March Madness, Athletic Achievement, and Christians in Competitive Sports
Are athletic achievement and fierce competition sheer madness for the Christian?
It’s a question essential not just for the celebrated Tim Tebows and Jeremy Lins, but also to a handful of unknown Christians playing in this weekend’s NCAA Tourney, and thousands (if not millions) of Christians worldwide engaged in highly skilled and highly competitive athletics.
Achievement and competition are two related, but distinct, topics for the Christian. What follows is seven Christian reflections on athletic achievement and a pair of biblical observations related to Christians in competitive sports.
7 Reflections on Athletic Achievement
1) God could have created us to be just a pair of eyes, beholding his glory and being perfectly content — but he didn’t. He gave us bodies.
The body is a staggering gift, and it enables us to be creators, achievers and accomplishers of remarkable things. In Genesis 1:27–28, God gives humanity the mandate to exercise dominion over the creation, to multiply, and to cultivate the land and its resources. The value of reflecting his beauty through our God-imaging abilities to accomplish is further demonstrated in his call to build the tabernacle with precise and ornate detail, in his later call to build the temple, and in his call to Nehemiah to build the wall, among others. God created us to be creators, and thus reflect him. Building, creating, achieving and accomplishing are good.
2) There is a difference between enjoying our image-bearing for our personal fame, and enjoying it for his.
We constantly are to be "beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord" as we are "transformed from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18). It's his glory, shining in and from us, not our own. Not only were we made to create and achieve, but also to say gladly with the psalmist, "Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory" (Psalm 115:1).
3) How we enjoy image-bearing for his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31) is the issue.
This is at the heart of what makes achievement Christian, and something we’ll still be working on as long as we remain on this side of eternity.
It is vastly oversimplified to say that we simply exert our efforts vertically instead of horizontally, so that when we work hard, we simply do it "for God," whatever that means. Hard work (or harder work than before) with an upward point of the finger is not enough, though it is a part of the equation in some way, it seems (Colossians 3:23).
4) It is clear from 1 Corinthians 10:30–31 and 1 Timothy 4:4 that thanksgiving is a vital ingredient in the glorification of God through any particular enjoyment.
Gratitude inherently deflects personal credit, as it acknowledges the Giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). All achievers of anything, whether through talent or hard work or both (as is usually the case), should remember the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:7: "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?" The subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) tendency of the athlete is to boast in his natural-born talent, which is perhaps the least reasonable attribute in which to boast.
5) Our enjoyment of God in the midst of athletic achievement is a critical component of his glorification.
So if we run fast and enjoy it, which we should, we should enjoy it the way the first frog did. According to Chesterton, the riddle goes like this: "What did the first frog say?" "Lord, how you made me jump!" Jumping and running are enjoyable because they give us the capacity to participate in the beauty and power of God, and they are always gifts from him. As Eric Liddell memorably said in Chariots of Fire, "God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure." Perhaps this would be the only legitimate reason for it to be more enjoyable for me to make a jump shot, or run fast, than to watch my friend or teammate do it — just as the Apostle Paul gloried more, it seems, in his experiential participation in the lives of new believers in the early churches than in just hearing about it.
6) God is not fully glorified through any activity where he is not a person's final Treasure.
Therefore, sports must be put into their proper realm of value, which is vastly less valuable than God.
Clearly, because of their arbitrary and fabricated nature, the sports themselves are somewhere on the value scale beneath real war (where life and death are the line) and relationships (perhaps especially marriage), which deal with eternal souls. When playing a sport is a person's livelihood, that may change things some, but one of the greatest testimonies that an athlete can give to the glory of Christ is proper perspective.
Making a shot at the buzzer, even if it is for the entertainment of thousands, is still just entertainment, and it's still just a game, made up by some guy (James Naismith, in this case) who had enough time on his hands to not only assume that it would be fun to try to put a ball in a peach basket, but also to write an entire manual of rules. “It’s just a game” is always one of the more helpful and God-glorifying responses a Christian player or coach can make in an interview.
7) It may be possible to enjoy achievement as an individual, but as image-bearers of a Trinitarian God, achievement is not completed unless it is given away to, or shared with, another.
Comedians are not primarily made to glory in their own humor, but to enjoy the laughter of others and their personal participation in it. In the realm of sports, especially team sports, this means that the victory and enjoyment of teammates is more valuable than the demonstrated ability of the individual.
Two Observations on Christian Competition
But everything we’ve said so far relates to achievement. What about competition?
Competition is not inherently a component of achievement, athletic or otherwise. For the Christian, achievement and competition are related, but distinct. It is fairly clear that God-imaging artistic, mental, or physical abilities are to be used to the enjoyment of God. It is much more challenging to give the Christian freedom to use those abilities to compete against others, knowing that, to quote C.S. Lewis, "Pride is essentially competitive." It is in the defeat of, or superiority over, others that pride finds its fulfillment.
So we are left with this question: Is competition valid for the Christian in any area of life, including sports?
Two biblical observations here.
1) Paul references athletic competition at least twice in his letters, in 2 Timothy 2:5 and 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, and does not condemn it.
The Corinthians passage is more explicit in its paralleling of athletic competition with the struggle of the Christian life. While there are certainly qualifiers to be made in comparing the two arenas (and they must be made — the gospel is not remotely the same thing as sports), it is clear that athleticism is not condemned by Paul here, and the fight for victory and the prize is actually commended. There are many other promises of reward for those who fight to overcome.
2) We are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), and to earnestly hope that God may grant our opponents repentance (2 Timothy 2:24–25).
Delight in the defeat of opponents seems to undermine these commands, which issue from the truth of the gospel. So when we compete, it seems that the desire for victory can be innocently sought, but that the desire for others' defeat cannot. Christians should be people who are compassionate toward their opponents, even admiring their God-imaging abilities in the process of competition. It also follows here that we will carry some amount of delight in their victory, even as we experience the proper disappointment of defeat. We “rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.”
As far as our own defeat goes, joy in failure comes with the reality of perspective on sports we discussed earlier, as well as with the truth of the gospel. We are failures by nature, and all failure (athletic or otherwise) should yield a form of brokenness, which should in turn yield glorying in the grace of God in Christ. Disappointment in defeat should remind us that our one hope and boast is fixed in Jesus — and based on the success of Another. Personal success is never the Christian’s final aim.
"Trying to be your best" has certainly become a primary value through our self-centered and individualistic culture. But love is the primary aim of the Christian, the forgiven and free person. Our self-forgetful aim is the joy of those around us, rather than our own personal accomplishment. However, in physical accomplishment, we have been given a body that can be enjoyed (key word) and should be enjoyed to the credit of God. Note that such training is not worthless, or worse, but of "some value" (1 Timothy 4:8).