Why Athletes Must Prioritize Spiritual Training

Why Athletes Must Prioritize Spiritual Training

“We value the total athlete.”

The monologue only took about 90 seconds and the part about being a total athlete always resonated with the athletes at Wisconsin. Each year, we introduced ourselves to as many teams as we could and let them know what was available to them through the ministry.

“A total athlete is one that’s developed physically, mentally, and spiritually. Your coaches help with the physical side. Your teachers help with the mental side. And we want to be the resource that helps you spiritually.”

As a side note, the “mental” resourcing of the total athlete has shifted in recent years, evolving into area needing leadership, learning and investment from coaches and ministry leaders alike.

But this introduction talk was never really about the mental side. It was about pitting physical training against spiritual training and helping athletes—especially the ones interested in investing into their faith journey—realize their need to address this area of life that’s easily pushed aside during the collegiate years.

Physical training and spiritual training. Both are necessary for an athlete claiming to follow Christ. And there’s a passage of scripture in the New Testament that speaks to how we should prioritize both of them in our lives.

1 Timothy 4:7,8 says “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

Train yourself for godliness.

Bodily training is of some value.

Godliness is of value in every way.

Yes, physical training is important. It has value. But it shouldn’t be our higher priority. There are three reasons why athletes should prioritize their spiritual training above their physical training. The why matters just as much as the what and the how.

Prioritizing Spiritual Training

Before we unpack the first reason, let’s talk briefly about what prioritization means and does not mean. Some of you spend eight to ten hours a day with sports related activities. Does this mean we need to spend at least eleven hours a day doing spiritual training to tip the scales? No. We wouldn’t tell parents who are trying to prioritize their kids to stop working eight hours a day and pull their kids out of school. Prioritization is not about equal time or more time. It’s about leveraging the free time (however much or little) available to you towards what you value most and finding ways to integrate that highest value into other all areas of your life.

What does this mean for athletes seeking to prioritize their spiritual training while maintaining the rigorous schedule of physical training demanded of them? It means making the appropriate sacrifices of the time you do have and committing that to growing in your faith. It means waking up a little earlier to spend time with God. It means inviting God to be a part of your athletic activities instead of limiting his involvement in your life to a sunday morning church service. It means stewarding the free time you do have in a way that is strategic towards spiritual growth (instead of Netflix binging).

Most athletes seeking to integrate their faith and sport understandably struggle with this. We flip the prescription around. We live out the lie that while spiritual training is of some value, physical training is of value in every way, as it holds promise for this life and also for the life to come. It’s time to reject the world’s method and align ourselves with the truth.

Athletes should prioritize their spiritual training above their physical training because:

  1. God tells us to prioritize it

  2. God promises to lead the process in our spiritual growth

  3. Spiritual growth has massive positive ripple effects in our athletic contexts

God tells us to prioritize our spiritual training

We already saw God (through Paul’s letter to Timothy) direct his people to train for godliness in 1 Timothy 4:7. But this is not an isolated command. All throughout the Bible we see God imploring us to have a mindset and heart posture dedicated to growing into his likeness by aligning ourselves with his word.

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” – 1 Peter 3:18

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” – Matthew 5:6

“So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” – Ephesians 4:14,15

If your coach tells you to do something, you do it. They have a position of authority over you (whether you like it or not!) and the coaching they give you is intended to make you a better athlete and help the team win. This should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: God is not your coach. He is the creator, sustainer, and master over the entire universe. If we agree to abide by our coach’s directives, how much more should follow God’s? His instructions are given to help us grow into his likeness and help in the expansion of his Kingdom. We would do well to follow them.

God promises to lead the process

God doesn’t just tell us to prioritize our spiritual training. He does something extra to sweeten the pot. He promises that our growth is ultimately dependent on him leading the process.

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” – 2 Corinthians 3:18

“For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” – Philippians 2:13

“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” – 1 Corinthians 3:7

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 1:6

This is both freeing and frustrating. God tells us to pursue righteousness and align our lives in a way that honors him, but ultimately, any growth we experience is not of our own doing—it’s from him. Athlete, God always wants the glory. The beauty in all of this is that God promises that spiritual growth will happen because he is in charge of making it happen.

If you play college sports (or hope to someday), you probably chose the school because you trusted that the coach would get the maximum amount of potential out of you. How much more so with God? Why wouldn’t we want to prioritize spiritual training when we are promised God will quarterback the process of growth on our behalf?

It actually helps you as an athlete

1 Timothy 4:8 tells us that training in godliness is better than physical training because of two reasons.

  1. It’s beneficial for this life

  2. It’s beneficial for the life to come

It can be easy to focus on the second reason. Of course training in godliness will help us for an eternal relationship with God after this life is over. But how is it beneficial for this life, especially within your context as an athlete?

For starters, let’s make sure we are not equating the words “helpful” or “beneficial” with success.

In the same way that drinking plenty of water best positions your body to stay healthy and fight off sickness, prioritizing spiritual training best positions you to face whatever the world of sport throws your way by giving you constant, biblical perspective. This helps ground you in reality. It gives you proper perspective.

And maintaining perspective puts you in the best position to optimize your God given skill set. It allows you to see your sport against the backdrop of bigger things going on in the world around you. And what’s bigger than eternity (Ecclesiastes 3:11)? Proper perspective is not about minimizing sport and lessening one’s competitive drive, but seeing it against the backdrop of eternity in a way that frees an athlete to play without the fear of failure. Why? Because perspective should free athletes from attaching too much weight to the outcome of a game.

While eternal perspective is helpful for a Christian athlete, relational perspective matters too. An athlete committed to training in godliness has a growing understanding that they are a son or daughter of God. They understand that God identifies with them as a Father. This does not mean Christian athletes have an advantage because they have “God on their side.” It simply means they already have access to everything—through God—that sports promises but fails to deliver: lasting joy, peace, and contentment.

Again, that doesn’t guarantee success. But hopefully you get excited about the possibility of competing with a mindset like that and understand the potential competitive advantage of playing with freedom instead of fear.

Spiritual training and the gospel

The driving force behind our actions is significant to God. Our spiritual sweat must come from love, not for love. It must come from an identity that we have received from God, not one that we are trying to achieve through impressing others with our athletic performances.

You could close this browser right now, neglect putting into practice helpful spiritual disciplines that will help you grow in your faith, and God’s love for you will still be exactly the same. Isn’t that crazy? God’s love for you is based on the fact that his Son, Jesus, lived a perfect life, died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins, and rose from the dead after three days declaring victory over sin and death. If you have confessed your sins to God and trusted that Jesus’ finished work on the cross has restored your relationship with God, you can be confident that you don’t need to perform to earn favor with God.

Athlete, God isn’t in love with the future version of you. We always project that the future version of ourselves will be so much better than the current version. “Future you” will read your Bible more, pray fervently, talk to teammates about Jesus with newfound boldness, and tithe ten percent of whatever income you have to the Church.

And all of that may prove true of you in the future. But whether it does or does not, know this: your actions, good or bad, won’t come close to moving the needle of God’s love for you in either direction. His love for you is already at the max.

So take a deep breath. Free yourself from the weight of feeling like you have to put together the most robust spiritual training plan the world has ever seen to earn from God what he has already freely given to you in Christ.

What’s stopping you from prioritizing spiritual training that draws you closer to a God like that?