How can I make the most of my sporting talent as a Christian? Can I strive to get to the top, while still following Jesus?
To get to the top in sport you have to be ambitious. You have to be driven. Even elite sportspeople like Usain Bolt or Roger Federer, who appear totally laid back, are anything but when it comes to how much they want to succeed.
That is what Bolt sought to show in his recently released film ‘I Am Bolt’.
Promoting it, he said: “My aim with making this film is to show people how my life really is… What I’ve been through to get me where I am today, the ups and the downs, and an insight into what I am thinking and feeling.”
The film then shows Bolt putting in the hard yards in training and the way his rival Justin Gatlin’s claim that he was going to beat Bolt at Rio 2016 riled the Jamaican to defy him.
At the other end of the sporting scale, thousands of club players and athletes will be putting in the hard yards in training so that they can achieve the best possible performance when it comes to competing on the pitch, the track, swimming pool or wherever that might be.
Yet as we have touched upon in another blog in this series, wanting to win, to hit the heights in our sport, can often be perceived as wrong by Christians. The fear is that this desire will always be an idol, something that takes the place of God as number one in our lives.
The logic goes that it is right to be ambitious for the gospel, but in sport – well that’s a different matter. Is it not better to simply enjoy God’s good creation of sport rather than pushing yourself to the limit – faster, higher, stronger as the Olympic motto suggests? Are Christians better off as keen amateurs rather than dedicated professionals?
The Bible paints ambition, sporting or otherwise, in a different light. In ‘The Parable of the Talents’ in Matthew 25, Jesus teaches that ambition is a good thing when we use God’s gifts for His glory. If we have been given the gift of sporting ability, however great or small, we can use that gift to honour God.
Jesus tells the story of a master, who entrusts some of his money to his servants before he goes away on a journey. They were given five talents, two talents and one talent each, according to their ability. The servants with five and two talents invest the money and earn the same amount again, but the servant with one talent just hides it in the ground.
A talent was worth about 20 years’ wages of a labourer, so Jesus is talking large amounts of money. The master, who represents God, then returns and assesses what each servant has achieved with the talents. He praises the two who have invested his money well, calling them “good and faithful” servants and gives them much more. But the servant who just hid the money in the ground is described as “wicked and slothful” and his talent is given to the servant, who originally had five. Contextually, Jesus is talking about what the kingdom of heaven will be like. He is teaching that Christians are called to the make the most of the gifts God gives us – and that they will be rewarded in heaven for doing this. The key is not to use them for our glory, but God’s. That has got to be the case in the world of sport too.
If God has given you gifts to play top-level sport, He wants you to be ambitious with them – but be distinctive at the same time. Give it your all to achieve the best you can for His glory.
So often sporting success becomes the goal we aspire to and ambition becomes about self-promotion. But Christians are called to put God first and worship Him with our entire lives and bodies (Romans 12:1-2). Sporting ambition, therefore, becomes investing the talents God has given us for His glory.
It is a concept brought out in ‘Godly Ambition’ - the biography of the well-known 20th century church leader John Stott. He was a very driven and talented man, who focussed his ambitions on glorifying God. The book’s author, Alister Chapman, said Stott:
“was both a Christian seeking to honour God and a very talented man who believed he had key roles to play in God’s work in the world and wanted to play them. In short, he combined two things that might seem incongruous: godliness and ambition.”
As more and more sports have become increasingly professional, the ambition required to reach the top in them gets greater too. Top-level sport is so often a cutthroat business with only a handful of young hopefuls making it from the academy to the senior ranks. School children are training like professionals before they even get the chance to make it their career.
If God has given us the sporting gifts to compete in that world, He wants us to be ambitious – otherwise we could never make the most of our talent. But ultimately He calls us to be ambitious for His sake, not our own.
Ed runs for City of York Athletic Club and is a member of Trinity Church, York.
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