Faith and Sports

David Brooks gets to the heart of the athlete and compares it to the heart of faith.

Is competition fundamentally at odds with following Christ? Is the ambition to win? What differences are between Brooks’ sketch of the athlete and the business person/entrepreneur?

The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.

The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.

He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.

His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats….

But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.

Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.

For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That’s why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause.

Jeremy Lin has wrestled with this tension quite openly. In a 2010 interview with the Web site Patheos, Lin recalled, “I wanted to do well for myself and my team. How can I possibly give that up and play selflessly for God?”

Lin says in that interview that he has learned not to obsess about stats and championships. He continues, “I’m not working hard and practicing day in and day out so that I can please other people. My audience is God. … The right way to play is not for others and not for myself, but for God. I still don’t fully understand what that means; I struggle with these things every game, every day. I’m still learning to be selfless and submit myself to God and give up my game to Him.”

The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable. Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.




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  • But what sayest thou? 🙂 There’s something about certain strains of evangelicalism and fundamentalism that seems to be anti-intellectual, anti-achievement, and anti-ambitious, perhaps out of fear of prideful boasting (rather than humility) and self-dependence (rather than dependence on God), and that’s left a long shadow in common church culture that doesn’t know how to empower those in the laity (if I may use an antiquated term) to contribute more to the church & the world aside from teaching in children’s church / youth group, singing in the choir, and handing out bulletins. And that subculture perpetuates the notion the most serious Christians are the ones who will become pastors and missionaries. Just heard that on a podcast (I think it was with Gungor?), so that notion is far from going away.

  • Glenn Sunshine

    I like David Brooks, but he needs to watch “Chariots of Fire” again.

  • Rick

    Would this just be limited to sports? What about business, job searches, etc…

  • T

    First, I don’t think the jump from “athlete” to “journalist” or a host of other jobs would be difficult:

    “The modern [big-name journalist] is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female journalists as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display. He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the [ratings or readership] of the crowd and the respect of ___________.”

    That said, I’m not prepared to say that being a pro athlete, per se, is any more at odds with Christian faith than professional journalism. Now, I think that it is worth saying that *the way* a faithful Christian will pursue either career will likely differ significantly from the way most folks will, but an athlete, for instance, can play even basketball without being an example of selfishness and pride run amok.

    I will add that, in fact, I think it may be easier for the Christian athlete to pursue being the best in his or her field than the journalist. “Where words are many, sin is unavoidable.” Journalists make their living with words, and with points of view that often are designed to put others in a disfavorable light. By contrast, one doesn’t need to tread on nearly as dangerous ground nearly as often to improve one’s ability to get a ball through an elevated hole or in the hands of a teammate. Yes, personal magnetism and expression plays a role in sports, but it’s practically all there is in modern journalism. Jeremy Lin didn’t charm his way to where he is. Quite the opposite. He’s there despite his ability to convince much anyone of anything, other than by playing the game.

    I will say that I think it’s a harder case when the sport in question requires or encourages a physical attack on another person. Boxing, MMA, and even hockey are all problematic for me for me for such reasons. The objectives and means of the game matter, just like the objectives and means of a particular business matter. While our idea of “a super-star athlete” may be inherently in conflict with being a Christian, there’s nothing inherently conflicting between being Christ’s and being great at the game of basketball, or several other sports, any more than being great at computer programming or even medical science.

  • Gleddiesmith

    Because CS Lewis in the Screwtape Letters says it best,

    “You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible. To anticipate the Enemy’s strategy, we must consider His aims. The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the, fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.

    His whole effort, therefore, will be to get the man’s mind off the subject of his own value altogether. He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one. Your efforts to instil either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame. You must try to exclude this reminder from the patient’s consciousness at all costs. The Enemy will also try to render real in the patient’s mind a doctrine which they all profess but find it difficult to bring home to their feelings—the doctrine that they did not create themselves, that their talents were given them, and that they might as well be proud of the colour of their hair. But always and by all methods the Enemy’s aim will be to get the patient’s mind off such questions, and yours will be to fix it on them. Even of his sins the Enemy does not want him to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased,”

  • Alan K

    Glenn #2 is right. “I believe God made me for a purpose, for China, but he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

  • DRT

    Barnabas Piper wrote a rebuttal to this piece and it shows just how dangerous and wrong Calvinism is in combination with sports. He concludes:

    “He is required to pursue excellence in the profession of basketball. Excellence is what all followers of Christ are called to pursue no matter the endeavor. God gave us talents and we are called to use them – for his glory, not our own.”

    This is shocking to me. He misses the whole point that motives matter. Further, he falls into the ways of man and not the ways of god. It is not the most excellent basketball player that shows the glory of god, it is Jesus laying down his life, the meek etc. If Lin was playing against a terrible player, me for instance, would god be given more glory by Lin beating me?

    I have no problem with Lin playing basketball well, and certainly hope he does it with consideration toward other. But we are wrong if we think that a Christian excelling at something like this gives god more glory.

  • AHH

    I don’t follow the NBA closely, but was anybody besides me surprised to read here that Jeremy Lin is a Christian? Maybe I should have guessed by his humility and lack of gangster tattoos.
    His Christian faith seems to be a lot smaller part of the “story” than it is for Tim Tebow, for whatever reason.

  • Joe Canner

    The Apostle Paul used sports metaphors on several occasions; surely if he was anti-sports he would have avoid those metaphors and even denounced sports. Or this an example of progressive revelation (like, for example, slavery or the role of women) in which we are supposed to be more enlightened now than Paul was. (NB: I’m not opposed to progressive revelation; just wondering if it applies here.)

  • Rick

    AHH #8-

    Tim Dalrymple, over at Philosophical Fragments/Patheos (see Scot’s sidebar), recently did a post about Lin, and an interview he did with him.

    He wrote: “What stands out to me is that Jeremy is a person of great courage and determination, a young man who speaks of his faith unabashedly but is not out to self-promote. He doesn’t go on at great length or depict himself as a the protagonist in a faith-hero story. In the midst of some ups and downs, his trust in God is strong and grounded.”

  • “Nobody remembers who finished second!” That’s sports, at least as a fallen “power” in the world we live in. Perhaps in the new creation we will have sports free of this obsession and open to love and glory of God.

  • Adam

    A helpful discussion to be sure, but I feel that this mindset would have to be applied across so many spheres of life that we end up with some kind of hermit Christianity. I would argue instead that there are relatively a very few spheres of vocational life that are beyond Christian redemptive/criciform/resurrection-style participation (prostitution rings, slave-trade, etc.). That being said, this article is a challenging reminder to examine the pervasive models of success in our respective vocations and truly evaluate our motives and methods for correlations to kind of crucified and resurrected King that we worship and serve.

  • Gary Lyn

    Related to #2 and #6, it sounds to me that Brooks is speaking out against a particular picture of athlete that is stereotypical and almost a caricature. So, I would agree that there are aspects of the Christian faith that are not compatible with his picture. I would have some issues with his picture.

  • Jon H

    I see sports as occupying a similar space in our society as the games did for the Romans. The Super Bowl particularly placed this idea in my mind, especially with Madonna coming center stage as a goddess for the half time show. These kind of events reflect our society and what we feel good about, and help us to feel good about ourselves. Somehow, I think this is at odds with our identity as an alternative society. It is hard to separate the activity, with the symbol it is used for in our society.

  • Brooks seems to want to take the humanity out of being human. Is it wrong to take joy and pride in using the talents and passion God has given to us? Competition and winning can fuel and reveal the best in us or the worse; competition, in and of itself, is neutral.

    This article is so other-worldly it leaves no room for this world or what it means to be human, passionate, confident, ambitious and more.

    Am I to believe Brooks has no ambition?

    As for the idea of being “selfless,” there is no such thing. We are all motivated by our own self-interest. The only question, is it enlightened self interest?

  • I think the issue Brooks raises is being missed, or misunderstood. He is not saying that we should have falsely low opinions of ourselves, or that we should not take joy at least (I’ll differ on the pride part–how can you take pride in what isn’t really yours?) in the gifts God has given us. Nor is he saying that we should be stupid and lazy. He is saying, quite simply, that the root of sports tend to be self-glorification and that the Christian’s main purpose in life is to enjoy God and to glorify Him forever. Any thinking Christian athlete or sports fan is going to admit this is true. I’ve struggled with it myself–more with football and hockey, which I love but which are also the most violent of the major US sports. And I wonder: Do I justify something Christ would abhor simply because it appeals to my flesh?

  • Chris

    #16 is right on. Brooks would not be against Eric running (#2). He is critiquing the stage on which the sport is being played. Maybe we should refrain from commenting and reflect on his comments during this time of Lent. I am asking myself, is Brooks right and simply exposing the elephant in the room?

  • TimHeebner

    I think one thing to keep in mind is that the fullness of life in God can occur in any situation. Striving to be the best no matter what context, I believe, honors God. But when the best we can be (in human terms for our profession or craft) is not achieved, God is still in that moment too. In competition, your heart can be honoring God no matter what the outcome.

    Amy Grant’s song, “Better Than a Hallelujah” comes to mind. Sometimes the hard times, the defeats, the trials, can be better than a hallelujah (or a victory), because God is present in all situations.

    An athlete, or one in a profession, should strive to “win”, but with the attitude that they can honor God equally (or maybe even more) when they don’t “win”.

  • Darren King

    DRT wrote: “But we are wrong if we think that a Christian excelling at something like this gives god more glory.”

    I couldn’t disagree more.

    A tree gives God glory by sprouting, growing, blossoming, etc. And Jeremy Lin gives God glory by doing the same when it comes to playing basketball.

    To fulfill our potential physically, intellectually, etc, is to give God glory.

    Even when Michael Jordan came across as arrogant, one couldn’t help but see the artistry in his playing. And that points towards His Creator.

    In other words, one can give glory to God even without realizing it. A well-made Swiss watch may be unaware of its substance, as may its wearer, but the watch itself still speaks of its design and original creation.

  • DRT

    Darren, but that is exactly my point. Each individual gives god glory for being them, not for excellence by our definition. Does Lin give god more glory than me when I play basketball?