Olympic Fury

Gym membership has rocketed and new years resolutions are remade - we will one day be iron-man triathletes! But is sport really the answer, or do we use it as a cover up for our deeper fears? As someone who used to do a lot of sport, the Olympics always makes me think I can still be that fast, or good, or flexible. Of course this is not true.

Maybe you are also looking forward to the Para-Olympics and wondering why having a mental illness does not qualify you to compete here. The question has been asked often. What does disability mean, and how should we 'score' it so things seem fair.

In my recent book (with Will Van Der Hart) on perfectionism, we spent some time looking at what drives high-performance athletes and have put an extract below. The answer is that there is nothing wrong with achievement, nothing wrong with perfection (it is a Biblical command after all) - instead, it is perfection-ISM which is unhelpful, when we try do do it at all costs. This is when we hurt ourselves and hurt others. Instead, we should be using our skills to enhance lives for others, to help them achieve, to raise them up.

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‘For Christians, there are only two kinds of achievers in this world—those who are called and those who are driven. The task for Christian achievers is to discern their true vocation so that they can live in sync with the divinely-designed inner rhythm of their souls.’ - Ashley Null [i]

The quote above is from one of my mentors who is a lead Chaplain for the Olympic games. Every four years, he counsels amazing athletes who have not understood this. Many are gold medal winners – but what do you say to the man who has won an Olympic medal except to have another go in four years? Ashley says that instead of finding their calling, ‘many strive to use all their God-given gifts and abilities to create an identity completely independent from him. Cut off from the sense of wholeness that comes from God’s unconditional love for them, they are forced to produce their own worth.’

Bad sports psychology tries to harness this inner neediness as the drive to excel, to beat, to conquer, to stamp on the opposition. This is not confined to sport – many banks actively recruit people with insecurities and shallow ambition as they know this produces work-horses to build the bottom line.

As a result, excellence and achievement have got themselves bad names in many Christian circles as the places where ‘mammon’ and ‘id’ rule, at the expense of worship and faith. And it goes both ways. Coaches worry that spirituality and religion will dampen the athletes zeal to win. Clergy worry that this member of their flock is trying to serve two masters – and they ask them to choose.
Billy Sunday was a professional baseball player from 1883 to 1892, when he gave up baseball to enter full time Christian ministry. He listed[iv] a number of reasons why he had left sport behind because: ‘it develops a spirit of jealousy, it simply amuses mankind rather than serving them, morality is not essential to success, and I felt called of God to do his service.’ [and so on]. This is not to say that Billy Sunday was wrong, but paid Christian ministers are no saints either and he seems to have listed the worst excesses of professional sport. In keeping with the growing Fundamentalist movement of his era, Sunday believed that Christian holiness required complete separation from the wicked ways of the world.
Theologically, Billy Sunday committed an error – he believed that the venue of his life set the temperature for his spiritual life – for surely ministers are the most holy? But, to use some theological terms, sin is ‘ontological’ rather than ‘systemic’ – that is to say that it is part of our human nature and not bound up with any particular system or culture or job. We need a Saviour, not a lifestyle.

The logical answer of the radical seems to be that sin abounds in culture, that Christians [need to] have passed out of darkness into light, and that a fundamental reason for separation from the world is the preservation of the holy community from corruption [v].  The reality is that many merely re-locate their painful inner baggage from secular to spiritual locations, and not much changes. How much better it would be to deal with the issues in situ, where Jesus will meet with them. There issues do not arise from the sport [business/achievement] itself, but the reasons why its gifts are being sought. Changing neither the venue nor the goal will provide an answer.

Set against this are the examples of Eric Liddell and his modern followers in all walks of life, who believe that the Christian life for them is one of excellence and using their God-given talents. Martin Luther, the great reformer, said that every sphere of life was profitable as a Christian as a ‘hidden instrument of God’s sustaining work of human society.’ [vi] If we can find out how to work with God, then we have found out how to live.

There is one important consideration. Luther was quite clear[vii] that in order for secular vocations to rank alongside spiritual ones, they must offer some kind of service to human society. In sport, we see the solidarity of the fan base, the healthy expression of competition and the role of older athletes as role models for the young. There are equivalents in other fields of achievement – Channel 4’s programme  ‘Secret Millionaire’ is one example[viii] , where unknown business people get the chance to fund local projects and see the look on people’s eyes.

Reflection: What benefits can you think of? Do they outweigh the problems of perfectionism? To ask the question another way, can these achievement be ‘holy’ achievements?

[i] Null A (2008) Finding the right place: professional sport as a Christian vocation. Published in The Image of God in the Human Body: Essays on Christianity and Sports, eds Donald Deardorff and John White (Lewiston: Edwin Mellon Press, 2008).  Used with permission of the author.
[iv] Tony Ladd and James A. Mathisen, Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sport (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 80.
[v] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951) 45-82
[vi] Niebuhr, 149-189, especially 170-179; Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadephia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 27-29.
[vii] Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadephia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 27-29.
[viii] See  www.channel4.com/programmes/the-secret-millionaire. V
Rob Waller, 31/08/2016
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