A pioneer in the academic field of sport and spirituality, Shirl Hoffman has long sought to return sport to its roots in play.1 In 2010, he published his magnum opusGood Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sport. While the product of a lifetime of thoughtful, sympathetic engagement with evangelical sports ministries, Hoffman’s Good Game is the most thoroughly sustained critique of that subculture ever to appear in print, and the conclusions are comprehensively damning.With clarity and eloquence Hoffman challenges prevailing evangelical attitudes about sport in the key areas of competition, stewardship of the body, character-building and evangelism.  In particular, he argues that competition is socially constructed, not the result of a drive embedded in Creation by God himself, as Bill Bright and others have argued. Rather, competition fundamentally distorts God’s intention for human relationships.2

If Hoffmann’s ideal is the human imitation of heavenly play, then competitive sport is Lucifer slithering on earth as a serpent. Human cultures have introduced its inherently antagonistic spirit into the ideal play world in attempt to use sport for their own corrupt purposes. Despite centuries of trying to bridle it for positive purposes, competition inherently appeals to our worst instincts. Its spirit of rivalry inevitably distorts human relationships, all too often inspiring hate rather than camaraderie.3 Winners diminish losers. Hoffman notes C. S. Lewis’s concern that competitive sport could “lead to ambition, jealousy, and embittered partisan feelings, quite as often as to anything else.”4 Hoffman goes even further: “If one were to design a social exercise that tempts Christians toward such sins, they couldn’t do much better than competitive sports.”5 In his view, like slavery, competition in sport is not simply an institution that just needs good governance to make a positive contribution to society.  Competition is an irredeemable malum in se. As a result, authentic Christianity and competitive sports are mutually exclusive.6 Hoffman is quite clear that competition destroys the spiritual refreshment available in the sacred space of leisure. Consequently, Hoffman is scandalized by Christian sports ministries which have embraced competition as a divine gift.7

The only proper response Hoffman sees is a revolution in sporting culture that rids itself of this malign influence. As the title of his book suggests, Hoffman calls for the elimination of competition from sport so that young people will at last be free to play a “good game.”8

Paul’s Positive Use of Comparison

Of course, competition is just a specific form of comparison, and the Apostle Paul thought that comparison could play a positive role in the Christian life. Consider II Corinthians 8:1-7, where the apostle uses it to spur on believers in Corinth to greater godliness. Paul holds up the sacrificial example of the churches in northern Greece to urge the Corinthians to call out on God to enable them to do likewise. Paul makes clear from the beginning that the iconic generosity of the churches in Northern Greece was God’s handiwork. Unless the Spirit of God had moved them through the gift of abundant joy in the midst of severe suffering, these non-Jewish believers would not have been able to give beyond their ability. Paul is well aware of the Corinthians’ intense desire to be leaders in spiritual manifestations.9 Now that God has shown how powerfully he can work in human beings by the example of the Northern believers, Paul wants the Southern believers to pray for a similar supernaturally inspired generosity amongst them.

Is Paul, in effect, shaming the Corinthians to give more? Is he sighing and sending the Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets around the stadium once again, clearly communicating that the Corinthians are not good enough Christians, unless they try harder to dig deeper? One could, of course, read the passage in such a fashion, but that would be to miss the reason which Paul himself gives: “I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others” (II Cor. 8:8). Paul knows how easily the Corinthian church can get things horribly wrong, deceiving themselves about their true spiritual state by seeing themselves far more holy than they really are.10Paul holds up the example of God’s work in others to help the Corinthians see themselves more accurately. It’s important for their spiritual growth. For their degree of generorsity reveals the depth of their gratitude which God’s grace has worked into their hearts.11 If the Corinthians fall short in giving, that can only mean God has a great deal more work still to do in them, and the Corinthians need to call on God to do so.  Nevertheless, Paul explicitly states that he is confident that in the end both the Corinthians and God will be up to the task (II Cor. 9:13-15). Clearly, Paul doesn’t indulge in the classic shame tactic of using uncertainty about performance to fuel more effort. He does the opposite. He assures them that God will complete the good work begun in them. Finally, Paul says that in the previous year he used the enthusiasm of Corinthians for the giving project as an inspiration to the believers in the northern churches.12

With this proclamation of interdependence, we see Paul’s clearest and most fundamental repudiation of using comparison to find a reason to shame others. shame’s use of comparison. Harkening back to his discussion of the body in I Cor. 12, Paul knows it is safe for churches to help each other come to a more honest evaluation of their spiritual health, because their worth and value to God and one another are not based on the outcome of their performance for the Lord, but Jesus’ performance for them on the cross.  Christians and Christian churches have different strengths and weaknesses, but God works all of them to his good purpose by making one body out of many. In a body where God’s love and grace has established the members’ unchanging worth and value, comparison has three positive contributions to personal development: i) to help the members discern what their role is, e.g., “Am I more like a foot or an eye?”; ii) to show the members what the Spirit can do in the lives of believers which both keeps them honest about their current spiritual maturity as well as points them to new areas for growth; and iii) to remind the members of their constant need for God and their mutual need of others, fostering deeply meaningful relationships which define who they are and give them lasting joy.

Competition as Comparison

In the light of this biblical analysis, we who study Christian sports ministry must refine our terminology when we speak of competition. We must first establish its context. What is being sought?  Self-knowledge or self-worth?  From the teachings of Paul, we learn that the Holy Spirit works through comparison to increase self-awareness. From Genesis 3, the writings of Curt Thompson,13 and other psychologists who research performance-based identity, we see that the force of destruction active in this world works through comparison to judge and ultimately diminish self-worth, even in the winners, since only relationships, not accomplishments, give human beings a lasting sense of meaning and value. Hence, we must differentiate between competition to increase self-understanding and competition to prove our self-importance. The failure to distinguish one from the other leads to categorical confusion.  For example, Hoffman and Bright simply talk past each other on this issue. When Hoffman condemns competition as a social construct, he is accurately describing competition used to establish a person’s value in human culture. When Bright praises competition as a God-given desire, he can be referring to competition as a means of furthering human self-discovery of divine design.  

Thus, I Cor. 12 teaches us that diversity of human roles and the degree of giftedness needed for them are included in creation’s divine design. There is nothing inherently evil for humanity to devise various means of comparison, including competition, to help each other discover what their gifts may be and so gain a better idea of what role in God’s game he is calling them to fulfill. Since his children are already secure in their unchanging value because of God’s prodigal love for them, in God’s economy this greater awareness merely strengthens his bond with his children. However, the serpent offers an alternative view of what to do with comparison.  He uses competition’s confirmation of varying roles and giftings amongst human beings to convince societies to value people differently.  Without an assurance of our worth and value established by God for all eternity through the cross, how can human beings not be seduced to believe the serpent’s lies and hop on the treadmill of performance-based identity? Here is the source of idolatry through sport.  Here is the source of shame that can come through competition.  It is not competition itself that is the source of ills commonly associated with competition; but rather, the serpent’s use of it in our ears and in the structures of human society. In short, just like comparison, competition is not a malum in se, but the serpent’s twisting of its results always is.  Sadly, all too often, the descendants of Adam and Eve are still listening to the wrong voice. 

This blog post is an excerpt from a forthcoming extended essay by Ashley Null entitled “Ad Astra per Aspera: Towards a Theology for Competitive Sport.”



Footnotes

  1. See for example, Shirl Hoffman, ed., Sport and Religion (Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics Books, 1992).
  2. Shirl James Hoffman, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010), 157-9.
  3. Hoffman, Good Game 149, 151, 153, 155, 158-159.
  4. Hoffman, Good Game.
  5. Hoffman, Good Game, 148.
  6. Hoffman, Good Game, 11, 145, 156, 162.
  7. Hoffman, Good Game, 157.
  8. For Hoffman’s suggestions as to how Christians and Christian institutions might go about doing so, see Hoffman, Good Game, 281-92.
  9. Cf., I Cor. 1:4-7.
  10.  E.g., I Cor. 5:1-2.
  11. See II Cor. 2:9.
  12. II Cor. 9:2.
  13. See, for example, Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2015).

Ashley Null

Dr. Ashley Null is an independent researcher currently based at the Theological Faculty, Humboldt University of Berlin."