Once upon a time, our youth would gather in the backyards of our local neighborhoods wearing the jersey of one of their local sports heroes, preparing to emulate them in a pickup game. This is sports in its purest form; relationships are lived out in community. In a society where sports have risen to unprecedented levels of notoriety, financial reward, and self-promotion, one might ask, where is God in sports?
Fast forward fifty years and backyards are empty, only to be replaced by fantasy sports, online betting, and PlayStation. Our heroes, whom we once closely identified with, are now called King and G.O.A.T. Million-dollar contracts, NIL, player protests, domestic violence, substance abuse, transfer portal, and CTE have taken over the headlines. Where is God in the midst of this chaos?
As one who has spent his whole life in athletics as a player or coach, I propose that athletics is neither good nor bad; it is a tool. Like any other tool, what it creates depends on the craftsman. Because of the immense popularity of athletics, it is one of the unique tools in society today. It is used significantly to influence the values of participating men and women. It also influences the behavior of thousands of fans that watch our sports heroes and imitate them.
The challenge for both the participant and the spectator is one of identity. Is your identity based on grace or performance? Grace in sports, is that even possible? Here is an excerpt about grace and sports that my wife wrote about after I was fired in 2005.
“Ken preached a very radical and different message to his team and coaches. He reinforced that your identity is not tied to performance. It is tied to the boundless grace of God. Some believe grace cannot exist in sports. You cannot give someone the grace to fail; that is an oxymoron. Yet sports without grace always lead to self and disappointment. If you succeed by the world standard without grace, it is all about self and flesh. If the self gets the glory, then you are not successful. There is no room for God in anything done by and for self. Yet, with grace, it is done by and for God as an act of love and worship. If failure comes, then God is pleased; if success and adulation come, God is also pleased. When it is done by Him, for Him, excellence happens; maybe not always excellence by the world standard, but excellence in motive and character. So, without allowing someone the grace to fail, it will always be about self; if it is about self, it is already a failure; thus, it can never be pleasing to the Father. So, Christians should never participate in sports apart from the grace of God. It has no place in God’s economy. Sports without grace will only lead to bondage. You become enslaved to it. Your identity in the world becomes wrapped up in performance instead of being found as a beloved child of God. You cannot win all the time. When you lose or sports ends in your life, you will become lost and adrift. You wonder who you are and do you matter. There is no contentment in sports without the grace of God. Even if you win the Super Bowl today, they will play again tomorrow. Will you please the crowds tomorrow? If sports are played for the right reason, for God’s glory, it will always be pleasing to the one that matters, God.”
So, how can we live a grace-based life in a performance-based industry? Is it possible when the only expectation that is acceptable is winning? How do we help someone find meaning and worth in losing? These are just a few of the questions I have wrestled with over the past seventeen years, trying to understand the role of grace in sports. Before making sense of grace in sports, I had to address my concept of God and self. My picture of God was one of a distant Father with more important things to do rather than being involved in my daily life. As I considered my concept of self, it became apparent that I was living behind a mask and from a false sense of identity. This new desire to better understand God and my identity would reveal my addiction to recognition.
I want to tell you that I no longer struggle with recognition, but that would not be the truth. I can share with you whom I know God to be and what He thinks of you and me. I am confident that God is love, and we are His beloved kids; it is out of His love and acceptance that we can live in a performance-based society. The question I proposed earlier is, where is God in sports? The answer to that question is that He is in you and me. Yes, I have found Him right in the middle of my sometimes very messy life. For many years, grace was nothing more than a spiritual concept we discussed in church.
Today I know that grace is a person, and His name is Jesus.
So, when I speak about grace in sports, I am referring to grace as the unconditional love of God, extended to us and embracing us, and bringing us into His life.”