Is there anything redemptive in sport? Given the focus at the elite level on fame, wealth, and winning, often at the expense of character, there are reasons for doubting the claim that sport can be a place of moral and spiritual growth. However, if we are intentional about it, many virtues can be cultivated in the context of sport, including the virtue of faith.
Paul Moser argues that faith is best understood as “entrusting oneself to God”.* The virtue of faith includes belief, but it also includes a lived experience of entrusting one’s very self to God. Such faith relates one to God, but not merely by assenting to some proposition, not merely by believing or having faith that God exists. Rather, it is a deep, inward, and ongoing means of relating to God. Such faith includes a commitment to transformative obedience, leading “to the kind of human transformation that enables a human to become suited to divine-human fellowship.”*
This obedience that comes from faith is not merely external, it is an obedience that comes from the heart. It includes the mind and the emotions, as well as the will. She who entrusts herself to God in this way commits to dying to herself, and to living out the unselfish, loving ways of God.
I want to suggest that there are analogous forms of entrusting oneself to others that athletes may practice. If habitual and virtuous forms of faith develop in the human-to-human realm, then this can smooth the way for an athlete to entrust herself to God (or do so more fully).
Consider the forms of athletic faith that athletes may exemplify. First, an athlete may entrust himself to his teammates, both in and out of competition. For example, Mesut Ozil is regularly criticized for passing rather than taking shots on goal, among other things. In reply to these criticisms, Ozil states that he’d never change his style of play: “I’ve been very successful with it over the years, no matter where in this world I have played. Some say that I have to be more egoistic. But I am just the guy who passes the ball when someone’s in a better position.”*
There is an entrusting of oneself to his teammates in Ozil’s style of play that is praiseworthy. Ozil trusts them to do their part for the success of the team, and he focuses on his role as a playmaker. He places faith in them with respect to something that matters deeply to him. His success depends on their success.
An athlete may also entrust himself in a variety of ways to his coach, as appropriate: an accurate assessment of his abilities and a plan for further development, a concern for the athlete as a person, and more generally trusting the coach to have his and the team’s best interests at heart. Athletes also entrust their safety, among other things, to match officials.
In these sorts of examples, the coach, teammate, or official may not be worthy of trustworthiness. But when they are, these analogous and much smaller forms of faith as entrusting oneself to others have the capacity for helping the athlete to be able to entrust his entire self to God, because he’s been in the habit of doing this in smaller ways in his sporting life.
Of course there is no guarantee that this will occur, but surely it is possible that one’s sporting life can have this sort of impact on one’s spiritual life. Given this, all who want to grow in faith and are involved in sport should creatively work to help faith develop on the field.
* Paul K. Moser, “Faith,” in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, eds. Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), p. 14.
*Ibid., p. 19.
Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/109430286@N06/, CCL