Daniel found himself far from home, under pressure to conform, to compromise his identity, to worship another king, to give in to surrounding temptations. Sounds like a familiar story? What if we told you that Daniel is alive today? What if we told you he’s away competing at a major championships?
Confused? Let’s explain.
Daniel might be a pseudonym, but there are many parallels to be drawn between the biblical story of Daniel, exiled in Babylon, and current professional athletes, who spend a great deal of time away from home. Here’s what A current British male track athlete said about his experience:
“Getting to travel all over the world is a huge privilege, but it's usually tough. Being away from church for training camps often means I lose touch with other Christians for weeks at a time. This is when the temptation to think obsessively about training and performance is strongest and it's hard to persevere with Jesus. Going to races - travelling for business rather than seeing new cities - it's stressful and isolating but necessary to get the competitive opportunities I need to target the big competitions for later in the season.”
Daniel 1:3-5 sets the scene for the book of Daniel. Daniel found himself up to the neck in a performance business, and the king wanted the very top performers in his service. The reality for Daniel was that God placed him in this high-pressure environment under a king who didn’t honour Him, in a system that made it very difficult for Daniel to honour God. Daniel had to face up to these challenges, despite being far from home, surrounded by temptation.
Christian sportspeople exist within a performance-driven culture. It’s a high-pressure environment, a system within which it is not always easy to honour God. The stress of travel only adds to the pressure to perform. The pillars of church, family and friends have been left behind. Lack of good routine swings open the door to all manner of distractions, stress, and temptation; noise that can be difficult to process. So, what exactly does the book of Daniel say that can help athletes facing this very issue?
In all the busyness of travel, all the chaos of transfers, all the noise of competition, there’s one great leveler, one quiet moment all competitors face- the identity check. As you queue to show your passport, check in at your hotel, get your event accreditation, - one thing matters- who are you? Your identity matters, without it you’re lost. There are few worse feelings than losing your ID when it really matters. But that’s exactly the challenge laid before Daniel, you can read about it in Daniel 1:6-7.
Daniel's passport would have read ‘God is my judge’- the Hebrew meaning of the name Daniel - a constant reminder to everyone of who he is, and confirmation of his desire to honour God above all. In changing his name, the Babylonians attempted to strip Daniel of his fundamental identity. If we read on, we see clearly in Daniel's response that he remembered whose he was. The world of sport encourages its citizens to find their fundamental identity in their performance, their brand, their ranking but for the Christian sportsperson the call is simple- remember whose you are.
As John writes in the beginning of his gospel, the chief identity for someone who has believed in Jesus is as an adopted child of God. John 1:12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God Every time you are under pressure to prove who you are, when you think you’re only one bad performance from becoming a no-one or one good performance from becoming a someone, will you remember; in trusting Jesus your identification reads God's own child.
Being involved in the world of sport at a certain level takes you away, it takes you away from home, from family, from church, from friends, from routine. It’s inevitable that if God has called you into this world there will be some things you can’t do and there will be things that you have to do. You’ll know the pain of saying no to another birthday party, another wedding, another holiday. You’ll also know the struggle of long training camps, stays away from home, living out of a suitcase again, surrounded by all the temptations without the support around you that help make the decisions you want to. In Daniel 1:8-15 we see that, when Daniel was taken away, he resolved to honour God.
Performance sport often comes down to working out how much your body can take . Coaches, psychologists, nutritionists are all employed to get the best people around an individual sports person to help them make the best decision on where to draw the line. Elite performers toe this line the majority of their career. There’s a line at which increasing the physical and emotional load on the body any more is not sensible, beneficial, safe, or just conducive to optimal performance.
Daniel makes the call to draw the line. He was firmly determined in his stance that to eat the royal food and drink the royal wine would undermine his commitment to honour God. He remembered whose he was.
In any area where your commitment to honour God has potential to be compromised, where it’s likely to be undermined, when the things that you know that help you are in danger of being completely left behind, will you resolve to honour God?
“I think the hardest part of travelling as a Christian is keeping your heart oriented towards the right goal. It's easy to spend a whole trip with your earbuds in, focused on a result while agents, meet organisers and coaches expect you to perform. Finding presence, connecting with new people and environments can get swept under the carpet.” - A current British male elite athlete.
Daniel’s resolve to honour God only brings more pressure, he quickly learns of a death sentence hanging over his head. But in the face of this mounting pressure, away from home, with no support from the system, Daniel's reaction is measured- there is no panic. He prays these words:
“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.
He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him."
For the Christian sports player, entrenched in the system of sport, often finding yourself away, alone. Here is the ultimate comfort; in trusting Christ you have become Gods own child and He is in ultimate control. He is worthy of all our praise because wisdom and power are His; He knows all things and is in control of all things. God is not surprised by delayed flights, cancelled fixtures, disappointing performances, broken sleep, strained relationships from travel- even when we are. When you face injury, when your coach singles you out, when you don’t make it to church, when you make mistakes, when you face rejection - God hasn’t dropped the ball, even if you have. He knows all things and is in control of all things and he loves to watch over his people.
As we see in the book of Daniel, even under intense pressure, God enables His people to thrive and flourish in a way that is remarkable to those that don’t trust Him. Sometimes that will mean resilience in adversity, sometimes that will mean joy in triumph, but it will always come through remembering whose you are and resting in God’s ultimate control.
Are you an elite athlete? Or do you know someone who is? We support over 300 top level sportspeople, contact email@example.com to find out more about how we could support you.
Simon is a Christians in Sport staff member on the Regional & Elite Teams. He is a duathlete and is one of the leaders at Town Church, Bicester.
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