Article Sep 12, 2016

I can fumble and strike out through Christ who strengthens me

I have always been somewhat amused but also troubled every time an athlete quotes Philippians 4:13 right after he or she scores the game-winning touchdown, hits a game-winning home run, nails game-winning free throws, or kicks the game-winning goal: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).

Have you ever noticed that no one ever quotes that verse after the game when he or she gave up the game-winning touchdown, struck out to lose the game, missed free throws that would have won the game, or missed a wide open goal kick that would have sealed his or her team's victory?

This phenomenon among Christian athletes reveals the way too many Christians who play sports think about their Christian commitment in relationship to sporting competition. It seems that they think about Christ only in relation to their successes as defined by playing well and winning. Such an approach flows from a triumphalist and self-referential understanding of their Christian faith.

In Philippians, the apostle Paul is calling for Christian joy and passionate living in the midst of the most difficult trials and circumstances. When Paul writes the letter to the Philippians from a Roman prison (A.D. 60-62), he wants the believers in the church at Philippi to understand that Christ is his identity and the center of his life: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). He also wants them to know the context of his life and his goal, the end for which he exists is Christ:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ . . . But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8,13-14).

Paul exhorts, “Brothers, join in imitating me” so that you can “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 3:17, 4:4). By way of application near the end of Paul's letter to the church at Philippi he declares, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:11-13).

In the next verse Paul writes, “Still, you did well by sharing with me and my hardship" (Phil 4:14). Elsewhere, the apostle Paul declares, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Are you beginning to pick up on a theme? A proper understanding of, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” would lead to quoting it in the midst of athletic failure more often than during athletic success.

The issue is never whether or not you score the touchdown, but how you trust and glorify Christ when you score the touchdown and when you do not. In other words, the issue is one of spiritual warfare. The problem is many Christians do not think about their engagement with sports in terms of spiritual warfare to the glory of God, but rather as God helping them to be more successful. But what if failure provides you a strategic and unique opportunity to glorify God?

Baseball provides many helpful lessons for those engaging in spiritual battle because it is a game that inherently means dealing with failure. "There is more Met than Yankee in all of us," as Roger Angell poignantly wrote in The Summer Game. Every person who has ever played the game of baseball has been a consistent failure. It has been more than 70 years since the Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, finished the 1941 baseball season with a .406 batting average. Williams' failure rate of 60 percent means that he failed less often than any batter in the seven subsequent decades. In fact, only five other players in the live ball era (since 1920) have matched the success of his 60 percent failure rate. Babe Ruth, known for hitting 714 home runs, struck out 1,330 times in his Major League Baseball career. The Cy Young Award is baseball's most coveted honor for the game's best pitcher each season, yet the award's namesake lost 316 games as a major league pitcher. Baseball requires a kind of moral courage that keeps persisting in the face of inevitable repeated personal failures. That is the sober, unalterable reality for Major League Baseball Star Mike Trout and every little leaguer as well.

Baseball does not fit well with the current trend of sports leagues that do not keep score and where the goal is for everyone to be successful and know that they are always a winner. Such a notion does violence to a game that is structurally committed to constant reminders of the participant's finitude and allows no room for such utopian fantasies. One of the reasons baseball has been so slow to embrace instant replay in the sport (and rightly so) is that a game marked by chronic managed failure propagates no delusions of human perfectionism in its players or its umpires. When a baseball purist asserts, "Bad calls are a part of the game," he is saying something about the warp and woof of the game.

Only genuine baseball fans understood the reaction of Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga during the 2010 baseball season when he was one out from throwing a perfect game (there have only been 23) and veteran umpire Jim Joyce made one of the worst big moment calls in baseball history. Joyce, inexplicably, called the batter safe at first base. When the next batter was retired, Galarraga was saddled with the most disappointing one hitter in the history of the game. How did Galarraga respond to the injustice? When it happened he offered a stunned grin, and after the game he said, "He is human. Nobody's perfect. . . . I want to tell him not to worry about it." That moment was a beautiful window into what makes baseball unique.

Persistent, daily plodding in the face of chronic managed failure, driven by future hope sounds a lot like my daily Christian walk. The apostle Paul wrote, "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" (Romans 7:15). But he went on to write, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 7:25a; 8:1). The reality of his persistent failure and limitations did not paralyze him because he knew his story fit into a larger picture of the story of Christ. In the Kingdom of Christ, "all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" and those who love God are being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29).

Every 162-game baseball season, a seven-month exercise in hopeful, managed failure is a faint echo of the glorious promise James offers to all who have put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness" (James 1:2-3). Everyone has the tendency to compare the highlight reel of others' successes to our daily failures and lose heart. But baseball, for those of us who love it, provides a constant reminder that everyone (even the superstar) strikes out, but the game still goes on. Angell was right, "There is more Met than Yankee in all of us," and there is a glimmer of a greater glory that frequent losers like the Mets keep taking the field. But we must also realize that sometimes sports become an idolatrous weapon wielded against God.

*This is an excerpt from David’s new book, In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship