It’s mid-way through the second half, you’re 1-0 down. It’s a corner, a golden chance for an equaliser. The cross comes in and as you rise to meet it with your head, you feel the sharp point of an elbow in the back and then a firm hand pushes you over. As you pick yourself up off the floor, you turn and look at the perpetrator. It’s him...again.
All match he’s been nipping at your heels, deliberately stepping on your feet, pushing you, elbowing you. The referee doesn’t seem too bothered. But these constant niggling fouls have been getting to you. And this incident is the final straw.
You turn around, square up to him and give him a piece of your mind. He grabs your shirt and a scuffle begins.
We all have our own versions of that story. A time when an opponent in our sport has been a constant irritation or has shamelessly cheated, and we’ve reacted in a way that doesn’t cover ourselves in glory.
Such reactions are understandable, as sportspeople we are by nature competitive beings. Added to this is a wider discourse where opponents are framed as the “enemy”. Not only are they in the way of our victory, but it is literally “Us verses Them” and so sporting culture tells us to see them as inherently bad.
That inherent attitude towards opponents, coupled with our own innate selfishness and pride, means that when an opponent is being particularly difficult, our default response is to retaliate in kind or to escalate the situation as we confront them.
The Bible, however, offers a challenging alternative to how we view and treat opponents. The creation account in Genesis reminds us that every person is made in the image of God - that includes the opponent who has just cheated or put in a dirty tackle. They are loved by God and are of incredible value since they too are created in His image. Such a view is in stark contrast to how we typically see those we compete against.
Meanwhile, in his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul says the following:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12 v 17-18)
These are certainly challenging words. Paul is urging us to live at peace with even the most hostile of opponents. It can be so tempting to give that provocative opponent a taste of their own medicine. But Paul is clear: “do not repay anyone evil for evil”. In other words, don’t retaliate, even when we have been greatly wronged. Again, how different to what the sporting world encourages.
But rather than seeing his instructions as a benchmark that the Christian must begrudgingly seek to live up to, Paul wants us to remember “God’s mercy” (Romans 12 v 1). A mercy that he reminded his readers of earlier in the letter:
“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5 v 8-10)
Paul is making a powerful point. We have all rejected God, living our own way not His, which has made us “God’s enemies”. But Jesus’ response to how we have treated Him was to give up His life for us on the cross. Not only has that brought the Christian back into a relationship with God, it is also the ultimate demonstration of love towards an enemy.
The cross should both move and motivate us to “live at peace” with even the most hostile of opponents as we are reminded of Jesus’ response to our hostility towards Him. Rather than trying to grit our teeth and not respond in kind because we ‘shouldn’t’, we can joyfully forgive our opponents knowing that Christ has forgiven us of so much more.
So that is the challenge presented before us. Next time you are wronged on the sports field how will you respond? Retaliation? Inner resentment while remaining calm on the surface? Or will you genuinely forgive and love them as you are reminded of Christ’s work on the cross?
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A weekly devotional for sports people