In the first installment of this blog series, I established a basic framework for how Christians ought to analyze the place of winning in sports. In the second installment I expanded on that idea by examining how winning in sports is rightly understood as a “third order good.” Here I conclude by examining the biblical and theological foundations for loving winning “as we ought.”
Scriptural and Theological Buttresses to Understanding Winning as a 3rd Order Good
In Josef Pieper’s wonderful little book, The Christian Idea of Man, he emphasizes the importance of the virtue of prudence, by insisting that “one who does not know how things really are cannot do good; for the good accords to reality.”1What Pieper means is that prudence allows one to have a proper perspective, to, as MacIntyre puts it in the epigraph that started this blog series, “distinguish what it is worth caring about a great deal” from what is worth caring about “a good deal less” from what is “not worth caring about at all.”2 In doing so, Pieper argues that we must also exercise the virtue of courage so that we fear what is truly terrible and do not make moral compromises or commit evil acts in hope of avoiding losses or harms that are not (seen in the prudential light of eternity) of lasting consequence. In our immediate context, this means that virtue always trumps victory. The Roman philosopher and theologian Boethius makes the same point this way:
Now if a man rejoiced in receiving glory from an outside source, then some other person or the man who conferred the glory would be able to take it away. But since every virtuous man receives his glory from his own virtue, then he will lose his reward only when he ceases to be virtuous.3
What further light does this apparently abstract theology of two Cardinal Virtues shed on our examination of the place of winning in sport? I would suggest the following three points.
First: Winning, as such, is always a far cry from a complete or accurate measure of virtue.
Similarly, losing, as such, is always a far cry from a “truly terrible” evil. Can it be a cause of sadness and disappointment? Sure. Is it something that can be grieved and lamented? Sure. But it is never a cause for despair, nor is the desire to avoid losing a justification of vice. Our faith, our neighbor and our love of God, are what finally matter.4
The concern one has, or does not have, for each of those things all reflect on the state of our souls, while winning or losing, considered in themselves, do not. If we win, God’s grace saves us. If we lose, God’s grace saves us. In either case, it is the need for God’s grace, not athletic victory, which abides. “So, whether we live or die,” or whether we win or whether we lose, “we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8, NIV). The continual reorientation of our hearts towards the love of God and neighbor is the ultimate measure of success. The pursuit of victory must be congruent with that reality to have any enduring value.
Second: It is where we stand in God’s eyes, not the eyes of the world, that matters.
The number of “world records” or “state championships” or “All-Star nods” or “league titles” one achieves has no correlation, direct or otherwise, with how God sees us. Discipleship, humility, repentance, and the presence of faith, hope and love in our hearts is what God desires. I Samuel 16:7 puts this succinctly: “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (NKJV). Sporting discipline, training, skill development, and even the pursuit of victory can be a part of that process, but merely achieving victory is a blunt and therefore crude and inaccurate measure of such an orientation. The truth of this insight is made manifest in the countless instances of victors who in both word and deed demonstrate they are full of vices such as shallowness, pettiness, selfishness, vanity, and pride.
Recognizing this fact is not meant to generate self-righteousness among Christians. It is meant as a sober warning. First, because vice knows no confessional bounds. Second, because discipleship is hard. Therefore, every serious Christian must place the pursuit of victory within the larger context of the lifelong struggle to be more firmly converted towards the love of God and neighbor. Knowing how often we fail in that regard should spur humility and repentance, as well as forgiveness and mercy towards others, for we know how often we need forgiveness and mercy ourselves.5 The immediate goal can and should be playing the game and trying our best to win it, but the preeminent and perennial goal should be holiness. If it does not profit a man to “gain the whole world” and “lose his soul” (Mark 8:36, KJV), it surely cannot profit a man to “lose his soul” for that tiny slice of the world known as “athletic victory.”
Therefore, as noted above, how we won or lost, is always more important than whether we won or lost. Salvation only comes from God. Isaiah 2:22 reminds us, “Turn away from mortals, who have only breath in their nostrils, for of what account are they?” (NRSVCE). None of this makes the pursuit of victory in sport wrong or bad or meaningless. Nor does it mean that the goods of the world do not matter. As St. Augustine insists, “The things of earth are not merely good; they are undoubtedly gifts from God”6 Sports should not be met with a puritanical suspicion, which is dour rather than joyful, or which constantly doubts competition can be enjoyed for its own sake. Sports, like all the gifts of the world are, in principle, good. They are rightly loved. All gifts are from God, but that means that they are meant to point us back to God the giver rather than become the objects of our idolatrous desire. The goods of this world ought to be loved without apology, but they must be loved ordinately. On all of these points, Augustine is again instructive:
Let these transient things be the ground on which my soul praises you (Ps 145:2), ‘God creator of all’. But let it not become stuck in them and glued to them with love through the physical senses. For these things pass along the path of things that move towards non-existence…If physical things give you pleasure, praise God for them and return love to their Maker lest, in the things that please you, you displease him…Stand with him and you will stand fast. Rest in him and you will be at rest…The good which you love is from him. But it is only as it is related to him that it is good and sweet.7
Third: Human beings are eternal; sporting victories (and defeats) are not.
Recognizing this fact is deeply important. If winning isn’t everything (and it’s not), then neither is losing. This has profound implications, most obviously, in the fact that winning and losing are not the greatest good or the greatest evil. Desiring victory is benign in principle. Beating an opponent causes no real harm, after all, losing isn’t everything. Competition is ethical. There is no need for Christians to wring their hands about it. The harms attendant to winning and losing are the result of vice, not a result of the competition as such. For instance, the imprudent lust for victory might cause one to commit academic fraud, or hubris might lead one to mock and taunt opponents, or greed might tempt one to take PEDs, or malice might encourage one to deliberately injure an opponent.
Less obvious, but pregnant in the discussion of vice corrupting competition in sport, is the preeminence of human beings and the priority of human well-being over all competitive endeavors. From a theological perspective, the idea is not simply that our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19,NIV). The point is that, as C.S. Lewis insists in his insightful essay The Weight of Glory, “we are far too easily pleased”8 We settle for vain worldly pursuits, when our calling and our true home is to be redeemed and glorified by God. The worldly “glory” we incessantly chase will pass away and be forgotten. Our lives and the lives of those around us will not. Each of us, whether judged wretched or blessed, is destined for eternity. Our conduct, whether in the classroom or the home, the boardroom or the playing fields, must take this reality into account. The ultimate drama of our lives is not fame, or power, or money, or “victory.” The ultimate drama is the role our actions (our loves – whether ordered or disordered) play in encouraging or discouraging the glorification of ourselves and of our neighbor. Lewis describes the idea this way:
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.9
If competition, winning, and losing are seen in this light, then they are benign. By prioritizing the twin demands to love God and neighbor, the importance of victory falls into its proper place. Winning is a real good. But it is not the highest good in sport or in life. One need not apologize for pursuing it. One need not apologize for loving it, as long as one loves it as one ought.
- Josef Pieper, The Christian Idea of Man (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2011), 13.
- Alasdair MacIntyre, God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2009), 178.
- Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2012), 119.
Two further elaborations, via quotation, seem apropos here. First, from St. Paul: “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears” (1st Corinthians 13:8-10, NIV). By extension, where there are sporting victories, they will fade away. Second, from Boethius: “For that reason a fame that lasts however long you wish, if it should be compared with inexhaustible eternity, would seem not simply small but nonexistent” (p. 58).
- “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:3-7, RSVCE).
- St. Augustine, The City of God (New York: Bantham Doubleday, 1958), 328.
- St. Augustine, Confessions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 62-64.
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 26.
- Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 47.