Sports and the Tyranny of Self-Justification

“Christian, you have been justified by the blood of Christ, and are therefore free from the crushing burden of having to justify yourself through your performance.”    

In the movie “Chariots of Fire”, English sprinter Harold Abrahams says the following prior to his final Olympic race: “And now in one hour’s time, I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I?” It’s a tragic scene. A man created in the image of God believes that his entire existence will be justified by the result of a single sporting event. On paper this sounds ludicrous. Sadly though, I think this feeling may be significantly more common in the world of sports than we often realize. I know it was for me.

Sports As My Identity

I grew up living and breathing sports. Lots of sports. From as early as I can remember through my fourth year as an undergraduate, I played at least one sport at some sort of competitive level, and usually another small handful for recreation. On top of all the games, practices, and workouts related to these, I also consumed sports as an avid fan. Sometimes that meant being fortunate enough to attend a game in person; most of the time it meant watching on tv or even listening on the radio.

And as you’d probably expect from someone who devoted so much of his life to one thing, sports weren’t always just something I played or enjoyed. Over time they became a significant part of who I was. Throughout junior high and high school, I derived so much self-worth from my identity as an athlete that my demeanor and relationships with those around me were directly impacted by my performance on the field. Having a good game didn’t just lift my spirits, it also gave me a sense of security and acceptance around others, since I assumed that people’s view of me was directly linked to my performance. Similarly, having a bad game didn’t just put me in a bad mood for a short while, it also caused me to withdraw from others for fear of being judged. Sports were such a defining part of my core identity that they served as my own justification.

It saddens me to think that after I became a Christian in high school, much of this remained true. The inward reality of my new identity in Christ wasn’t something I was immediately aware of, and, as is often the case, took time to work its way into my heart. Even as God graciously began transforming me, deep down my identity still felt wrapped up in my athletic performance. In fact, I remember believing the lie that somehow my personal holiness, and ultimately God’s love for me, was directly related to my success on the playing field. “Avoid sinning this week,” I would tell myself, “and you’ll play better.” This is, of course, an absolutely devastating and hopeless theology, but one that seemed to have worked its way into my core without me knowing it. The weight of this thinking was crushing, to say the least.

Mercifully, God did not leave me there. In due time, He began opening my eyes to the glorious riches of the truth of the gospel in ways that freed me from the tyranny of self-justification.

The Gospel and Sports

What my 18-year-old self desperately needed was the truth of the gospel to be preached to my heart over and over again. I needed to hear that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, not the result of works; that Christians have a completely new identity as God’s children; that nothing can separate us from God’s love. This is what I needed to believe, savor, and rejoice in; this, and this alone, is what had the power to free me from the devastation of performance-based justification and acceptance.

When I think about how the gospel comes to bear on the world of sports, it’s this giant truth that needs to be proclaimed over all of it: Christian, you have been justified by the blood of Christ, and are therefore free from the crushing burden of having to justify yourself through your performance. You’re free from having to build your own identity on your accomplishments, because Christ has given you a new identity based on His accomplishments. And so you are free to enjoy sports as a good gift, to be stewarded for the glory of God and for the good of others.

Certainly there is much more that can and should be said about the Christian and sports—about playing, watching, coaching, and parenting; about teamwork and missional living; about discipline, hard work, and growth. But underneath all of this, the foundation of our free acceptance by God through the gift of His Son must always stand.