. It is meek who shall inherit the earth, not the strong. Jesus does not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. This is not to ‘glorify’ losing, being weak, poverty, sin, etc. There is nothing glorious in them themselves. Why is that? Perhaps, it is because it is in those positions in life that we are most willing to learn, we are willing to look towards someone or something to direct our lives as we feel helpless ourselves, we are most willing to receive a hand of help from those who can teach us. It is in recognizing our sin, that we repent, which isn’t an attitude of shame-filled “I am a terrible person” sort of humiliation that the self-righteous often seek as signs of their own validation and other people’s subservience, but rather an attitude of “I have been getting it wrong, but I want to go in a better direction.” Those who feel they are winning, who feel proud, who feel first, who feel rich, who feel strong, who feel righteous are very inclined to be self-contented, almost to the point that they will see no reason to change and learn. Faith and sports can be marshaled in that direction, to teach the ‘losers’ that they can still get up, that they are not forgotten, and that they can learn and grow from them.
Having been a head soccer coach for a year in a recreational league on two different occasions, I have found that this lesson is more satisfying in my time. While I did not make this conscious connection at the time, there was something satisfying in my time as a coach. Overall, I probably have something close to a 30% win record as a head coach. It isn’t because I don’t know how to play or coach. I played most of my childhood, where I had to learn how to play because I wasn’t as naturally athletic as some others. My father was also my soccer coach growing up, so I learned some from him. It is simply because I didn’t know the league or the players when I got assigned the team whereas the other coaches knew the league, so I got the team that was, intentionally or unintentionally, set up to lose. But, if you were to track my win-loss record over the course of the year, you would see my teams winning more later in the year. Why is that?
Because coaching is about teaching kids as much as it is about setting them up to win the game. In fact, before it is ever about putting them in the places to succeed and win, coaching is about teaching. And I took pleasure in that as I saw players ranging from those who didn’t know how to play to those who had physical talent but not sure how to use it and I saw them get better as the season went along. We were learning; they were learning how to play and I was learning how to coach as neither they or I were able to win.
I remember this one kid who was one of the fastest players on the team but was always out of control and made big mistakes as a result that would give the other teams goals, despite me trying to teach him time and time again how to slow down and take his time. It frustrated me as a coach to see it happen again and again, but as a person he was one of my favorites as he was a sweet and wonderful kid who was always willing to try. He just didn’t quite get it because no one had taken the time to teach him (his home situation was not the best) and I was admittedly having a hard time figuring out how to teach the concept of slowing down to a 9-year-old. But, after nearly a year, towards the end of the season, despite many efforts that were left in frustration, I started to notice that he was beginning to take his time every now and then. He didn’t always have to go 110%, but there were moments when it is better to go 60-70% and figure out what to do from there. Even though I was not the best at what I was trying to do, eventually, the light bulb started to go off. He was learning and growing, along with the rest of the kids, because he wanted to be better at soccer. While he wanted to win, sure, he wanted to do the best that he could. He was at almost every practice even when others wouldn’t show up.
While I never explicitly express my faith in my coaching and teaching the kids, though people knew I was serving as a pastor, I found my understanding of God’s guidance and direction of us impacting the way I tried to approach sports, competition, and coaching. Sports and Christian faith intersect more when it comes to how we live when we are on the losing side, when things don’t go our way, when we make mistakes that cost us, and when the deck is unfairly stacked against us.
God has victories for us in life, for those of us who love Him. Some of those may turn out to be victories in career, in relationships, or even in championships on some occasions. But God’s victory in the Gospel is firstly about how He gives those who are on the losing side due to the way the powers of sin and death have stacked the deck against them. That type of victory sometimes means we lose some of the time, maybe even much of the time, because the deck has been stacked against us. But rather than trying to cheat to beat cheaters, to destroy those who destroy, to tear down those who tear down, the Gospel shows us how to learn and grow in our ‘losses,’ to let God direct and lead us through His Holy Spirit amidst the struggles with sin, injustice, and brokenness towards the type of victory that Jesus experienced and has. Because, unlike the President’s haughty and arrogant derision of people as “losers,” it is Jesus who gives victory to the ‘losers,’ and brings contempt to the self-proclaimed winners.