As the leader of a wrestling club and the father of six outstanding young athletes, I think a lot these days about how faith relates to sports. Let me start with this: I’ve attached an upgraded version of the highlight video of my high school wrestling days I originally posted a few weeks ago. When I first made it last month, I included some of my favorite contemporary Christian songs from the 1980’s as the soundtrack, but Facebook wouldn’t allow the video to post for copyright reasons. YouTube would, so here it is! These were my jams.
I had an interesting response from the video last month. Some people said, half-jokingly, “I don’t like that guy.” I know I might seem a bit mean on the mat, but I have to blame my mother Adrienne Levendusky for that. In my junior year of high school, I remember a conversation we had in the kitchen about my attitude on the mat after I lost a match. She said, “Derek, I know you’re a nice guy and you’re a Christian, but there’s nothing wrong with being a little mean on the mat. That’s what the sport demands. You have to be aggressive and bring a confident, intimidating attitude. I don’t want to see my nice boy walk out there again.”
I wanted to share a few thoughts about how faith ought to affect sports, because there is this misconception that Christianity makes you weak and half-hearted. My experience has been the opposite. How has faith helped me? My faith has given me the motivation and character to be diligent, disciplined, courageous and tenacious in my athletic experiences while never losing sight of a God who writes stories.
The New Testament says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). It also says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Col. 3:23).
This tells me that everything is now worship, including wrestling…and soccer…and baseball…or running. (Those were, or currently are, my sports.) There’s a distinction there. I don’t worship my sport. I worship with my sport. I don’t worship created things, I worship my Creator. This can give me an incredible motivation in training and competition. I exist for the glory of God. These talents I have are for the glory of God. This drives me to be worthy of the gifts. I owe myself to God. Like Spiderman’s uncle said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
This can also free me from the slavery of finding my identity in my sport. I’m a child of God first, everything else second. My sport is not my god. It cannot provide for me the satisfaction that my relationship with God can. This actually liberates me as I compete rather than deflates my competitive spirit. I can truly enjoy what I do now, instead of being a slave to the whims of my achievements and failures. Otherwise, I’m motivated by anger, fear, pride, self-glory or insecurity. Every god has wrath & if I worship the created thing (sports) instead of the Creator, that god will, at some point, pour out wrath on me. I may get injured, I will get old, I’ll lose a step, I will be forgotten, I might not achieve all my dreams. Even if I do, my trophies will collect dust. The cheers will go away. But there is freedom in finding my identity in Christ. He is eternal. So now I’m free to enjoy temporal things without allowing them to enslave me.
My faith also gives me perspective. I believe in a God who is sovereign. This means He is in total control. No man holds my destiny in his hands. Only God has that power. And since my life is about glorifying him, not glorifying me, I can walk through triumph or disappointment with contentment. He works all things for the good. Nothing can separate me from the most important thing in the universe—the love of God in Christ. I have that already and nothing can take that away from me. Sometimes, I have to say, “Father, if you’re more glorified in my failure than in my success, then not my will but yours be done.”
So faith is not a God-loved-me-more-than-them-and-makes-me-win-every-time card (at least not how some people think), faith is a motivator (love & joy), a mission (worship & the glory of God), and an anchor (his sovereignty).
Elite athletes often struggle with perfectionism and even depression. It can be an isolating, lonely place. Faith in Christ is the antidote. His love and grace give me security. His generosity and sacrifice give me motivation. His sovereignty gives me peace with the results. He’s in control. He’s good. And He’s working.
This is how I hope faith affects my kids as they compete in sports. This is how I hope is affects the kids in my wrestling club.