In the Oscar award-winning film, Chariots of Fire (1981),1 the father of the famous Scottish athlete, rugby player and missionary, Eric Liddle, exhorts his son to follow his love of sport and seek excellence and success, in stating that “… you can praise the Lord by peeling spud if you peel it to perfection … run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder.” This short interchange between father and son in this classic sport-faith movie, is of course rooted in Paul’s exhortation to members of the first century Corinthian church to perform all of life’s tasks humbly to ‘… the glory of God’ (1 Cor. 10:31), so to never boast except in the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14). And yet, so often in the modern Church, Christians are suspicious of success and excellence due to an unfounded fear of pride or boastfulness, which ironically often leads to false humility.
This fear is, in part, due to the historical influence of the theology of Augustine (354-430a.d) and Luther (1483-1546a.d), wherein, human depravity and incapability were emphasized (which are aspects foundational to Christian doctrines of sin and humanity), but this emphasis leaves little room to reflect on the full diversity of human experience, including human-achievement and excellence.2 I suggest that Christian belief, and in particular a humble heart, may lead to enhanced performance in sports and will lead to greater happiness, peace, general wellbeing and fruitfulness for God.
Recent studies from the discipline of the psychology of religion3 and research in secular leadership and business circles,4 have demonstrated that humility has a range of outcomes that positively relate to academic performance, mental and physical health, job performance (consider professional sport), generosity and kindness, forgiveness, gratitude, non-judgementalism and the reconciliation and development of broken relationships at an individual, community and international level. This said, it is important to point out that while seeking excellence in any human activity is a positive goal, success, winning and enhanced performance are not the core message of the Christian gospel.
The philosophy behind the multi-billion-dollar Nike corporation (1969-), which has received wide-spread critique5 for its exploitation of workers in south-east Asia, is based upon the ancient Greek goddess of victory, Nike. The kingdom of God, personified in the life and teachings of the son of God,6 became victorious over Satan (in reconciling humans back to their creator) through weakness, humility and surrender. Jesus ‘… was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power’ (2 Cor. 13:4). Thus, according to the values of modern culture, Jesus Christ’s method of redemption would position him as the greatest failure in the history of the world. And yet, while he was apparently losing, he was winning—through sacrifice.
The core of the Christian message is that Jesus was victorious over sin and Satan—the Good News—as he emphatically stated to Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). And so, a paradoxical truth emerges as we explore Jesus’ method and central calling, as prophesied by Isaiah (53:1-12) seven hundred years before the savior’s birth. It is then interesting that some sport psychiatrists who have worked with professional athletes, have observed from their consultancy work that “… if there is any character trait that is anathema to an athlete it is weakness.”7 The exact opposite to the self-centered and potentially narcissistic quest for greatness many athletes have to tread.
In Steve Hubbard’s book that documents the lives and sport careers of Christian (and Muslim) athletes, there are a number of testimonies that allude to the idea that belief in God, and a heart of humility, may positively impact performance.8 In summarizing an interview with the American Seniors Tour PGA golfer, Loren Roberts, Hubbard notes that “… when golf was his [g]od [an idol], he realized he was putting incredible pressure on himself. When he placed God first, family second, and golf third, he began to relax—essential for a sport that is as much mental as physical.”9
As Timothy Keller notes in his examination of pride and the “empty human ego” that has not been filled with the spirit of Christ, “performance leads to a verdict”10 in the heart of a proud, fearful, or insecure person—a verdict on their own self-worth that is derived from their perception of their performance and the subsequent judgement of themselves, and that of others. The “incredible pressure” that Roberts was then putting upon himself was likely a complex mix of the fear of failure, unhealthy pride and perfectionism,11 comparison to others, and unrealistic expectations (judgements) he placed on himself, plus those imposed by others. These are all mind-states that have been shown in sport psychology research12 and theological examinations of perfectionism,13 to lead to decreased performance and enjoyment and in some cases physical and psychological burn-out.
So, further to Loren Roberts’ commitment to Christ during his professional golf career, he received inner peace due to his identity then being rooted in a Father God (Rom. 8:1-18). In turn, as he began the life-long journey of surrendering his heart to God (working out his salvation), after an initial commitment to believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, inadvertently his performance was enhanced, and he began to enjoy golf again! Zach Johnson, another American PGA Golfer who is a practicing Christian, and who won the 2015 British Golf Open, in part attributed his victory to reciting verses in his mind during play (e.g., Ps. 24:7), and especially, as he waited for the playoff to begin, wanting to remain calm. And during the presentation ceremony in front of the assembled world media, Johnson gave thanks for the peace His Lord had given him during all four days of the competition.14 Two things stand out in the lives and golf careers of Loren Roberts and Zach Johnson and numerous other Christian athletes, coaches and managers.
First, both Roberts and Johnson seem fully aware that as many of the world’s top sports performers (golfers) are not Christians, the importance of technical ability, tactical knowledge, fitness, practice and determination are clearly very significant factors in sport performance. Belief in God does not make you a sporting icon! John Calvin suggested that there is a ‘special grace in nature’—common grace—that is given to all his creatures and this determines our talents and motivations to excel in certain activities.15 This, in part, explains why those who have not received God’s free gift of “saving grace” (i.e., salvation through belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, see Rom. 10:9-10) can excel in human endeavors, such as sports, music, the arts, literature and academia.
As Jeff Cranford the head of a prominent golf ministry, observes, generally, when a mature Christian player gives credit to Jesus, it is primarily in a spirit of thankfulness for changing their heart, “… which can have psychological and physiological implications. When you realize golf isn’t the most important thing in your life, it can free you up to play better.”16 In support of this idea, research17 has shown that when an athlete can stay “in the present”—due to skill mastery (executing the mechanics of the swing has largely become automatic) and a peaceful centeredness exists—often termed as “flow” or “being in the zone” by sport psychologists, then peak performance is often achieved.
Second, Roberts, Johnson and others, such as golfer Jordan Spieth,18 and ex-American football player and now TV analyst, Tim Tebow, appear to “hold lightly” their perceived greatness, achievements and success. They demonstrate magnanimity. Magnanimity, defined from the Latin (magna anima) as “greatness of heart” or “being great-souled,” is how Thomas Aquinas viewed those individuals who are confident in their own ability to act virtuously when they have been recognized and/or awarded for great achievements and honors but only by God’s grace.19
Boasting about personal achievements in sports in our daily conversations is what Dan Britton,20 from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, fittingly calls “pride bombs” (Prov. 27:2), does not attract or please the Holy Spirit. A dove who is extremely sensitive and flees at any hint of pride (Eph. 4:30). And so, Aquinas’s understanding of humility is compatible with the Christian virtue of humility, and within this model, the magnanimous person accepts both their utter dependence on God and the limits of their powers of greatness.
A magnanimous person “… tunes out human opinion polls because her ear is tuned in to God’s voice, and it is enough for her to hear ‘well done, good and faithful servant’ from him (Matt. 26:6).’21 Zach Johnson’s acknowledgement of his dependence on God, in an acceptance speech at the 2015 British Masters and the testimony of his life over time, does then seem to show a magnanimity undergirded by the foundations of a humble soul. This is what philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung, calls a ‘model of detachment’ or more positively ‘freedom’ that will testify to many but offend others that are not open to the grace of God, given the divisive nature of the cross of Christ (1 Cor. 1:17-31).
As we have seen, humility does have a whole range of benefits and may inadvertently lead to achieving excellence (and enhanced performance) in human endeavors, for instance sports. In summary, perhaps, it is time for Christians to more firmly embrace the quest for excellence in all human endeavors—peeling potatoes, parenting, coaching, preaching, business, education and playing sports.
Note: This excerpt is part of a chapter of a forthcoming book tentatively entitled, Sport, Christianity and Relationships: Reflections for a Fatherless Age.
- Chariots of Fire, directed by Hugh Hudson (20th Century Fox, 1981).
- Scott Kretchmar, “Hard-Won Sporting Achievements and Spiritual Humility: Are they Compatible”? in Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, eds. Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, 269-286. (London: Routledge, 2015), 272.
- Joshua H. Hook and Don E. Davis, “Special Issue: Humility, Religion and Spirituality”, Journal of Psychology and Religion 42, no. 1 (2014): 3-117. And: Don E. Davis et al., “Humility and the Development and Repair of Social Bonds: Two Longitudinal Studies,” Self and Identity 12 no. 2 (2013): 58-77.
- Jim Collins, Good to Great (New York: Harper Collins, 2001).
- Helen F. Lenskyj, Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda (Albany, New York: State University of York Press, 2008).
- And the life and teaching of the apostle Paul, see 2 Corinthians (12:1-10). See, chapter 6, The Pattern of the Christian Ministry: Power through Weakness, in, Timothy B. Savage, Power through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corinthians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
- Daniel Begel, “Introduction: The Origins and Aims of Sport Psychiatry”, in Sport Psychiatry: Theory and Practice, eds. Daniel Begel, and Robert W. Burton, xiii-xx (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000), xiv-xvi.
- For those wishing to read more on the relationship between confidence and humility in competitive sports, see: Scott Kretchmar, “Hard-Won Sporting Achievements and Spiritual Humility: Are they Compatible”? in Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, eds. Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, 269-286. (London: Routledge, 2015), 272.
- Steve A. Hubbard. Faith in Sports: Athletes and their Religion on and off the Field (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 56.
- Keller, Ibid., 39.
- See chapter 12, Perfectionism and Pride: The Road to Hell … or Heaven? in, Richard Winter, Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism (Downer Grove, IL, US: IVP Books, 2005).
- Richard Winter, “The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism: Psychological and Theological Reflections,” in Sport, Psychology and Christianity: Welfare, Performance and Consultancy (Preface, Danny Willet and Revd. Steve Willett), eds. Brian Hemmings, Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, 29-41. (London: Routledge, 2019).
- Richard Winter, Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism (Downer Grove, IL, US: IVP Books, 2005).
- Martin Saunders, Zach Johnson: I was Reading Scripture during Open Victory, 21July, 2015, https://bit.ly/2RIzYTV
- R.T. Kendall, The Power of Humility: Living Like Jesus (Lake Mary, FL, US: Charisma House, 2011), 24.
- Jeff Cranford, cited in, Max Alder, A Glimpse Inside the Soul of Pro Golf, Golf Digest, 22 3 October 2012, https://bit.ly/2RHi7Ne
- Patrick Kelly, “Flow, Sport and the Spiritual Life”, in Theology, Ethics and Transcendence in Sports, Eds. Jim Parry, Nick J. Watson, Mark S. and Nesti, 163-177. (London: Routledge, 2011); Deyoung, Vainglory, 84.
- Matt Dickinson, “Flawless Spieth Masters Art of Humility after Memorable Win”, The Times (London), 14 April 2015, 61.
- This paragraph is heavily dependent on Deyoung, Vainglory, 76-80.
- Dan Britton, Pride Bombs, Fellowship of Christian Athletes Resources, 7 October 2015, https://bit.ly/31iLrNq
- Deyoung, Vainglory, 78.