Sports for God’s Glory

Andrew J. Miller

New Horizons: December 2021

Why Not Skip the Genealogies?

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Why Not Skip the Genealogies?

Augustine on Christian Burials

Based on a true story, the movie Chariots of Fire portrays 1924 Olympian Eric Liddell, a Christian who sought to use his running abilities for God’s glory and not merely his own. In one famous scene, Liddell tells his sister that God “made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

That scene deeply impacted me after I became burned out by chess competitions as a high schooler. In elementary school, I had been a local chess star, with comparisons to Bobby Fischer puffing up my ego. By fourth grade, I won fourth place in a national tournament among other fourth graders, and I had several youth state championship titles to my name. However, in time, the pressure to win became unbearable, the joy of the game faded, and I was playing simply not to lose. I had to take a hiatus from competitions.

God used that break to help me understand that my chess skills belonged to the Lord. This perspective enabled me to come back to the game with a new joy in the Lord and an experiential understanding and appropriation of Liddell’s words—when I played chess, I felt God’s pleasure. I continue to play competitively when I can, and it is my hope that sharing what I have learned will help others use their gifts and abilities for God’s glory. The principles below can be applied to competitors of all kinds.

1. Submit the Results to the Lord

First, submit the results to the Lord. This means honing and exercising your gifts while trusting in God’s loving providence for you. He knows what is best for you—and failure may be better for you than success (Isa. 28:24–29; Ps. 119:67). This expands your perspective on how God can use your interest for his glory. Regardless of how you do in a competition, God may have other providential purposes for your presence at the competition, like making a connection with an unbeliever and sharing the gospel. I have found Jonathan’s words in 1 Samuel 14:6 to be a good example of faith that leaves the results to the Lord:

It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few. (emphasis added)

God is good, and he will do good to us in one way or another (Rom. 8:28–39).

2. Don’t Idolize Success

Second, do not make an idol of success. We are called to rely on the Lord, but we cannot do that when we are pursuing something we place higher than him (Isa. 31:1). When we believe “success” in competitions will give us true joy and peace, we are not only robbing God of his glory and using his gifts selfishly, we are also falling into the sin of self-reliance. James 4:1–4 warns us that when we pursue our own passions, we take matters into our own hands rather than asking God. Self-reliance and idolatry go hand in hand. On the other hand, when we submit the results to the Lord and know that our true joy comes from the Lord, we can rely on him for strength.

3. Reorient Your Prayers

Third, orient your prayers to God’s glory. One of the most powerful and lasting changes in my perspective toward competitions came when I realized that my prayers were changing. Before each chess game I played as a youth, I would pray, “Lord, help me to win.” In time, however, I came to pray that God would be glorified, that I would enjoy him through his creation, and that he would guard my heart. Rather than praying for success or victory in the fashion you imagine it, pray for God to be glorified. Pray that if you lose a competition, you will handle it with the proper attitude, and that you would know that God’s grace is sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9). Changing your orientation to God’s glory changes your prayers.

4. Check for Vainglory

Fourth, regularly take stock of how your character has been affected by your pursuit of the game. Ask yourself if competing and seeking to improve has made you more proud or more humble (Deut. 8:17–18). Sinful human beings can easily fall into “vainglory,” which Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung illustrates with a piercing quote:

I lust after recognition, I am desperate to win all the little merit badges and trinkets of my profession, and I am of less real use in this world than any good cleaning lady. (Glittering Vices, 59)

How foolish we are when we put such value on earthly glory that passes away like a mist!

Likewise, the Reformers recognized that our hearts are “curved inward,” focused on ourselves. Our gifts used for God’s glory should reflect a heart curved outward, toward our neighbors, by God’s grace and his sanctifying Spirit. Furthermore, we might ask ourselves: am I becoming a more contented or a less contented person by this hobby? (See Phil. 4:11–13.)

The use of God’s gifts to us should lead us to rejoice in him and his salvation. While competitions are work based, rewarding only those who do well, God’s love for us is received in the covenant of grace, and it is unchanging. Reflecting on the fact that your justification before God comes from Christ and not your “success” in your sport should lead you to praise the Lord. A book that I read to my children, Ed Welch’s Buster’s Ears Trip Him Up, illustrates this: when a young bunny fails to win a race and is distraught, he is reminded that God loved him before he ever raced. There is a wonderful freedom in this truth (Rom. 5:6).

5. Build Relationships

Fifth, consider how to use your interest or ability to build relationships with those who do not know Christ. You may be surprised by how many opportunities God will provide for you to dialogue with unbelievers about spiritual truths when you are looking and praying for those opportunities. God’s faithfulness to answer prayer was powerfully confirmed to me at one local chess tournament. During one of my games, I prayed that the Lord would give me opportunity and courage to share the gospel sometime with a young man there who seemed antagonistic toward Christianity. Later that day, as I was readying to leave, the same young man came to me and asked me about my work as a pastor, and we now have ongoing dialogues about the Christian faith.

Our church likewise occasionally hosts tournaments at our building on Saturdays, giving us opportunities to be good neighbors and to enlarge our profile in the community. Because we do this, spiritual conversations come up frequently and organically, and we have had a chess player attend worship because of it. We are not the only church to do this, and I have learned of several other chess players in the OPC who wed their interest in the game with outreach.

6. Don’t Sacrifice God’s Priorities

Finally, never sacrifice God’s priorities to pursue your sport. Part of the great drama of Chariots of Fire is that Liddell refused to compete on the Lord’s Day. In the movie, one of Liddell’s competitors shared 1 Samuel 2:30 with him— “those who honor me I will honor”—and sure enough, Liddell won the race. While we should not expect extra success in our pursuits because we honor the Lord, we do believe that God rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11:6). He also frustrates those who put their own priorities first (Hag. 1:4–11).

It may be that regular attendance of public worship requires sacrificing opportunities to pursue your hobby, sport, or interest. You might have to give up attendance at competitions or practices to care for your family. God’s people have always found, however, that what they give up pursuing Christ is never truly a sacrifice in the end (Phil. 3:8). Knowing him is the pearl of greatest price (Matt. 13:44–46).   

The author is pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia. New Horizons, December 2021.

New Horizons: December 2021

Why Not Skip the Genealogies?

Also in this issue

Why Not Skip the Genealogies?

Augustine on Christian Burials

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