Culture / Reviews / Sports / February 17, 2012

Misunderstanding Christianity and Competition – A Response to David Brooks

Photo Courtesy of NBA.Com
Jeremy Lin has captured the imagination of the basketball-following world over the past two weeks. He has even, in a Tebow-like way, transcended the awareness of mere fans and made it into the public eye. David Brooks of the New York Times published an article today called  The Jeremy Lin Problem  in which he attempts to explain the tension between the morality of sports and the morality of religion and Christianity in particular.

Brooks brings up and explores a difficult set of questions, ones that Christian athletes and sports fans truly ought to consider. However, in so doing, he creates (or at least propagates) some false dichotomies and simplistic points of view.

Brooks has this to say about the nature of sports and athletes:

“The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.

The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.

He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.

His primary virtue is courage – the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.” 

Brooks goes on to describe how this is in tension with the Christian moral and ethic.  He states it like this:

“Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.

For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That’s why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause.”

Brooks makes some intriguing points, but fails to correctly diagnose the tensions that exists.

At first blush, Brooks seems to be on to something with the tension between competition and humility. But I think he mischaracterizes the nature of true and upright competition. The truest forms of competition are not those which seek to humiliate another person or self-aggrandize. The truest forms of competition are those in which multiple parties are all pursuing excellence in the same field with the goal of reaching a certain aim first. It is the human heart that turns this competition into a pursuit of vanity, self-glorification, and humiliation of others. Much of what Brooks describes as the goal of the modern sports hero is simply a cultural emphasis on sinful attitudes, not the true nature of sports or heroes.

And it is the human heart that makes his particular emphasis on sports puzzling. If one was to carry out the logic of his argument to its extent there would be the same tension between Christianity and gaining promotion in any field because it would be succeeding in the place of others with the same goal. There would be tension in starting a small business and seeking to become profitable because other small businesses are also seeking to succeed and are, therefore, the competition. There would be tension in acquiring assets in any business because every asset acquired cannot be acquired by anyone else.

Brooks smelled something that stinks. He is on to something because the tension does exist, but his conclusions miss the mark. I believe there is tension present in the world of Christian athletes. But it is not a tension unique to that situation. It is simply an expression of the tension that exists in all our hearts all the time – that of seeking to glorify myself rather than glorify God.

Christians can be the best in their field. They can be, therefore, better, than others at certain occupations or tasks. The tension exists when we consider the biblical commands to pursue humility and consider others better than yourself. But tension does not correlate to contradiction.

Ron Turrene/NBAE via Getty Images

The tensions and temptations Jeremy Lin faces are exacerbated by his celebrity status and made obvious by the base reality of team sports as a competitive endeavor. But he is not required to, therefore, be a humiliator of others or a theatrical self-promoter. He is required to pursue excellence in the profession of basketball. Excellence is what all followers of Christ are called to pursue no matter the endeavor. God gave us talents and we are called to use them – for his glory, not our own.

And let us pray that Jeremy Lin continues his faithful pursuit of God-honoring humility in the midst of his God-honoring basketball excellence.


Feb 17, 2012

And all God’s people said, ‘Amen’

Feb 17, 2012

Good points! Also, it’s worth mentioning that Paul was unafraid to use the metaphor of athletic competition for the Christian pursuit and our need for spiritual sharpening (1 Cor 9:24; exemplified in Rom 12:10 perhaps). Love your blog. Keep it up.

Feb 18, 2012

Also, I think we make a mistake if we say that a Christian ought not to be striving for the place of honor, to win the prize, to save one’s life, etc. For example, in Luke 14:10 Jesus tells us to take the lowest seat “so that” we may be told “move up” and “be honored in the presence of all.” In order to truly obey him, we must desire to be honored. Again, his appeal for us to lose our life is to save it. We aren’t called to lose our life for the sake of losing our life but in order that we might save it. If we don’t want to save our life we cannot truly obey this command. Again, Jesus says, “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). In Philippians 2:7-9 Paul also says this. When God tells us that we will be exalted and honored, I think it is a wrong reaction to say, “But I don’t really care about that. I’m just as happy being lowly.” By calling us to seek lowliness and lose our lives he is calling us to seek honor and gain our lives. God actually commands us to seek the high place of honor…but to do so by dying.

And, of course, we seek exaltation and honor only insofar as God is glorified in our exaltation and honor.

    Feb 21, 2012

    Jeremy Lin is simply living out the mandate that Paul gave to the Colossians in chapter 3 verse 23…”Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord.”He just happens to be doing it from a very high stage and in a very large venue. More power to him!

Feb 18, 2012

I had read Mr. Brooks column and new there was something amiss! Thanks for sorting it out for me.

Feb 18, 2012

Amen – well said.

My passion is Child Discipleship – I believe that this is critical for parents and Children’s Ministry leaders to get right as they nurture children. We have a tendency to create pseudo-worlds for children which in the end emotionally cripples them.

I wrote about it here

Feb 18, 2012

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Feb 18, 2012

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Feb 18, 2012

We must never forget that in a great display of servant-love, Jesus washed His disciples feet to show them that His kingdom operates on a different narrative. But the power of that act is the exalted position from which love came. Recall Jesus’ words: “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:13-15). The “higher up” and more visible, the greater the opportunity to display servant-love in a way that overturns the expected narrative of pride, power and position.

Feb 18, 2012

A couple of thoughts came to mind when I read Mr. Brooks article. First, he said religion and life were too complicated not to have this tension exist, but I actually thought his premise of what brings about the tension (i.e., the thought that a Christian can’t be competetive) was actually a little simplistic itself. Sports, team sports especially, can be a great forum to show humility and servanthood. As a member of a team, you constantly have to defer to others and make all kinds of sacrifices for the sake and good of the team. In many instances you make teammates “look good” rather than yourself. He stated his premise as if any person playing sports is only doing so for their own glory. I would say that sports in general, and especially team sports, is much, much more nuanced than that.

I’m afraid Mr. Brooks may be relying only on SportsCenter highlights and seeing guys thump their chests, etc. and making some very broad generalities based upon that.

    Feb 18, 2012

    And, second, if a Christian can’t compete and shoot for the top spot in sports, then that means they can’t do so in all sorts of arenas of life. Forget Christian investment bankers, lawyers who aspire for the corner office, med school students who are trying to be the top in their class. We could go on. Striving to excel is not the problem for a Christian, but rather when that becomes an idol, or causes me to fail to love God above all other things.

Feb 19, 2012

Augustine defined idolatry as that to which your heart clings is your God. Even the very description of being a sports ‘fan’ points this out, as fan is short for fanatic.
Many people is America and around the world, self described Christians too, cling to sports with their time, emotion, and money all laid down at the alter of sports. This is a reality and even without getting into where do you draw the line with entertainment/hobbies. Where in the NT do we see it ok for our entertainment to take such a precedence in our lives and attention? We are in a bad mood when our team is on a loosing streak and we are in exuberance when our team is winning or has a great comeback. Our hearts cling to this, in various degrees of course, but this clinging should not go unspoken just because it is the norm in America.

Feb 21, 2012

Well said and right on Barnabas! The tension exists not only in the world of sports, but in life. We have to fight the fight between good and evil constantly. We are asked to “run the race” in terms of our faith. We are called to be a “light” in the midst of darkness.

Thanks for the post!

Feb 22, 2012

Barnabas, well done. Tension does not mean contradiction. I like the way that sounds. I love thinking through this stuff and blog about it at

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