Practicing the Presence of God in Sport

Practicing the Presence of God in Sport

“What is the best thing to pray before a practice or a competition?”

It’s a great question and one that a group of athletes recently asked me. I’ve made lists before of all of the things athletes and coaches could (and should) pray about. I’ve talked about how to pray for injured teammates. I’ve even addressed questions like “Is it ok to pray for athletic success?” 

But Christian athletes could pray for only one thing, what should it be?

My answer is this: to experience the presence of God.

The practice of the presence of God is hardly a unique concept. In fact, the phrase itself was coined by Brother Lawrence in the late 1600s. His book, The Practice of the Presence of God, continues to give wisdom to Christ followers hundreds of years after he wrote it.

What does it mean to practice the presence of God? Brother Lawrence describes it like this:

It’s an “applying of our spirit to GOD, or a realization of GOD as present, which is borne home to us either by the imagination or by the understanding.”

Simply put, it’s focusing our attention on God and acknowledging his presence in our circumstances.  More than anything else, I believe this is foundational to any athlete who wants to integrate their faith with their sport. It starts with relationship and finding ways to acknowledge a God who is already with us.

This is understandably difficult. Competition—and even practice—requires intense focus on the task at hand. How do we practice the presence of God, while at the same time staying locked in mentally as an athlete? I have seven tips that could prove helpful.

Remember that God is already with you

“Let us seek Him often by faith. He is within us: seek Him not elsewhere.”

— Brother Lawrence

The Christian athlete already has God living within them. At the time of one’s spiritual conversion, they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit—who promises to never leave them (John 1:12; Colossians 2:9, 10; John 14:16, 17).

The implications of this truth are massive. It means, among other things, that we don’t need to “ask God to be with us.” He already is! As Brother Lawrence said, “One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”

Remembering He is with us should shift our prayers significantly. It should lead us to pray things like this:

“Please make your presence known to me today.”

“Thank you that you’re already here.”

“Help me to experience/feel you with me today.”

Ask God to make His presence known

“We ought to act with God in the greatest simplicity, speaking to Him frankly and plainly, and imploring His assistance in our affairs, just as they happen.”

— Brother Lawrence

The first point about remembering that God is already with us should lead to the obvious second point: we should pray that God would help us experience this reality. And I have to believe God desires to honor prayers that plead for an experience of His presence.

What does this look like in competition or practice? I think it means starting the conversation with him before you even enter into the action of your sport.

The suggested prayers from the first point apply here as well.

Short prayers work great

“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him.”

— Brother Lawrence

You’re in the middle of competition and there is a brief (only a few seconds) stoppage in the action. That is probably not the time for you to start reciting the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who art in heaven…”)—and that’s ok. God doesn’t need long-winded prayers for us to both acknowledge and experience His presence while we play. Short prayers, even one-word prayers can be a relational touch point with our Creator.

Remember, God doesn’t need us to stop what we are doing (playing our sport, He wants to be included in what we are doing through conversation with Him. And our short conversational prayers don’t even need to be “spiritual.” Here are some things you could say to God while you play your sport that are short, honest, and relational prayers:

“Help me.”

“Forgive me.”

“Thanks for that.”

“That hurt.”

“Jesus (pray His name to ask for his presence, not just say it in vain).”

“Be near.”

“Remind me of your truth.”

“Freedom over fear.”

“You’re my audience of one.”

Remind yourself of God’s presence

“We should establish ourselves in a sense of GOD’s Presence, by continually conversing with Him.”

— Brother Lawrence

Ok, but what if we struggle to even remember to acknowledge God at any point during practice or competition. I can empathize with this. It’s easy to get so caught up in the moments that we forget to include God in the process at all.

One thing that we teach athletes at our Ultimate Training Camp is the concept of a focal point.

A focal point is something you can quickly concentrate on that reminds you to acknowledge God’s presence. When I competed, I would write a Bible verse on my running shoes. Before every practice and competition, as I laced up my shoes, I would see the verse, and it would realign my thoughts to God. It was my daily reminder to bring my God into these moments when I am naturally inclined to leave him out.

A focal point can be anything—a wristband, tattoo, or watch. Writing on your shoes is another option. It could even be a scoreboard or a banner hung somewhere in the stadium. Ideally, this focal point will be something you consistently see in practice and during competitions.

In addition to the challenge of actually remembering God when we participate in our sport is the challenge of finding the appropriate time to do so. For a wrestler, the time to realign your motivation is not when you are circling your opponent. For a football player, what happens mentally before the snap has a direct correlation to the play itself. So it’s probably not the right time to realign your thoughts to God when you should be analyzing the opponent’s formation. A golfer should give 100 percent of his or her focus to determining the break and speed of a particular putt.

Depending on your sport, the best time to leverage the effectiveness of a focal point is when there is a pause in the action. In between quarters or periods is a good time. During halftime, in the middle of a timeout, or after a change of possession are other possibilities, depending on the sport. This will probably be uncomfortable at first. But, like anything, the more practice and attention you give to it, the more comfortable you will become using your focal point to realign your motivation.

Expect resistance

“Do not be discouraged by the resistance you will encounter from your human nature; you must go against your human inclinations.”

— Brother Lawrence

None of this will be easy. And that’s true for a variety of reasons. Games demand our full attention. We don’t learn how to integrate faith and sport at a young age and it’s hard to establish new habits.

There is also an enemy who wants nothing more than for us to go about our sport—and our lives, without thinking about or acknowledging God’s presence.

All that to say, expect resistance. Expect to struggle in the process of practicing the presence of God. Give yourself grace as you wrestle with making this a habit. God is more patient with you than you are with yourself.

As with any new skill you learn in sport, it takes time, discipline, and repetition. Keep practicing the presence of God in your sport.

Refine the skill outside of sport

“One way to re-collect the mind easily in the time of prayer, and preserve it more in tranquility, is not to let it wander too far in other times.”

— Brother Lawrence

Practicing the presence of God in sport becomes a lot easier when you commit to it outside of your sport as well. And ultimately, that is what God is after with us. He desires a continual conversation, not just one that exists on the playing field.

Finding ways to acknowledge God and experience his presence during every part of your day will only serve to help you get better and better at it while you play your sport.

Walking to class? Find ways to practice the presence of God.

In class? Find ways to practice the presence of God.

Eating breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Find ways to practice the presence of God.

In the weight room or training room? Find ways to practice the presence of God.

Traveling? Find ways to practice the presence of God.

You get the point. The goal is to make your communication with God during play a continuation of an ongoing conversation. Make this a life habit and the learning curve for experiencing God’s presence in sport will become easier.

Memorize scripture 

“The more we know Him, the more we will desire to know Him. As love increases with knowledge, the more we know God, the more we will truly love Him. We will learn to love Him equally in times of distress or in times of great joy.”

— Brother Lawrence

Quoting and claiming scripture is a powerful way to communicate with God. But you don’t have time, obviously, when you are competing in your sport to open up a Bible and find what you’re looking for.

I think that memorizing scripture does at least two things for you in your effort to practice the presence of God in sport:

  1. When you don’t know what to ask or share with God while you’re playing, quoting scripture can be something that you already have in your mind to use whenever you feel stuck.

  2. God is clear in scripture (John 14:26) that He will use the Holy Spirit (Himself, who is living in you), to remind us of things we have already learned. That means if you memorize a verse of two, part of the Holy Spirit’s job is to remind you of that verse. How helpful would that be when you go long stretches during a game and forget to acknowledge God’s presence? Having a few verses memorized gives God some ways to communicate with you.

Here are a few short verses Christian athletes could memorize:

Psalms 56:3 – Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You.

Psalms 147:5 – Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite.

Proverbs 3:5-6 – Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And lean not on your own

Isaiah 40:31 – But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.

Romans 1:16 – For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.

Romans 8:28 – And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

Philippians 4:13 – I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

 Lists are fun and make writing a little easier.

But at the end of the day, practicing and experiencing the presence of God doesn’t require lists or checking boxes. As Brother Lawrence said, “There needed neither art nor science for going to GOD, but only a heart resolutely determined to apply itself to nothing but Him, or for His sake, and to love Him only.”