The young high school football player had amazing speed, agility, and moves—and he knew it. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind, including his, that he was the most talented offensive player on the field. After a play that did not go well during a full scrimmage the talented running back came back to the huddle and yelled at the offensive linemen, “I’m the only one who can do anything out here. Y’all are nothing! Worthless!”
The head coach charged the huddle and said, “Worthless huh?” Then he told all offensive lineman, except the center, to head to the sideline and take a knee. The head coach sent in a running play to be executed with no offensive line. The running back got swarmed by the defense as soon as he got the ball. The coach proceeded to call another running play, and another, and another. The offense lost 37 yards on the four plays. The head coach called the lineman over and told the talented running back, “Without these guys you are nothing! Worthless! And don’t you forget it.” The response was, “Yes sir, I understand.”
As a young assistant football coach this scene made a powerful impression on me, not just as a coach, but as a man following Christ. Like Paul, I cannot think about my Christian walk without noting the obvious parallels to lessons learned from athletic competition. Here, I hope to point to some lessons from sports that I have been able to leverage for spiritual growth. My hope is that these examples will help you to think more intentionally and profitably as a Christian about your interaction with sports and doing so will be a catalyst toward sanctification.
Humility—Do Your Job!
Football has a way of humbling all who play the game. Team success and growth on the football field is always tied to players humbly accepting one’s role on the team and trusting their teammates to do to do the same. Each one of the twenty-two players on a football field has a particular assignment on each play as they seek to take and defend ground through a series of controlled conflicts. Football is Mozart meets Metallica, no other game combines brute force and elegant choreography the way football does. Famed New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick explains his leadership philosophy in three words, “Do your job!” By that he means do not try to be a hero, just do your job; be prepared, work hard, pay attention to details and always put the mission first.
I consider football the ultimate team sport, and I cannot help but draw parallels between football, the church, and Christian sanctification. For the Christian, humbly accepting one’s role, trusting your team, and doing your job with all your heart, should have a familiar ring. The apostle Paul describes the church as a unified body with many interdependent parts bound together in a common mission of spiritual war.
But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” … If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor 12:18-21, 26-27)
Paul also explains that believers are called to a personal and passionate commitment to their shared gospel mission. The believer’s life represents their unique and strategic ministry opportunity to serve and grow by making much of Jesus in every circumstance. No one else can do your job of glorifying Jesus with your life. Sanctification depends on humble faith that embraces the actual life that God has given us. After all, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5). For if anything is clear in Scripture, it is that in sanctification is a community project and there is never any room for pride.
Daily—The Will to Prepare to Win
Sanctification is the process by which believers are set apart to Christ and grow in likeness to Christ. Sanctification is a primary and daily battleground in spiritual war. The biblical story begins with serpent-inspired conflict in the garden and ends with a glorious celebration of triumphant victory over the serpent in a new heavens and new earth. Growing in likeness to Christ is not simply a matter of a few big spiritual moments. As some sports teams like to say, it is a matter of being all in, all the time.
Anyone who listens knows that the language of athletic competition, especially football, and the language of military combat is a shared vocabulary (blitz, bomb, blown away, formation, trenches, neutral zone, red zone, battle-plan, field general, and so on). There is a sense in which all athletic competition is an artificially designed mock battle. Of course, there is a danger in the co-mingling of sports and warfare language. Actual warfare is horrific, and in comparison, sporting battle is merely trivial. Nonetheless, the shared language can be helpful for the Christian since the biblical storyline is a story of spiritual war. The Bible seizes both military warfare and sports competition as analogies for the spiritual warfare of Christian sanctification.
The lesser and nonessential agony and conflict of sports has lessons for us about ultimate and eternally significant agony and conflict of spiritual war. The church lives as the outpost of the kingdom of Christ in the time of the overlap of the ages, the already/but not yet of the kingdom. Therefore, the Christian lives in the context of a cosmic spiritual battle and is called to fight against sin. According to Paul, if athletes agonize to fulfill determined temporal goals, how much more should he and others agonize to “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:1, 3-4)? Both the athlete and the soldier need single-minded focus and the incentive of victory. Each must endure hardship, consistently and agonizingly striving in preparation and disciplined training.
Legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was reported to tell his teams, “It is not the will to win the matters—everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that matters.” I have heard another coach say that growth comes from making yourself do what you need to do when you do not want to do it, and to do so consistently enough that you want to do it. Walking in line with the gospel does not come to us naturally or intuitively. Rather, we are involved in the daily process of becoming who we are in Christ. Jesus is Lord! Our natural desires are not Lord. In Ephesians, Paul exhorts the believer, “put off the old self” and “put on the new self” (Eph 4:22, 24). This process of learning to live in accordance to our new identity in Christ is a daily and progressive struggle. I heard a sports psychologist say, “We don’t rise to the occasion, we sink to the level of our daily habits.” That is good counsel for athletes and Christians who want to grow.