Does God love Luton more than Coventry?
Did God answer the prayers of Everton players more than Leicester’s?
Sale lost the Premiership Rugby Final, did they do something wrong?
This past weekend has been the pinnacle of many sporting seasons, and yet we tend to focus on the victors more than the losers. The cameras linger on the winners because we don’t like to focus on the other side of sport and yet for the overwhelming majority of sportspeople, their careers, whether professional or amateur, are littered with defeat more than success.
On Saturday all three of my local village cricket club teams lost comprehensively. At a post match BBQ, one of my teammates asked me: “What would God have to say to the cricketer who keeps failing?”
I had two answers for him:
Sportspeople can quickly fall into the trap of defining themselves by their gifting or athletic ability. They think of their status in terms of the league they play in, or the statistics that measure their performance. For those where their sport is their career, their job, this is of course heightened.
The 1980s film Chariots of Fire sums up the problem of thinking in this way. Harold Abrahams talks about the 100m race he is about to compete in and says, “I have nine lonely seconds to justify my existence, but will I?”
For professional sportspeople it can feel like a very valid question to ask. Waking up after the final and realising you have not succeeded, that people may have lost their jobs due to your performance, or that you may be in danger of losing yours, can be incredibly destabilising. This is something as amateurs and fans we do not easily remember.
When your sense of self-worth is defined by success or performance, you live life on a knife edge. Even secular sports psychology, giving a small glimpse of what is ultimately true, recognises that building an identity on athletic performance is dangerous.
This is where the gospel is truly good news. That we find our complete identity not in what we do but in what Christ has done for us is totally freeing.
1 John 3:1
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”
Sportspeople can be in real danger of seeing God like a cosmic coach, timing us with a stopwatch and rewarding us appropriately. This is more like karma than grace. Instead we need to see him as Scripture reveals him to be, as a Father, loving us unconditionally as his children and delighting in us as we live in relationship with him.
Knowing this for the sportsperson won’t necessarily take away all of the sting of defeat, but it will help reframe the experience and allow them to ask some more reflective questions, thinking about what their Father is teaching them through this moment of agony.
An identity as a child of God is available to all those who trust in Jesus. It is a gift. A freely given gift. With our identity secure, sport then is another gift given to help us grow more into the likeness of Jesus, and to show God and his beauty off to those watching us. This includes the losses and the relegations as well as the victories.
As a good Father, God promises “to give good gifts to those who ask him.” (Matthew 7:11) God answered the prayers of the players, the coaches, and fans according to his will. It may not have been how they imagined or hoped he would answer, but as our Father, he gave them exactly what they needed.
As Olympic Chaplain Ashley Null says:
“In the Christian life, God takes each one of his children on journeys they do not wish to go. He makes them travel by roads they do not wish to use. All so he can bring them to places they never wish to leave. With Jesus, pain, no matter how great—even when of Olympic-size proportions—never has the last word.”
Did God love one set of players at the weekend more than another? No!
Did he punish one player for how they’d behaved and rewarded another? No!
In response to my friend’s question, what was God doing with the failure?
J. K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement address, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure,” traces out this dynamic which we see throughout human history – that is through failure that we learn key lessons that are the foundation for our future success.
For the Christians involved we know God was working “for the good of those who love him…to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:28) In the pain he calls them back to himself and promises to make them more like Jesus. It’s uncomfortable to hear but we know that it is often through adversity that the Spirit cultivates our character most.
What about those who don’t trust in Jesus?
Well, the crushing disappointment of loss is maybe a way of God pointing us to the fact we were made for something better than this life. Even victory we recognise is fleeting and doesn’t truly fulfil us.
Jonny Wilkinson powerfully summed it up, reflecting on his own mental health struggles:
“It feels as if I spent years trying to fight depression with “another Six Nations Championship, or some more caps, or titles, or points. ‘Surely,’ I told myself, ‘that will keep you off my back?’ It doesn’t. It’s never enough.”
This life is not meant to fully satisfy us, but to arouse us, and point us towards the lasting joy and pleasure that alone can be found in God’s presence.
Both winning and losing are gifts from God. Sport itself, is a wonderful gift that both transforms the Christian and challenges everyone else. Let’s thank God for his gift today.
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