Everyone has the tendency to compare the highlight reel of others’ successes to our daily failures and lose heart. But baseball, for those of us who love it, provides a constant reminder that everyone (even the superstar) strikes out, but the game still goes on. Angell was right, “There is more Met than Yankee in all of us,” and there is a glimmer of a greater glory that frequent losers like the Mets keep taking the field. But we must also realize that sometimes sports become an idolatrous weapon wielded against God.
I have always been somewhat amused but also troubled every time an athlete quotes Philippians 4:13 right after he or she scores the game-winning touchdown, hits a game-winning home run, nails game-winning free throws, or kicks the game-winning goal: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).
Have you ever noticed that no one ever quotes that verse after the game when he or she gave up the game-winning touchdown, struck out to lose the game, missed free throws that would have won the game, or missed a wide open goal kick that would have sealed his or her team’s victory?
This phenomenon among Christian athletes reveals the way too many Christians who play sports think about their Christian commitment in relationship to sporting competition. It seems that they think about Christ only in relation to their successes as defined by playing well and winning. Such an approach flows from a triumphalist and self-referential understanding of their Christian faith.
In Philippians, the apostle Paul is calling for Christian joy and passionate living in the midst of the most difficult trials and circumstances. When Paul writes the letter to the Philippians from a Roman prison (A.D. 60-62), he wants the believers in the church at Philippi to understand that Christ is his identity and the center of his life: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). He also wants them to know the context of his life and his goal, the end for which he exists is Christ:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ . . . But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8,13-14).
Paul exhorts, “Brothers, join in imitating me” so that you can “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 3:17, 4:4). By way of application near the end of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi he declares, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:11-13).
In the next verse Paul writes, “Still, you did well by sharing with me and my hardship” (Phil 4:14). Elsewhere, the apostle Paul declares, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Are you beginning to pick up on a theme? A proper understanding of, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” would lead to quoting it in the midst of athletic failure more often than during athletic success.
The issue is never whether or not you score the touchdown, but how you trust and glorify Christ when you score the touchdown and when you do not. In other words, the issue is one of spiritual warfare. The problem is many Christians do not think about their engagement with sports in terms of spiritual warfare to the glory of God, but rather as God helping them to be more successful. But what if failure provides you a strategic and unique opportunity to glorify God?