On the Lord’s Team! A Reflection on Sports Providing an Image of the Christian Life

"Osaka07 D1M M100M Heat Astafa Powell" by Eckhard Pecher (Arcimboldo) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Osaka07 D1M M100M Heat Astafa Powell” by Eckhard Pecher (Arcimboldo) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

The World Cup captured a lot of attention these past few weeks. I puzzle a bit as to the popularity of soccer since it seems that almost no one ever scores. A fan corrected me, saying that I sounded like a typical American who cares only about results. He said that most soccer fans appreciate the game for its own sake, for the skill and teamwork involved. All right, I’ll accept the judgment I received. I am surely in the minority since a vast percentage of the world deeply appreciates the game. I am also aware of the need to be wary of caring only about results, scores, and winning. There is, or should be, more to sports than scoring and winning.

However, I am mindful that St. Paul used the image of an athlete to describe the Christian life in several places and he did talk about winning. Consider this one:

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified ( 1 Cor. 9:25-27).

And yet even here it is clear that Paul has more in mind than just winning. Clearly there are many virtues necessary in the athlete that are also essential for the Christian.

  • Discipline – The athlete must carefully and persistently train the body. Without this discipline he will not master the sport nor will his body have the necessary stamina, strength, and coordination. Athletes train every day and work to perfect their prowess. So too must Christians undertake a clear regimen, diligently training in the ways of faith by praying, reading Scripture, partaking of the Sacraments, modeling moral virtue, and exhibiting self-mastery. The Christian must practice every day.
  • Persistence – The athlete must be disciplined all the time, not just occasionally. Failing to train persistently not only jeopardizes good performance, but also risks injury. So too for the Christian. We cannot expect much progress with an on-again, off-again regimen. Without persistent good habits, the Christian not only impedes progress, but also risks injury (sin).
  • Willingness to obey rules – Every sport has rules that must be accepted and followed. Athletes are not free to reinvent the game. They must play by the rules or risk exclusion and disqualification. S0 too Christians must play by the rules set forth by God. If we are going to be on the winning team, we have to abide by the rules. To refuse this is to risk being disqualified. We are not free to reinvent Christianity, as so many try to do today. There is only one playing field and one game. Follow the rules or risk being ejected.
  • Vigilance for signs of injury – Good athletes listen carefully to their bodies, watching for any signs of injury. If they detect an injury they see the team doctor quickly and take measures to heal as quickly as possible. Further they avoid injury by stretching, learning proper form, etc. So too for the Christian. We must monitor ourselves for injury, and upon discovery of even minor injury, we should consult our team physician, the priest, and get on the mend quickly. Further, we should try to ward off injury by learning proper Christian form (moral life) and by avoiding whatever leads us to sin (a kind of stretching to prevent moral injury).
  • Teamwork – Many sports involve learning to work together toward a goal. Athletes should not seek glory only for themselves; they must have the good of the entire team in mind. They must learn to work with others toward the common good and overcome any idiosyncrasies or selfishness that hinders the common goal. So too Christians must strive to overcome petty and selfish egotism and work for the common good, learning to appreciate the gifts of others. The team is stronger than the individual alone. Life is about more than just me. When others are glorified, so am I—if I am on the same winning team.

Well, you get the point. Why not add a few of your own thoughts on how sports can provide a good metaphor for the Christian life?

8 Replies to “On the Lord’s Team! A Reflection on Sports Providing an Image of the Christian Life”

  1. Regarding soccer, you may have misunderstood the fan who corrected you. It’s not that fans don’t care about the final result — win, lose, or draw — it’s that they are able to enjoy watching a game even when only one, or no, possession results in a goal. (Personally, I can usually enjoy a soccer game as long as at least one team is trying to score.) And the way various championships and cups are awarded, it’s often the case that a tie (and sometimes the case that a close loss) is a satisfactory result in a single game, which could illustrate the virtue of prudence, if you like.

    “You play the way you practice” could be a metaphor for the importance of daily prayer (or, more generally, of a deeply Christian home) if we want to choose good, avoid evil, and follow Christ when we’re out in the world.

    Great players tend to have a devotion to, even a love for, the game. These have obvious parallels with religious devotions and the sort of practical charity that loves to love others.

    A fan of a sports team lives in hope, and the annual “Wait till next year” could represent the resolve to avoid sin during the nightly examen or the Act of Contrition.

  2. Not much of an athlete, myself, but I do watch games a lot whether baseball, football, basketball, hockey and lately soccer and anything else in between. In all team games, nothing else beats individual skills except teamwork. Teamwork is the power that wins the championships. We have a great team in our Catholic league from our Great Coach, The HOLY SPIRIT, the angels, the saints, the popes, the bishops, priests, the religious and down to the laity all working for the Glory of GOD and Our LORD JESUS CHRIST. That is why John, the Beloved exclaimed in the Revelation 7:9After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the LAMB, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; 10and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our GOD who sits on the throne, and to the LAMB.” What a great winning team!!! I hope and pray, down to the last stride, that I will be part of this winning team. YHWH EL GIBOR.

  3. This comment is not about the spiritual content of your post but about your statement: “I puzzle a bit as to the popularity of soccer since it seems that almost no one ever scores”. Some years ago I read and article that explained that the fact that goals are so scarce during the game is what helps build the anxiety and drama that are so gripping for its fans and that make this sport so unique. For its followers, soccer is absolutely mesmerizing and if you watch carefully you will see that spectators remain in their places the whole game, never getting up to buy food or walk around as it is usual in sports (e.g baseball, football) where scoring is constant and results are bulky.

    Luisa (from far away Argentina…)

  4. I forgot to ad that spectators stay glued to their chairs because they do not want to miss the one goal that may change the whole game. Contrary to what a fan told you,I believe it is this fact and not the special appreciation for the game, teamwork and skills (which I think are the same in every sport) that makes this sport so unique.

  5. Sports in many ways are the antithesis to the modern concept of freedom – the concept that exalts the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, if it makes you feel good. Coaches instill a respect for discipline at an early age so that players can reach their potential in their chosen game. Put another way, they seem to restrict freedom – but in fact they are releasing it. Players might not understand why the coach makes them practice for hours when they are young – but they appreciate and embrace it later. Listen to the history of any great player (in any sport) – I guarantee there is a great coach and hours of practice.

    Embrace football (soccer), by the way – they don’t call it the ‘beautiful game’ for nothing.

  6. Soccer is pretty cool. Sanctimonious soccer enthusiasts not so much.

  7. I don’t particularly care for the “typical American” crack, as the point of any “game” in the end is the result. How you get there is often glossed over, and I think that is what soccer highlights so well. At least at World Cup level.

    Elementary school level soccer is still painful to endure, and is most American’s experience with the sport. Of course we want the end results! That means we can leave and go get pizza!

    Obey the rules, take the opportunities as they come to you. Yep, soccer does a fantastic job of portraying that.

  8. Monsignor Pope,
    This year I have been glued to the TV rooting for my 2 favorite teams, which are now disqualified.
    Boo! But as I watched them play other more aggressive teams, I found myself thinking that those teams (the roughians) do not deserve to win…because justice demands that the winner play fairly, solidly. The team that has the best unity and perseverance and skill – which to me is the Church- is the real winner. Not the team that causes injury or plays dirty!

    Holy mother Church will never be defeated, even if our members are considered “under dogs”, because it will persevere to the end!

    Yours in Christ, anna

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