I love sports and love talking about sports. I follow several of them quite closely and have found that it’s an area of human experience ripe for theological reflection.
It’s particularly enlightening to relate justification by faith to sport. This has to do with the character of sport as both serious and unserious.
It’s intuitive to understand sports and games as “unserious.” They’re “just for fun,” and when we participate, we’re just “playing.” And we all know how a game is ruined when someone takes it “way too seriously.” After all, “it’s just a game.”
Sports are indeed “unserious” in a very important sense—how we do in the game has nothing to do with our identities, our value as people.
We have inherent value by virtue of being human. In Christian theology, the notion of justification by faith emphasizes God’s acceptance of us without reference to our earning his approval.
Since we do not have to worry about establishing our worth and status before God, we are set free to truly enjoy the games we play. In this sense, sports are “unserious”—they have nothing to do with our value or identity.
Parents need to remember this when tempted to push children too hard to excel or succeed in sports. It ought to be fun for our kids and they must have our unconditional love, affirmation, and acceptance despite how it goes on the field.
But sports are also “serious.” While winning or losing has nothing to do with establishing my identity and value, within the game it’s my responsibility to take it seriously. That’s the only way that I, along with others, truly enjoy it. We all know how a game is no longer fun when someone isn’t really trying or playing their best. We feel let down or disappointed.
But we love it when we’re pushed to try harder, to excel. When our competitor gives his best and it takes all our resources to match his performance, the game is truly thrilling. It’s disappointing to lose, of course, but we feel satisfied when we take sport seriously—when we inhabit the game fully and expend all our energies.
After the game, however, I am who I am despite winning or losing. My identity has nothing to do with the outcome.
I take the game seriously as a game. But when it’s over, it’s only a game.
Regarding sport rightly as both serious and unserious allows us both to try our best and to be gracious whether we win or lose. A great model of this has always been Jack Nicklaus, who was gracious in both victory and defeat.
I love the story of the epic Open Championship played at Turnberry in 1977. The dramatic final round contest between Nicklaus and Tom Watson was called “the Duel in the Sun” because of the unusually hot conditions on Scotland’s west coast. There were constant shifts in momentum, but it finally became apparent on the final hole that Watson would win. Walking up the 18th fairway, Nicklaus said to Watson, “I played my best today, and you beat me.”