“Pride comes before a fall”. It’s a classic proverb, and one often applied to the sporting world. The player who celebrates too early, or the team that holds a celebratory promotional shoot before then losing the final are subject to derision. All of us are quick to revel in the misplaced pride so often seen in sport.
Perhaps we enjoy the comeuppance of an individual or team because at its heart we consider pride to be a fairly unattractive quality. Certainly that is how the Bible views it. Pride is depicted as a selfish introspection. A prideful person is someone who values themselves above others and consistently views themselves as number one. In short, pride is thinking of yourself too much.
Yet, in reality, the relationship between sport and pride is quite different. In fact, pride - masqueraded as an unabashed self-confidence - is seen by most as an essential characteristic of the successful athlete. Indeed, not only is it encouraged, it is celebrated. The sportswoman who believes she’s the best, who knows she’s going to win, is said to have a “champion’s mentality”. The sportsman who, in a quest to assert his dominance, questions an opponent’s credentials, is applauded for playing mind-games.
Take the two scenarios given at the start. If the player who celebrated early then scored, or the team who had their promotional shoot went on to win the final, they would be praised for their confidence and belief. Such traits, along with a self-focus and ruthless ambition, are valued highly by coaches. Sport is, simply put, a place where pride is admired and at times deemed a necessary trait of a champion.
At the grass roots level, pride is equally prevalent. Opponents are arrogantly dismissed based on their amateur like warm up, players exaggerate past performances to impress new teammates, people vie for positions of responsibility at their club attracted by the influence it provides. Pride is everywhere in sport.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages his readers to have a very different attitude to the one advocated by the sporting world. He writes, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Philippians 2 v 3-4). This is exactly the way Jesus lived when He walked on this earth. Paul’s drive to imitate Christ is not only because this honours God but also because this is the way God has designed us to live; meaning we are able to most enjoy life to the full now. Therefore, as a Christian sportsperson we have the opportunity to live this out in our sport by being selfless, always thinking of others and how to build them up, and instead of pride, showing selfless humility.
Of course, this does not mean losing an inner self-belief and a desire to succeed. Neither should humility be mistaken for modesty. Playing yourself down and being self-deprecating is modest, but not necessarily humble and is not what Paul is advocating. As Christians we can, and indeed should, be honest about our gifts, talents and abilities. If you’re world class, you should be happy to say that you’re world class and that should give you confidence as you compete. The Christian can view their sporting ability and success in a different perspective that gives God the glory for the gifts and abilities He has given.
What Paul is rallying against is the arrogant, self-focussed and ruthless mindset often encouraged in sport. The belittling and undermining of a teammate, opponent or official; the pursuit of self-promotion at the expense of others; the desire to see others fail so that you succeed. Paul is calling for us to move the focus away from ourselves and on to others.
However, to live in such a way feels totally unnatural. Human beings are inherently selfish. Our initial response is always to think of ourselves and our own interests first. So Paul doesn’t leave his instructions there. He doesn’t just tell us to try harder and be humble. Rather, he points us to Jesus as an example to inspire us and move us to view others differently:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant...he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death...on a cross!” (Philippians 2 v 5-8)
Jesus voluntarily gave up His position at the right hand of His Father to come to earth and die a criminals death. He humbled himself from the highest to the lowest, from King to servant. Why? Because He loves us and wants our relationship with God to be restored. Paul urges us to have the same attitude of self-sacrificing humility and love for others that Christ demonstrated at the cross.
Yet, Jesus is not simply an example to follow. It was His love for you and me that led Him willingly to die, and so our subsequent humility is in direct response to what He has done for us. Ultimately, we should humble ourselves before Him, our Lord and saviour, and offer our lives to serve Him. Approaching our sport in a way that values others above ourselves is one important way in which we do this.
The challenge for the Christian sportsperson, therefore, is to act with a Christlike humility. This does not mean that we should be falsely humble, nor does it mean sacrificing our fierce competitiveness. Rather, we can approach our sport with a confidence that comes from recognising our God-given gifts that can be used for His glory. Relationally, we can seek the interests of others above our own, being fiercely humble, knowing that Christ did this in a supreme way on the cross.
So let’s follow Christ’s example as we seek to represent Him in the world of sport. Let’s be fiercely competitive, but also fiercely humble.
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