by Sam Zeng
“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” (Phil 4:13).
References to this iconic Bible verse are etched on the sole of NBA superstar Stephen Curry’s signature shoes, tattooed across the chest of UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, and perhaps most notoriously, scrawled on the eye black of college quarterback Tim Tebow during the Florida Gators’ national championship run in 2008. The oft-quoted verse has served as a battle cry for countless Christian athletes and understandably so, representing an acknowledgement that their talents and success on the field are ultimately attributed to God who created them. But despite its encouraging theme, there are few verses taken out of context more frequently than Philippians 4:13. Contrary to what many Christians unfortunately seem to believe, the Apostle Paul did not lead the first century Church to the SEC championship upon penning the epistle.
Far from a pre-game epithet, a call to worldly glory or even overcoming an obstacle, Paul, while imprisoned, wrote of Christ giving him strength as “the secret to being content in any and every situation”—radical words from a man had been imprisoned and persecuted for his faith, beaten within an inch of his life and experienced countless seasons of poverty and starvation. Furthermore, such references to the divine by athletes have frequently sparked controversy, particularly centered upon a perceived implication that God decides the outcome of games, as if He dons a jersey and cheers for a particular team or athlete. Beyond hermeneutics, the frequent intermingling between faith and sports warrants an exploration of the tension between a Christian’s call to contentment and the undeniable significance of competition in the human life as well as the role of God’s sovereignty in success and failure.
From a theological standpoint, it is not immediately clear whether competition is an inherently good aspect of creation or a result of human corruption. On one hand, competition is an essential component of a functioning society. At its most basic level, competition is what allows for the most efficient allocation of resources and enables individuals and societies to make optimal decisions. Few would argue against the benefits of enabling consumers to choose the cheapest orange at the supermarket or ensuring that medical licenses are not participation trophies but rather reserved for those who have demonstrated sufficient aptitude and character to be entrusted with the health of others. Even Paul compares the Christian life to a race or a battle with a reward, extolling believers to “run in such a way as to get the prize…we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly” (1 Cor 9:24-26). In these ways, competition can instill an ethic of hard work and vocational excellence, not to mention the camaraderie and brotherhood that competing as a team or group can promote. We strive for the goal together, helping each other to grow into the fullness of what we are created to be.
At the same time, competition can also bring out the most depraved aspects of human nature, namely: pride, envy, jealousy and countless other vices. Paul recounts that before Christ, this unhealthy competition dominated the lives of unbelievers: “deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” (Titus 3:3). There is perhaps no greater example of the pitfalls of competition than what transpired in Genesis between the brothers Cain and Abel, not long after humanity’s fall and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Both brothers offer to God sacrifices of their labor, with Cain, a farmer, offering “the fruit of his ground”, and Abel, a shepherd, offering “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions”. However, God looks with favor upon Abel’s sacrifice and does not show favor on Cain’s (commonly interpreted as a result of Abel offering his very best). In response to his brother winning favor over him, Cain murders Abel. While this is a rather extreme example, it is not difficult to relate to the natural tendencies that arise with competition. Professional sports are tattered with scandals of athletes who bend the rules or use performance enhancing drugs to gain an edge. Several years ago, the NFL and its fans were rattled by the revelation that New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had set up a “bounty system”, essentially paying his players to intentionally inflict injury on opposing athletes. More recently, the Houston Astros, who had dazzled the baseball world with its analytics-based approach to strategy and roster management en route to a World Series title in 2017, were found to have cheated by implanting a system of stadiun cameras to steal pitch signals from opponents. Beyond sports, everyone can relate to moments in life of bitterness when someone else receives the honor they themselves believe they deserved or the envy when another seems to get ahead. One does not need to look hard to find instances of greed and desire for glory driving countless to commit acts of fraud, deception, and even violence.
Competition, therefore, can equally foster discord as much as goodwill. As a result, the moral status of competition lies not in the act itself but in its object. Are we competing against each other, in order that we may be glorified or enshrined above others, or are we running with endurance to please God and honor Him with our gifts and seek heavenly rewards? A primary battle of the Christian life is therefore properly aligning our motives and end goals, with God as the center of our worship. As Paul extols in Colossians, Christians are to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” (Col 3:23) For the Christian, the atoning sacrifice of Christ not only brings salvation from the condemnation of sin, but redeems and transforms our hearts and minds, revolutionizing the way we live. For the Christian, the object of competition, of striving, is no longer a destructive self-interest, but a gracious, compassionate worship of God in which we use our gifts to glorify Him and serve others. When acknowledging the tremendous talents bestowed upon us, we follow Christ’s example, who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant”. Whether on the field or in the workplace, our desire to be the best is transformed by the example of Christ our King and the greatest man to ever live: in God’s kingdom, therefore, the greatest among us is the one who serves others. What Christians are to seek after is outdoing each other in laying ourselves down, and using our gifts in a way “looking not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Therefore, the Christian lens of competition, rather than being one that creates strife and conflict, is built upon love and compassion for one another, as Paul extols in Romans to “love one another with brotherly affection” and “outdo one another in showing honor.” Consequently, the goal of competition lies less in who wins and who loses but in how the competition is used to develop our character and devotion to Christ. This striving to outdo each other does not turn on itself but forms a positive feedback loop, fostering a greater celebration of our gifts, abilities and the God who gave them.
Now then, how should a Christian compete with this knowledge? Compassion and service for others is still an insufficient answer of how to apply our theology to the real world. After all, a football game is still fundamentally decided by whether one team scores more points than the other, not how many hours of community service each team did. How can a Christian serve God and neighbor by hitting a tennis ball or shooting a three pointer? Walking the tightrope between healthy competition and destructive division is not a straightforward exercise, even with the best of intentions. Setting aside the aforementioned and blatant examples of cheating, giving honor to God or relying on God can seem to have counterflicting results. On one hand, God has bestowed tremendous athletic gifts and talents to humans. Moreover, St. Peter exhorts us to “use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet 4:10). Paul also writes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Col 3:23). In light of the gifts and abilities we receive from God, it is clear that we are called to cultivate them for His glory. But it is not clear what glorifying God with athletic abilities entails. Perhaps relying on God’s strength and thank Him for what He has given us? Yet even this opens the door to a string of complications. Michael Chang, the youngest tennis player to ever win the French Open, was a devout Christian who often thanked God after victories and attributed his strength to the Lord. Given his beliefs, it seems natural for him to give credit to His creator. But in the eyes of opponents, this was not always the case. Andre Agassi, a Christian on the other side of the net and who attended Bible studies with Chang, was offended, writing in his autobiography, Open, “[Chang] thanks God-credits God-for the win, which offends me. That God should take sides in a tennis match, that God should side against me, that God should be in Chang’s box, feels ludicrous and insulting.” The notion that God would show favor on one competitor but not another is a highly contentious topic. Since the ultimate goal of competition is ultimately to win and succeed, a Christian understanding and perspective of competition hinges on understanding the meaning of outcomes and what role God plays in the final result.
If we believe that God is sovereign over all things, this sovereignty must extend to the realm of sports. But why would God choose one team to win over another? Does God’s choice in the outcome have to do with some intrinsic quality of the people involved? In the Old Testament, the motive was often clear, as God would frequently ordain and deliver His people, the Israelites, in victory over their enemies. But this concept of good versus evil is impossible to apply to a discussion of modern sports. Boxers today frequently make references to Psalm 144:1 which reads, “He prepares my hands for battle.” as inspiration. Yet this is not entirely appropriate, as the psalmist, David, leader of God’s chosen people, is acknowledging God giving him strength to defeat opponents such as the Philistines, who are explicitly declared enemies of God. A boxing match in the MGM Grand, or any athletic competition for that matter, is not entirely a battle of good versus evil. But at the same time, wins and losses undoubtedly shape the trajectories of people’s lives and the God who is sovereign over their lives is certainly sovereign over the outcomes that affect them.
But consider the implications of a God who decides the results of sporting events. Why would God ordain a miraculous 25 point comeback by the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI, but when the persecuted Christians thrown in the Roman coliseum prayed for deliverance, they were still eaten alive by the lions. The dilemma resolves itself when outcomes are placed in light of eternity. Taken in isolation, God’s decision of who wins a football game may seem arbitrary but viewed in the context of His plan for the entire lives of all those involved, it is another piece of His unified plan for the world. According to God’s promises, the persecuted are delivered and rest with God eternally. In turn, a miraculous 25 point comeback might serve some significance physically but it must be determined in light of what is eternal, which is the effect on the score on the players character. God promises that all things will work for our good, even evil. The difference, then, lies in the scope of our analysis.
Knowing that the outcome is in God’s hands and not our own, Christians can compete in a manner of complete confidence. In terms of accepting outcomes, we return to Philippians 4:13; by the power of Christ, we as Christians have the strength to be content, gracious, joyful and loving in any situation, any outcome, win or lose. This is the attitude and battle cry of the Christian competitor, it is not that God gives me strength to demolish my opponent and win glory for myself, but that God gives me strength to do my best with what he has given me and that I will accept whatever He has willed is for my good, win or lose. With this attitude of grace, we can truly compete with love for our opponent and demonstrate humility in victory, grace in defeat, and joy always. ◆